From the 17th century on, the most popular art form in Japan was the wood-block print and its colorful scenes of ukiyo-e , the "floating world" of everyday life and ephemeral pleasure embodied in depictions of peasants, laborers, travelers, innkeepers, kabuki actors, saucy geisha girls and famous courtesans.
The great masters of the ukiyo-e - artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushik Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige - aimed to satisfy a rising middle-class clientele whose interests and tastes differed from those of Japan's feudal aristocracy.
By the time Japan opened up to the West in the late 1850s, there were hundreds of thousands of relatively inexpensive ukiyo-e prints in circulation (a total of 20,000 to 30,000 impressions of a best-selling print was not unusual). Many of these impressions quickly found their way to Europe, where they exerted a profound influence on impressionist and post-impressionist painters like Manet, Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin, Whistler and Mary Cassatt, whose works would help usher in the modernist revolution.
But what exactly did European artists learn from their Japanese counterparts, and how did they apply the innovations of the wood-block print to their own work?
This is the subject broached by East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection, a delightful exhibition that explores the influence of Japanese prints on European and American painters by comparing outstanding examples of each side by side.
By the 1850s, French artists were already confronting many of the issues raised by Japanese prints, such as the realistic depiction of modern life and its new sense of immediacy and spontaneity. From Japanese prints they learned to manipulate asymmetrical compositions and to use flat, pure colors without shadows, techniques that initially shocked their contemporaries.
Hiroshige lived from 1797 to 1858 and was one of the most prolific ukiyo-e artists, producing some 4,500 prints during his career. His first great success was Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido, a series of landscape views along the coastal highway between present-day Tokyo and Kyoto that appeared in the early 1830s.
The Phillips show presents the 53 prints of the Tokaido series as well as two Hiroshige views of Japan's sacred Mount Fuji, all on loan from a private collection in Japan. The prints alternate on the wall with paintings from the museum's own collection of European and American masters.
Hiroshige's Tokaido prints differed from earlier landscapes in several important ways. Not only did he try to represent his subjects under the different lighting conditions of weather, season and time of day, but he also constantly shifted points of view and subject, now focusing on a group of travelers crossing a bridge as seen from afar, now on an important official being ferried across a river from the perspective of an attendant on shore.
"Hiroshige was interested in evoking poetic moods of a particular time of day and a particular season, and only incidentally in associating them with a particular landscape or activity," said Phillips assistant curator Susan Behrends Frank, who organized the exhibition. "He was not interested in literal portrayals ... [and] he introduced unprecedented exaggerations and distortions."
Indeed, many of Hiroshige's scenes were purely imaginary. But he also brought to his landscapes a warmer and more varied palette than earlier landscape artists and a vigorous new drawing style that used ink washes to create impressive atmospheric effects.
In works like Hodogaya-Shimmachi Bridge, for example, the forms of houses crowded on a riverbank in the middle distance are tightly compressed against the outlines of a distant mountain in the background and the arc of a wooden footbridge in the foreground.
At the Phillips, the print is hung alongside the American impressionist Maurice Prendergast's painting Ponte della Paglia, a lively outdoor scene depicting colorful throngs of people crossing a similarly arched bridge in Venice. In Prendergast's design, the bridge, canal bank, pedestrians and rows of distant houses share the same flattened perspective and rhythmic color scheme as Hiroshige's landscape.
Duncan Phillips, the museum's namesake, was an enthusiastic collector of Japanese prints who early on realized the important role they had played in the development of modern European and American art. Phillips was a particular fan of Hiroshige, whose plunging viewpoints, high horizons and masterful use of empty space would greatly influence his own tastes in art.
The Phillips show is a testament to Phillips' foresight as a champion of both modern European and American painting and of the Japanese master whose example helped inspire it.
What: East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection
Where: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W., Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Thursday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday (through Sept. 4)
Admission: $8 adults, $6 students and seniors
Information: 202- 387-2151 or www.phillipscollection.org