Recent Acquisition | Perspective Picture of Whale Hunting in Kumano Bay

Perspective Picture of Whale Hunting in Kumano Bay

Utagawa Toyoharu 歌川豊春 (Japanese, ca. 1735–1814), Edo period, 1615–1868, Perspective Picture of Whale Hunting in Kumano Bay (Uki-e Kumano ura kujira tsuki no zu 浮絵 熊野浦鯨突之図), ca. 1770–75. Woodblock print (ōban yoko-e format); ink and color on paper. Museum purchase, The Anne van Biema Collection Fund (2018-103)

This scene of whale hunting at Kumano Bay, with a village at the base of hills at right, is by Utagawa Toyoharu 歌川豊春 (ca. 1735–1814). Boats steer out to attack two whales at the left. Harpoons can be seen in the air and in the back of the nearest whale as it surfaces to expel air through its blowhole. This first-edition print survives in exceptionally good condition with its original vibrant colors.

Kumano 熊野 is located at the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, about 100 kilometers south of Osaka. Whaling is said to have begun in the Kumano Sea coast area in the early Edo period and is still part of the region’s culture. At Koya-zaka Slope 高野坂, the Kumano Kodō 熊野古道 pilgrimage route, the "Whale Mountain Trail" (Kujira yamami ato 鯨山見跡), was used to spot offshore whales so as to alert the fishing boats.

Toyoharu was the founder of the Utagawa school and was known for his “perspective pictures” (ukie 浮絵), which incorporated Western pictorial methods to create the impression of spatial recession. Toyoharu studied art in Kyoto, then in Edo (present-day Tokyo). In 1768 he began to design woodblock prints and became known for his “perspective pictures” of famous sites and copies of Western and Chinese perspective prints. Although not the first perspective prints in Japan, his were the first to be rendered in multiple colors and were known as “brocade pictures” (nishiki-e 錦絵). Toyoharu may have introduced landscape as a subject in woodblock prints, when before they had only served as backgrounds for other subjects. The Utagawa school grew to dominate woodblock printing in the 19th century with artists such as Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Kuniyoshi.

Toyaharu’s incorporation of Western perspective and his introduction of landscape as a subject in woodblock print designs make this print an important addition for teaching the history of woodblock prints in Japan. Besides its art historical value, the subject of whaling is also valuable for teaching. This print complements Nanki Josuiken’s Geishi 鯨志 (About Whales), a 1794 Japanese rare book with woodblock illustrations of whaling held at Marquand Library. About Whales describes and illustrates the fourteen species of whale known in 18th-century Japan (some of which are now extinct). Nanki Josuiken’s preface is particularly significant in that he may be the first author to posit that whales were not big fish but mammals.