Mirrors and Optical Effects in Ukiyo-e Prints

Hokusai, "Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror," 1805. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Hokusai, “Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror,” 1805. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In a recent podcast on Hokusai from Stuff You Missed in History Class,  I learned an interesting detail about Hokusai’s biography and background. Although it is difficult to create a comprehensive biography on Hokusai, we do know that his uncle was a mirror polisher. This was a skilled profession since mirrors were made out of bronze at the time (which was the late 18th and early 19th century, during the Edo period in Japan). As a young boy, Hokusai was adopted by his uncle, Nakajima Ise. His uncle intended to train Hokusai to become a mirror polisher too. Although Hokusai did not end up following this profession (we can tell that he went another direction by the time he was a teenager), the exposure to his uncle’s line of work caused “reflections, refractions, lenses, and optical effects [to become] a huge part of Hokusai’s work.”1

This comment in the podcast made me decide to look and see what examples I could find of mirrors and reflections in Hokusai prints. One of the more popular examples available online is Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (shown above). However, in my research I have found that the other ukiyo-e print maker, Kitagawa Utamaro, also made a lot of prints which depict women looking in mirrors (see one example directly below). I assume, then, that Hokusai was not only influenced by his background and uncle’s profession, but also by his contemporaries who were producing similar subject matter in their art.

Kitagawa Utamaro, "Woman Before a Mirror" (also called "Beauty at Her Toilet"), c. 1790. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Woman Before a Mirror” (also called “Beauty at Her Toilet”), c. 1790. Image courtesy Wikipedia. 

In fact, Mara Miller connects the idea of reflections to the production of ukiyo-e prints as a whole: “Ukiyo-e artists thematized perception in countless ways; they were fascinated with the instruments (mirrors, telescopes, and eyeglasses) and the phenomena of perception as a process — lantern light and fireflies and moonlight, mist and shadows and veils. They were fascinated with the act of looking.”2

It is interesting to me how the use of mirrors in these images can play with the ideas of Subjecthood and Objecthood. Do the mirrors make the subjects seem more tantalizing to a (male) viewer, or do the mirrors give more subjecthood to the women who are portrayed (since they are actively engaged in looking)? Mara Miller thinks that the women in these images “assume the right to gaze” at themselves: they employ the power to turn themselves (as subjects) into objects for their own gaze.3

There are lots of examples of reflections and optical effects in ukiyo-e prints, and I thought I’d include some of my favorites below. I especially like these images, because they make me think of how ukiyo-e prints must have influence by the reflections and mirrors that Mary Cassatt depicted in her own paintings, such as Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair (1879), Mother and Child (1900), The Mirror (c. 1905), Woman At Her Toilette (1909).

Kitagawa Utamaro, Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795. Woodblock print. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Kitagawa Utamaro, Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795. Woodblock print. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Utamaro, Woman Breastfeeding Her Child

Kitagawa Utamaro, “Woman Breastfeeding Her Child,” late 18th century.

This print especially reminds me of Cassatt’s Mother and Child (1900), since the baby’s head is slightly visible in the mirror, similar to how Cassatt paints the reflection of little baby buttocks in her mirror!

Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828), Daruma Looking in a Mirror at the Reflection of a Woman behind Him, late-18th or early-19th century

Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828), Daruma Looking in a Mirror at the Reflection of a Woman behind Him, late-18th or early-19th century

Hokusai, Megana-ya (Seller of Eyeglasses), c. 1811-1814

Hokusai, Megana-ya (Seller of Eyeglasses), c. 1811-1814

Hokusai, Reflection in Lake at Misaka in Kai Province, from the series "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji," ca. 1830-32. Woodblock print.

Hokusai, Reflection in Lake at Misaka in Kai Province, from the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji,” ca. 1830-32. Woodblock print.

If you have a favorite ukiyo-e print (or Mary Cassatt painting!) with mirrors or optical effects that I did not include, please share and comment below!

1 Holly Frye and Tracy V. Wilson, “Hokusai,” podcast from Stuff You Missed in History Class (quote found approx. 7:30 into recording). Accessed August 18, 2015. Available online HERE.  

2 Mara Miller, “Art and the Construction of Self and Subject in Japan,” in Self as Image in Asian Theory and Practice by  Roger T. Ames, Thomas P. Kasulis, Wimal Dissanayake, eds. (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 444. Available online HERE.

3 Ibid., 445. Available online HERE.


Caillebotte and Hopper

Today a perceptive student asked if art historians had ever discussed a connection between the paintings by Gustave Caillebotte (a 19th century Impressionist) and Edward Hopper (a 20th century artist). I thought this was a really fascinating question. This week, my students and I have been discussing how Caillebotte’s work can be interpreted within the themes of isolation and loneliness. We’ve discussed ideas of how the modernization and industrialization of Paris could have isolated people in the 19th century, and particularly analyzed Caillebotte’s painting Pont de l’Europe (1876, see right). My students and I looked at Caillebotte’s biography, using some of the research done by my friend and colleague Breanne Gilroy. One thing Gilroy mentions is that Caillebotte experienced a sense of isolation during his lifetime, particularly since the artist’s father, brother, and mother all died within a period of four years.1

Anyhow, I thought that my student’s question regarding Edward Hopper was especially interesting in this context, since Hopper’s paintings also can tie into themes of isolation and loneliness. One can especially get a sense of isolation in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) and Gas Station (1940). Caillebotte and Hopper are also similar in other ways as well: they both have an interest in depicting contemporary subject matter, both use comparatively muted color palates, and both favor compositions with large, flat areas of color.

Although I didn’t find too many people who discuss a similarity between the two artists, I did come across a few things. First of all, Time blogger Richard Lacayo noted that he saw a similarity between the compositions of Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877) and Hopper’s New York Movie (1939). Lacayo also noted a essay by Judith A. Barter in the catalog Edward Hopper.

Although I haven’t seen a copy of Barter’s essay, this evening I was able to listen to a podcast in which Barter discusses more of Hopper’s life. Barter mentions that Hopper went to France three times between the years 1906-1910. While there, Hopper viewed and studied the art of many Impressionist painters, and I think it’s very likely that Hopper was familiar with the work of Caillebotte. Although Baxter doesn’t cite Caillebotte as a direct influence, she does mention a similarity between Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day and Hopper’s Nighthawks (side note: it isn’t surprising that she chose these two paintings for comparison, since they are both part of the Art Institute of Chicago collection – the museum where Baxter works as a curator!). Here is a transcript from the podcast:

“Hopper’s…viewer witnesses the street corner and figures in Nighthawks in much the same way that Gustave Caillebotte saw the boulevard section in Paris Street, Rainy Day…But there is an important difference: unlike Caillebotte’s pedestrian, who is part of the moving traffic of the street, Hopper’s observers are further distanced and stand outside the vision of the figures that the artist paints. Hopper eliminates all pedestrians, removing the observer from the observed. This is the core of his city subjects: the experience of watching unobserved.”2

What do others think? Can you think of more similarities between the work of Caillebotte and the work of Hopper? Do you know of any other art historians who have published on this topic?

1 Breanne Gilroy, “Mourning and Melancholy in the Work of Gustave Caillebotte,” (Unpublished), 2006. Gilroy mentions how Caillebotte’s father died in 1874, his brother René died in 1876, and his mother died in 1878. Gilroy also cites an article by Kirk Vardenoe, “Gustave Caillebotte in Contextin Arts Magazine 9 (May 1976): 94-99.

2 Judith A. Baxter, “Transcending Reality: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks,” public lecture delivered 28 February 2010. Podcast of lecture is available here.


Sympathy for Renoir

Anyone who reads this blog regularly can attest to my distaste for Renoir – particularly Renoir’s later works. (Case in point: I used the word “hideous” to describe a Renoir painting in this post and in a comment for this post.)

I’m not the only person who dislikes Renoir. In fact, people have critiqued his work for decades. Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt wrote in 1913 that Renoir was painting horrific pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.”1 Even Renoir once admitted, “I had gone as far as I could with Impressionism, and I realized I could neither paint nor draw.”2 I couldn’t agree more.

Although Renoir’s later paintings have gotten a bad reputation, a new traveling exhibition called “Renoir in the 20th Century” strives to place the painter in a more positive light. You can read more about this exhibition (and further critiques of Renoir’s style) in a recent Smithsonian article.

Personally, I have no desire to see this show. My opinion of Renoir is pretty much solidified at this point, and I wouldn’t want to waste my time. However, I must admit that the Smithsonian article has changed my perception of Renoir. I didn’t realize that the artist suffered from extreme rheumatoid arthritis in his later life. Due to this disease, the artist painted while under constant pain. He later suffered from paralysis in his right shoulder, which forced the artist to paint with his left hand (see image above).

So, although I don’t find any aesthetic appeal in Renoir’s later works, I do have much more sympathy for the artist. I guess in a way, I can now relate to Renoir on a very small level. Any discomfort that I feel when seeing his art was also painfully experienced by Renoir when his paintings were created.

UPDATE: I just came across this video which shows footage of Renoir working in his later life. You can really get the sense of his physical limitations and suffering in this clip.

1 Richard Covington, “Renoir Rebels Again” in Smithsonian 40, no. 11 (January 2010): 67.

2 Ibid.


"Déjeuner sur L’Herbe" by Monet (NOT Manet)

I’m preparing a lecture on the Impressionists, and I’ve been completely distracted by Monet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”). Yes – that’s not a typo. I meant to write “Monet,” not “Manet.”

Maybe you’re saying “What?” just like I did fifteen minutes ago. Don’t get too bewildered: Manet DID a very seminal painting that is called Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1863). And Manet’s painting is infinitely more well-known than Monet’s early work with the same title. But allow me to bring Monet’s painting out of obscurity:

Monet, Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe, 1865-66

It’s interesting to see a painting by Monet that includes human figures. (You can see a figure study for this painting here.) I’m so used to seeing Monet paintings with haystacks and Rouen Cathedrals and water lilies and train stations – it’s so nice to see something different. You also might have noticed that this painting was made just about two years after Manet completed his painting with the same title. A coincidence? Definitely not. There’s no question that Monet was influenced by Manet.

Other painters were also influenced by Manet’s 1863 painting. Cezanne did his own picnicking painting with the same title, and Picasso did several versions that were directly inspired by Manet. In fact, the Musee d’Orsay did an exhibition (which ended in February 2009) that revolved around Picasso’s variations of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe. Here’s one Picasso example:

Picasso, Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe after Manet, 27 February 1960

So, what do you think? Did you know that Monet painted a Déjeuner sur L’Herbe? (I really hope that I’m not the only one who was unaware of that fact.) Which version of the subject matter do you like the best?


Washer Women

I think everyone has some kind of dream in which their worst fears are realized. Apparently, my worst fear revolves around being unprepared to teach an art history lecture. Last night, I dreamed that I went to go visit my past professors at my alma mater. It was the first day of summer term, and I discovered upon arrival that I was slated to teach a course that began that very afternoon! The title of the course seminar was “Washer Women in Art,” and it was supposed to cover all the extant depictions of laundresses. I started to scramble around campus, trying to find materials for the class, but I couldn’t think of any paintings to include in the slide list. I kept thinking, “I can’t think of any paintings of washer women,” and “If any paintings exist, they probably are Dutch from the 17th century.”

Needless to say, I woke up in a panic.

Naturally, I had to find out today if there are any paintings of laundresses. And there are. A lot. (Though not really any Dutch ones from 17th century, much to my subconscious’ chagrin!) Here are a couple of my favorites:

Chardin, The Laundress, 1733

 This book points out how the laundress does not wear a hoop skirt or any other fashionable clothing of the Rococo period – Chardin was interested in painting the domestic life of an ordinary French woman.

Greuze, The Laundress, 1761
Denis Diederot said of the laundress in this painting, “She’s a rascal I wouldn’t trust an inch.” The Getty has published a whole book about this painting, comparing this provocative laundress to other paintings of laundresses by Greuze.

Camille Pissarro, Washer Woman, 1880

Martin Driscoll, The Washer Woman. I was not familiar with this contemporary artist before my quest to find laundress paintings, but I think this work is very nice. You can look at more of Driscoll’s paintings on his website. (Thanks to the Anne P, I also learned that this painting is inspired by William Orpen’s “The Wash House” (1905) located at the National Gallery of Ireland.)
Degas, Laundresses Carrying Linen in Town, c. 1876-78

Degas, Women Ironing (Les Rapasseuses), also called “The Laundresses,” 1884

Most paintings of laundresses come from the 19th century Impressionists, and I’ve included a few of them above. (I left out thishideous one by Renoir, click on the link only if you dare.) It makes sense that the Impressionists would be interested in laundresses; they liked subject matter that revolved around French urban life.Really, there probably are enough paintings of laundresses that one could hold a couple of classes on the subject (though probably not for the length of a term). Unfortunately, I haven’t found a lot of scholarship on laundress paintings. I wonder if this subject matter would appeal to feminist art historians.Has anyone else ever had a panic dream involving art history? If it also involves washer women and laundresses, we must be twins separated at birth.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.