Americans Drawn from Life (Sho utsushi Amerikajin), 1861, Utagawa Yoshikazu. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne

The Idea of America in 19th-century Japanese prints is explored in this exhibition from the Art Institute of Chicago.

The selection of Yokohama prints featured in this exhibition emerged from the specific historical events initiated when a fleet commandeered by US Commodore Matthew C Perry first landed in Japan in 1853. Perry’s arrival marked the beginning of a period of mutual curiosity between two cultures, and his mission was to open Japan to trade after more than 200 years of restrictive policies under the Tokugawa shoguns.

The Trade Treaty

The terms of the trade treaty were not finalised until 1858, at which time five Japanese ports – including Yokohama, the most active – were opened to the member nations: the US, France, England, Russia, and the Netherlands. Surrounded on all sides by water, the modest foreign settlement at Yokohama was designed to both contain and protect the newcomers.

Prints known as Yokohama-e, or ‘pictures of Yokohama’, soon capitalised on the novelty of the people and goods coming into the busy international port. The Japanese public had a great appetite for news about the arrivals, and publishers enjoyed a much-needed boost to their businesses when they mass-produced commercial images of this fresh subject matter. However, Yokohama-e were often misrepresented as realistic or factual. While a few of the images take genuine, observed scenes as their source, the prints were often based on engravings in foreign newspapers.

Aimed at a Western Audience

Western audiences were also introduced to Japanese art through facsimiles and Westernized copies of Japanese prints during the 1850s and 1860s, such as the lithographs that appeared in the report of Commodore Perry’s Japan expedition and in Captain Sherard Osborn’s travelogue, Japanese Fragments Facsimiles of the landscapes of Hiroshige featured heavily in these and other early books on Japan.

These Yokohama prints, and later ones such as the etchings by Henri Guérard in French art critic Louis Gonse’s ground- breaking work of connoisseurship, L’Art Japonais, had a wide audience but varied greatly in fidelity to the original. Japanese artists also created convincing or amusing scenes of Western customs, dress, technology, and transport, and even American cities, often fictionalizing them in the process. The resulting prints found an eager audience among visitors from Europe and the US, as well as domestically.

Until 15 September, at the Art Institute of Chicago,