Bird and flower prints by Hiroshige offer Museum visitors a rare glimpse into an elegant, secluded world quite different from the landscapes and bustling city scenes for which this Japanese master is renowned. Selections from the Museum's Rockefeller Collection represent Hiroshige's exploration of this genre through a full range of formats, subject matter, and compositions from delicate, fine-style images of blossoming boughs and diminutive birds to big, bold, brilliantly colored prints of roosters, cranes, and mandarin ducks.
Hiroshige's work here, as in his landscape prints, show his masterful transformation of a Chinese genre into a Japanese art form. Bird and flower painting rose in China during the late T'ang Dynasty (618-907) when emperors and nobles enjoyed the color, technical virtuosity, and poetic overtones of this courtly art. This genre came to Japan first through Chinese painting and then through the woodblock-printed manuals and art books of the Ming (1369-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) dynasties. Japanese artist responded to this inspiration in a variety of ways: some imitated Chinese models; some substituted favorite Japanese birds and flowers. In the prints of this exhibition, however, Hiroshige transforms a courtly Chinese painting tradition into a popular graphic mode that, in his hands, becomes a distinctive Japanese art form. Many of the prints on view are inscribed with poetry that is composed in native Japanese verse forms.
The Rockefeller Collection of bird-and-flower prints is a treasure of the RISD Asian collections and a rarity among Japanese print collections. During the first part of this century, when most Japanese print collectors were concentrating on landscape, actor, and courtesan prints, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (nee Abby Greene Aldrich, 1884-1948) focused her attention on bird and flower images. Thanks to her astuteness as a collector and her generosity as a donor the Museum now has an outstanding collection of some 700 prints in this genre.