Caught Our Eyes: An American Balloon Ascension in Japan

The first time I browsed through the Prints and Photographs Reading Room Graphics File, I came across a reference copy of a striking triptych of Japanese woodblock prints depicting a crowd of spectators in Western dress observing a balloon ascension. When I looked the image up in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog and saw digitized copies of the corresponding color prints in the Division’s collections, I got a better idea of how stunning the images are.

Amerikakoku. Woodcut designed by Utagawa Yoshitora, [1865]. //

The trio of prints was designed by Utagawa Yoshitora, an artist active in the mid-nineteenth century who was known for his woodblock prints depicting foreigners. I was fascinated by the details Yoshitora chose to include: women in colorful bell-shaped skirts, a castle spanning the background of the right two panels, boxy carriages in a hard-to-place style — all features that produce a scene slightly different than how westerners might imagine America in this period.

The scene seems to make more sense with the knowledge that Japanese prints depicting foreigners in this period were often made from artists’ observations of Western visitors to Japan, not necessarily from their firsthand observations of life in Western locales. A given scene was often embellished with imagery from Western published sources, resulting in a truly otherworldly synthesis.

Yoshitora’s Amerikakoku image, above, is one of nearly two hundred Japanese works depicting Western subjects in the Prints & Photographs Division’s Chadbourne collection, most of which have been digitized. Enjoy more examples of Japanese views of American life from the Chadbourne collection below.

Amerikajin no zu – pansei nokamato, transl. Portrait of Americans – breadmaking [unidentified name]. Woodcut designed by Utagawa Yoshikazu, 1861. //

Amerika nigiwai no zu, transl. Picture of flourishing America. Woodcut designed by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1861. //

Yokohama torai Amerika shōnin ryōko no zu, transl. American merchant strolling in Yokohama. Woodcut by Utagawa Sadahide, 1861. //

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