Artwork of the Week (April 19): Portrait of the Emperor Meiji

In 1873, pioneering photographer Uchida Kuichi took the first photograph of a Japanese emperor. In his portrait of the Emperor Meiji, seen here, the emperor is staged in a way typical to U.S. and European photographic portraits of the time. The subject is seated diagonally in a chair, with some personal paraphernalia placed on a table to indicate something about his personality. The emperor is shown wearing European-style military gear rather than traditional Japanese clothing.

This photograph shows just how rapidly Japan had westernized. Almost exactly 20 years earlier, the United States sent a large naval fleet to force Japan into opening its borders. Panicked at the show of military might, Japan decided to westernize, modernize, and transform itself into a first-rate military power in order to avoid being colonized by the obviously hostile western powers.

Not only does the portrait of Emperor Meiji show the social change (particularly the western military attire), but also the tremendous changes occurring in Japanese art at the time. Kuichi adopts the western technology of the photograph for this portrait, including its inherent bias toward a realistic representation of the world and the use of perspective common to the European tradition of art. In order to see just how much had changed socially and artistically, compare this portrait with the official portrait of Meiji’s grandfather, Emperor Ninkō, commissioned only a few decades earlier:

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