Japan ended its two-hundred-year policy of national isolation in the mid-nineteenth century, and within a few decades, the Meiji government (1868–1912) had begun a rapid modernization. The long-established art world was thrown into upheaval. Previously reliable patronage declined or disappeared. Photography and multiple-image reproduction usurped the longtime tradition of woodblock printing. Buddhism lost government support and thus the ability to commission artworks. People turned away from patrimony in favor of Western styles.
Japanese arts and crafts flooded international expositions in Europe and the United States, opening Japan’s visual culture to admiration and scrutiny. The influence of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), and Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) on Western art is well documented. Japanese-themed fashions and objects filled American and European homes. To survive in the domestic and international markets, many Japanese artists working in the early twentieth century looked to the past for inspiration and rediscovered works by Sōtatsu and those who came after him.
In this new environment, artists sought to answer a number of questions: Could they develop a visual approach that had a Japanese identity but was understood by Westerners? Could they adapt their traditional but archaic art forms by introducing perspective and modeling techniques? Could they use Western painting styles to depict Japanese themes? Could they incorporate the powerful abstractions of the Rinpa style in their own work? In effect, their response to those questions would “transfer” Sōtatsu’s work to modern Japanese and Western art.