Free Thing of the Week: Japanese Wood Prints from the LOC

We return to distracting you with art. If you’re a fan of ukiyo-e style of wood block prints, or the less renowned but equally exquisite Yokohama-e prints, then dig into the latest from the Library of Congress: a cache of 2,500 wood block prints

Together with Nichibunken (International Research Center for Japanese Studies) who helped scan 1,100 of the prints, the Library of Congress released this outstanding collection into the public domain just this week. The original prints come from many collections, including those of Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Howard Taft, and 180 Yokohama-e prints from the private collection of Emily Crane Chadbourne.

There are some very early prints, as early as 1615, but for the most part this collection concentrates on the 19th Century, particularly the late Tokugawa period. Much of this collection was organized by the esteemed publisher of the erstwhile Washington Evening Star, Crosby Stuart Noyes, including about 1,300 prints, drawings, and illustrated books, but virtually none of it had been digitized and released to the public in an easily accessible form.

The Yokohama-e prints are especially fascinating as they show the strange, often bizarre interaction of Western figures with the Japanese tradition. According to the LOC, “Bewhiskered men and crinoline-clad women are shown striding through the city of Yokohama, clambering on and off ships, riding horses, enjoying local entertainments, and interacting with an endless array of objects from goblets to locomotives.” But the prints are more peculiar than that sentence suggests. A print of John James Audubon, for instance, shows his work being dragged away and eaten by a rat. Thomas Carlyle is pictured in a tizzy after a cat tips over a lamp on his latest novel.

More surprises await, but it’s best to see for yourself.

Check out the Library of Congress Collection, “Fine Prints: Japanese, pre-1915” here.