Meiji Photographs: A Historic Friendship between Japan and Rutgers

Meiji Photograph titled Yumoto Lake
Sep 03, 2013 - Jul 12, 2015
Kusakabe-Griffis Room

Among the Zimmerli Art Museum’s treasures is a group of more than two hundred photographs taken by European and Japanese photographers during the Meiji period (1868-1912), which is considered the beginning of the modern era in Japan. The photographs were made in studios in Yokohama, which was the first center of photography in Japan, having been its major port for foreign trade during the Meiji period. This exhibition presents a selection of these photographs featuring famous sites in Japan and studio photographs of Japanese customs and costumes by such important photographers as Felice Beato (1834-1907), an Italian-born British war photographer who established a studio in Yokohama in 1863 and Beato’s former assistant Kusakabe Kimbei (Japanese, 1841-1932).

Rutgers University and Japan, especially the city of Fukui, have enjoyed a special relationship for more than two hundred years. Among the first Japanese students to attend an American university was Taro Kusakabe, a young samurai from Echizen province, which became known as Fukui Prefecture in 1889 The brilliant Kusakabe became the first Japanese student admitted to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He tragically died from tuberculosis weeks before his graduation in 1870, and his diploma was awarded posthumously. Kusakabe’s tutor William Elliot Grifis (1843–1928; Rutgers College Class of 1869) was invited to Fukui in 1870 to help modernize its schools. Upon his return to the United States in 1874, Griffis embarked on his prolfic career as an author. His study of Japanese history and culture The Mikado’s Empire (1876) is among the most important early works in English on Japan.

This remarkable period of exchange between Japan and Rutgers coincides with the growing interest in Japanese art by Western artists, who began to incorporate Japanese motifs, compositional structures, and techniques into their paintings, prints, and decorative arts during the 1860s. The Zimmerli Art Museum’s strong collection of Japonisme—late nineteenth-century European and American works influenced by the art of Japan—commemorates the spirit of discovery and reciprocity between East and West and celebrates the personal friendship between Taro Kusakabe and William Elliot Griffis, which established the continuing relationship between Rutgers and Japan.

The exhibition is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday during regular museum hours.

Organized by Christine Giviskos, Associate Curator of European Art

Attributed to Kusakabe Kimbei
Yumoto Lake, ca. 1880
Hand-colored albumen print