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1. World Expositions
In the mid-nineteenth century, major cities in the West began hosting international expositions.
Expositions introduced countries and cultures that had been little known in Europe and America to very desirable markets: London, Vienna, Philadelphia, Paris, Chicago, and St. Louis all hosted notable world’s fairs.
At such venues, Japan—which, until the mid-1850s, had been largely closed to international commerce—encountered new technologies and industries as it entered the world stage.
The Japanese pavilions displayed the nation’s rapidly advancing industrial capacities and contemporary crafts for deeply curious audiences.
At the time, the Western concept of “art for art’s sake”—appreciating art as detached from any obvious function—was still unfamiliar in Japan.
But Japanese traders were quick studies. They learned to elevate their offerings from the bric-a-brac of curio cabinets to carefully staged works worthy of individual consideration.
2. Something Special about Paris
In the late nineteenth century, Paris was the capital of art in the West, and art nouveau was the movement du jour.
Art nouveau, a movement encompassing art, design, décor, and architecture, challenged the brutality of industrialization and found inspiration in natural forms. Artists often employed botanical and metamorphic motifs.
Japanese designs that gorgeously abstracted the natural world complemented Western art nouveau concepts. Exotic images of Japanese courtesans, such as Utamaro’s, were an idealized variation on this theme.
Born to a German family long connected to Japan through business interests, the dealer Siegfried Bing both helped form and profited from the art nouveau movement.
Bing had avidly promoted Japanese works in Paris since the 1860s. In 1895, he opened Maison de l’Art Nouveau, his Paris gallery.
There, notable artists of the day—such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Whistler—and designers such as Vever and Tiffany followed Bing’s lead in appreciating Japanese art.
One of Bing’s principal competitors and collaborators was the dealer Hayashi Tadamasa.
Brought to Paris as an interpreter at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, Hayashi became a major purveyor of Japanese art—particularly woodblock prints.
Hayashi’s seal was soon established as a connoisseur’s affirmation of quality.
In the early 1900s, Hayashi decided to sell his private collection and return to Japan. He authorized Bing to manage the auctions.
In the February 1903 sale, Charles Lang Freer acquired Utamaro’s Moon at Shinagawa. Freer later wrote to Bing that he was very pleased with the purchase, though he commented on the painting’s unwieldy size.
3. Creating Utamaro
“The man that drew that girl came to be a lover of the female form?” asked Goncourt.
“You are right,” replied Hayashi, “he died of exhaustion.”
Edmond de Goncourt (1822–1896) was a notable Parisian writer and a passionate collector of Japanese art.
A friend of the dealers Siegfried Bing and Hayashi Tadamasa, Goncourt constructed several “biographies” of Japanese artists, including Utamaro.
Goncourt’s profile of Utamaro was a product of conversations with Hayashi, observations of prints and paintings attributed to the artist, and a melding of legend and slimly available facts.
In effect, Goncourt perpetuated the persona that had been cleverly crafted in Utamaro’s own day: the artist as a patron of and expert on the brothels and their women.
Remarkably, this tale of the “man who loved women” is very close to the way in which Utamaro was promoted in his own lifetime.