Some Prints for Spring: From Japan to New England

It’s finally spring at Amherst! The quad lawn chairs are out, the Ultimate team is tossing discs, and it’s raining, not snowing! Crazy, right?

The other day in Japanese class, my sensei mentioned that in Japan, the cherry trees are just ending their bloom, and in fact, we have three cherry trees on the Amherst College campus that are just beginning their bloom. (Can you find them?) As Amherst’s landscape becomes more colorful, this essay seeks to compare the springtimes of two cultures — Japanese and American — through the lens of two prints from the mid-nineteenth century, one depicting a city landscape in Japan and the other the rural landscape surrounding Amherst in Western Massachusetts.

In their riotous, uncontrolled bloom, the cherry trees of Japan are a spectacle to behold. When an individual gazes into their gossamer of color, it’s all too easy to lose focus and dream. Year after year, the Japanese people anticipate the pinkish hue that will soon dominate Japan’s landscape. Relatives and friends gather to enjoy the drink and dance of sakura matsuri (cherry tree) festivals, and the beauty of nature around them.

Amdo Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Japanese (1797-1858). Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara [Shin yoshiwara naka-no-chō yozakura'), from the series
Ando Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Japanese (1797–1858). “Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara” (Shin yoshiwara naka-no-chō yozakura), from the series “Famous Places of the Eastern Capital” (Tōto meisho), ca. 1840–1842. Woodblock print. Gift of William Green, 2005.366
Andō Hiroshige’s Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara, from the series Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, depicts Japan’s cherry blossom festival in Edo’s (modern-day Tokyo’s) pleasure district, or Yoshiwara. Filled with brothels, the Yoshiwara combined the public spectacle of the cherry blossom festival with other aspects of public life. Notice how the cherry blossoms line the Yoshiwara canal in the foreground of the print and how courtesans meander the streets of the district. Come springtime, this district would be the place to visit because of its fertile associations with spring.

The significance of the cherry tree in Japanese culture dates back hundreds of years. Cherry trees convey the fragility and beauty of life. In the spring, when the cherry trees flower, the Japanese people are reminded that their lives are as ephemeral and precarious as a cherry-blossom petal whisked away by the wind, and they are therefore meant to enjoy what time they have. So when they congregate to celebrate and appreciate their surroundings, not only is the beauty around them on their minds, but also the deeper cultural meaning and consideration of their annual tradition.

Hiroshige also integrates the night sky as an element into this print. He uses bokashi, a gradient technique, to wash the black night sky into the Western, Prussian blue that delineates the sky. This woodblock print would have been sold as a souvenir to Japanese citizens traveling to Edo, and by examining the print closely, we can tell that it was very popular: black lines are faded, and the red cartouche at the top right is not sharply defined as it would be in an earlier impression, an indication that the block was used for multiple editions.

A couple of weeks ago, while Tokyo’s cityscape was dominated by cherry trees, Amherst’s spring was making its gradual approach. One day would be 35 and storming, but the next, 60 degrees and perfect. Unlike the ephemerality linked to the cherry trees, the scenic change that occurs is one that settles and becomes familiar. People are outside, breathing the fresh air, and are relaxed, not in a hurry to hit the hotspot in town.

Robert Brandard, after William Henry Bartlett, engraves our familiar vista of the Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke (1838). “After” means that Brandard reproduced Bartlett’s drawing of the same view, using a medium allowing for wide distribution of its multiples, a common practice of artists and publishers. They both depict the view from the top of Mount Holyoke, located only a few miles from Amherst. Bartlett, an English artist, published drawings he made during his trip to the region as American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature, which subsequently played a significant role in making this location the second-most-popular tourist destination in America. Like the Japanese Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, Brandard’s engraving was part of an artist-publisher collaboration and investment project intended for the tourists who flocked to Mount Holyoke and bought these prints as souvenirs. It is hand-colored (two other impressions in the collection, 1965.100 and 1955.698, are not). This means that someone took the time to further enhance its visual appeal and value.

    Robert Brandard; Bartlett, William Henry (after). British (1805–1862); British (1809–1854). Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke, 1838. Engraving. Gift of Francis T. P. Plimpton, Class of 1922, 1943.7.
Robert Brandard (British, 1805–1862); after William Henry Bartlett (British, 1809–1854). “Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke,” from “American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature,” 1838. Engraving. Gift of Francis T. P. Plimpton, Class of 1922, 1943.7.

Let’s take a look at the Brandard engraving: compared to the lively night-life and the vibrancy of the cherry blossom flowers in Hiroshige’s print (created around the same time), nature in Brandard’s/Bartlett’s print is staggering, serene, and withered. In the foreground, we can tell that the tree is old and gnarled, a stark contrast with the setting’s apparent youth. Bartlett stresses the scene’s cultural aspects: the peaceful day, the people who engage in their leisurely hunting and picnicking activities, and contrasts the variegated, wild vegetation in the foreground with the landscape below, dotted with indications of settlement. Bartlett described the Connecticut “intervals” as some of the most fertile and sunny pictures “gemmed with prosperity, neatness, and cultivation.” No doubt, the landscape is beautiful and bucolic.

Both of these prints emphasize nature — cherry trees dominate the foreground of Hiroshige’s woodcut just as the lush vegetation and jagged rocks do in Bartlett’s engraving — to show how humans integrate themselves into spring’s renewing splendor. Even at Amherst, we’ve created a culture where we mark spring’s arrival with our annual ritual of bringing the lawn chairs out to the quad.

Written by Fawzi Itani, Class of 2018

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