After a period of limited trade, Japan opened select cities in 1859 as part of a commercial treaty with France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States. As traders flooded into the port of Yokohama, native artists capitalized on Japanese print tradition to spread information about the country’s new inhabitants. For centuries, widely accessible paper prints depicting beautiful women, actors, and mythological scenes entertained the masses. The new print genre, called Yokohama pictures, educated consumers through descriptive poetry and colorful images that emphasized the foreignness of Westerners.
Native Japanese dress differed greatly from dress styles popular in Europe. As such, clothing became an essential tool to identify foreigners. In A Frenchwoman by Yoshitsuya Ichieisai, the inscription reads, “Wearing her foreign garb of spring brocade, a young woman strolls along the streets of Yokohama.” The background of the print is blank and the woman’s skin tone is similarly neutral: The real subject of the print is not the figure herself, but her brightly colored clothes. To Western eyes, the mantle, skirt, and bonnet may look oddly drawn. The familiar exaggerated hourglass silhouette of 1860s European womenswear is shrouded by a too-long mantle, the skirt has an unusual two-tone teardrop pattern, and the headdress only suggests a bonnet.
Dismissing this print as crude is a misstep, however. A Frenchwoman actually displays an impressive amount of invention in the face of artistic difficulties. Though there were some Western women in Japan, most traders were single men. With a shortage of real-life subjects, artists turned to foreign newspapers to complete their visual vocabulary.
A Frenchwoman directly supports this notion. Printed in the first months of 1861, it bears a striking resemblance to a fashion plate entitled ‘The Paris Fashions for October,’ which was published September 29, 1860 in the Illustrated London News, a paper widely available in Yokohama. The leftmost woman in the plate wears a multi-tiered mantle with crimped edging that unmistakably inspired the mantle of the Frenchwoman.
Recognizing that Yoshitsuya used fashion plates to create foreign figures helps explain his artistic choices. To avoid replicating the corseted waist, whose shape defied Japanese artistic training, Yoshitsuya added a long blue tier to the bottom of the mantle. The blue teardrop shading on the skirt resembles dark etching used in fashion plates to create depth in folds. And the figure’s open cloth head covering suggests that Yoshitsuya moved the bonnet’s close-to-the-chin bow, seen on the other two figures in ‘Paris Fashions,’ onto the collar of the mantle, a possible interpretation of the two-dimensional plate. Despite some difficulty translating the European costume into a Japanese print, the inscription still rings true to the context of the Frenchwoman’s clothing: The mantle was an outdoor covering that any foreign woman “stroll[ing] along the streets of Yokohama” would have worn. Using English fashion plates and reasonable estimation, Yoshitsuya created an imaginative representation of European women viewed through a Japanese lens.
Ann Yonemura, Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-century Japan (Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1990), 82.