The Meiji period (1868-1912) was an era of dynamic political, economic, and social change that paved the way for the modernization of Japan. With the restoration of the emperor’s power in 1868 and the dissolution of the feudal system that had existed under the Tokugawa shoguns (military dictators), Japan gradually became a centralized, monarchical state with an industrialized economy. These changes laid the foundation for Japan’s Westernization and for its role as a world power the in the 20th century.
The prints on view were produced during this period of transition. In some, the subject falls within the tradition of ukiyo-e, or “floating world” prints: heroic samurai or famous kabuki actors still dominate the field. Others are distinguished by more contemporary themes of modernization and modern warfare. Whether conservative or innovative in subject matter, these prints occasionally exhibit tonal modeling and foreshortening, drawing techniques borrowed from the West. Other notable compositional devices, such as atmospheric perspective and deep spatial recession, were already part of the Japanese visual vocabulary. Meiji-period artists also enhanced their usual printmaking palette through the addition of inks made with aniline dyes, synthetically manufactured colors imported from the West. The energy and variety of these artworks reflect the creative ferment of change as Japanese society evolved from its traditional culture to engage with the modern world.