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Capturing City Life

At the same time the West was encountering Japanese art, cities across Europe and the United States were becoming electrifying urban centers. Some artists began to break from tradition to embrace new subjects and styles that matched the vibrant pulse of their modern lives. 

In Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Western artists found an exciting source of inspiration for depictions of city life. Many were thrilled to discover that the Japanese had engaged seriously with subject matter that some Western critics had dismissed as frivolous and superficial. “These Japanese artists confirm my belief in our vision,” wrote the Impressionist Camille Pissarro after seeing an exhibition of ukiyo-e in 1893. Japanese depictions of entertainment districts, popular actors and the “floating world” offered encouragement to European artists, who had begun to find subject matter in public spectacles (horse racing and parties) and denizens of seedy nightlife (prostitutes and dancers). 

Kinryuzan Temple Asakusa
Kinryuzan Temple, Asakusa, 1856, by Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797–1858). Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.16695.

The Century July 1895
The Century, July 1895, by Charles Herbert Woodbury (American, 1864–1940). Lithograph; ink and color on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Wheaton Holden, 1971.128.

Japanese art also offered a range of formal possibilities, including bursts of color, a sharply up-tilted ground plane and bold outlines. Through Looking East, you’ll see how Western artists drew on these techniques to evoke the energy and spectacle of the modern urban experience.