An American in Japan: Helen Hyde

Japonisme in a too-tiny nutshell: In the late nineteenth century, Japan’s isolationism ended and trade resumed with the West. A desire for Japanese goods, style, philosophy, and aesthetics began in the West. It seemed insatiable.

Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, especially fascinated Western audiences. Their crisp colors and unique compositions felt effortless (though holy hell, they were not) and magical. Many artists, including the Impressionists and poster-artists of the late nineteenth century, were inspired by elements and incorporated them in their own art.

Impressionist and ukiyo-e comparison

However, some artists went further… and farther. These artists traveled to Japan to learn traditional woodblock printing from the masters. In this blog, I’ll focus on one fascinating American woman that studied in Japan. (There are three I’d like to write about – maybe later.) And how she brought her own experiences to traditional woodblock printing.

San Francisco native Helen Hyde (1868 – 1919) set sail for Japan in 1899, at the height of the Japanese craze. Initially, she planned on staying for a year or two to study Japanese art – but she didn’t leave until 1914.

Helen Hyde portrait
Helen Hyde

Helen Hyde studied with Kanō Tomonobu, the head of the Kano school of painters. Under his tutelage, she won local painting competitions in Japan. But Hyde’s passion lay in woodcutting. She followed traditional techniques, like using a workshop system (ukiyo-e quartet): she designed for a publisher, another person carved her blocks, and another printed them. She had respect for the traditional system of the time. Many Western audiences would likely look down their nose at it. She did, however, watch her carvers and printers carefully.

Blossom Time in Tokyo, 1914
Blossom Time in Tokyo, 1914

Helen Hyde focused on a universal subject, motherhood. Her pieces of mothers and children became famous. She even called her works her children. Hyde sketched from life. She spoke with the Japanese mothers in their native tongue and spent time in their domestic space. Hyde even wrote articles in defense of Japan in the Ruso-Japanese war. This, her traditional techniques, and humbleness won Hyde respect in her adopted country.

Day Dreams - 1901
Day Dreams, 1901

It’s impossible to not draw parallels between Mary Cassatt and Hyde’s work. Indeed, most easily accessible research on her focuses on this. However, Hyde called Cassatt’s work, “flat and funny” and promptly forgot about it until newspapers compared the two artists in later decades. I feel annoyed for Helen Hyde – as if more than one women choose a similar subject then they must be influenced by each other.

The Bath, Mary Cassatt and Helen Hyde
The Bath, Mary Cassatt and The Bath, Helen Hyde

A more apt comparison would be with ukiyo-e master Kitagawa Utamaro. He did prints of women with children, even though the subject of motherhood was an unusual one for ukiyo-e.

Woman Holding a Baby, Kitagawa Utamaro
Woman Holding a Baby, Kitagawa Utamaro, early nineteenth century

Utamaro’s women in these prints are often dressed in luxurious fabrics – often the most eye-catching part of the pieces. The women often flash a hint of skin, in Utamaro’s suggestive style. But also, the stylized face shape of these women is quintessentially Japanese, as is the way the hair is rendered. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone that wouldn’t think they’re from Japan.

Mother and Child with Puppies, Kitagawa Utamaro
Mother and Child with Puppies, Kitagawa Utamaro, ~1800

When you compare his work with Helen Hyde’s the differences are clearer. Hyde’s work is filtered through her Western background. It is rounder. The faces of the women look more fleshly than stylized. The babies appear more Kate Greenaway than Japanese. For example, in The Secret (pictured below), the oval border reminds one of a Victorian picture frame or mirror. The flowers wrap around the figures instead of being separate visually.

The Secret, 1909
The Secret, 1909
Baby Talk, 1908
Baby Talk, 1908
A Day in June, 1910

She was also a roaring success back home in America. She created posters for the Red Cross, entered and won local competitions, and had solo exhibitions in D.C. But by 1910 Helen Hyde was battling cancer.

She spent some time in warmer climates, like the South of the US (primarily the Carolines), and Mexico. Hyde painted from life there and turned a few of them into prints (in the Japanese process), like The Mexican Coquette.

A Mexican Coquette, 1912
A Mexican Coquette, 1912

She did go back to Japan for a time and produced some amazing pieces, like Mt. Orizaba. But her deteriorating health and growing ambivalence about Japan made it her last trip. She left Japan in 1914 – and she never returned nor produced another woodcut print.

Mt. Orizaba, 1912

Artistic styles go in and out of favor. That, coupled with anti-Japanese sentiment in the US during and after the end of World War II likely made her star fall. In the 1990s there was a small revival. But, today society struggles with cultural appropriation and how much of it is OK, if any. Helen Hyde was an outsider in Japan, and she depicted a nation very different from her own. Regardless of how you feel about that complex topic, her art is an interesting viewpoint into a complicated world turning towards globalism. And also how traditional artistic practices spread cross-culturally.

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