During this quarantine, many of us spend our free time perusing the daily national news, trying to gauge, through press briefings, newspaper editorials, and various other sources, the extent to which our efforts at social distancing have been effective in alleviating the pandemic. For this reason, I was surprised a few days ago when several of my friends sent me photographs of that evening’s sunset and described how breathtaking it was. I am embarrassed to say that the curtains on my window were drawn, and what may have been the most beautiful moment of my day had escaped my notice. Passing time within our homes, some of us have sadly become disconnected with nature and less able to experience such natural phenomena as the rise and fall of the tides along our beaches and sudden rain showers.
Many Japanese print designers spent the duration of their careers documenting such visions as a mist-enshrouded mountain range, a kingfisher perched beside a lotus flower, or a plum tree whose blossoms seem to glow in the moonlight. One popular print subject is the beautiful coastline of Lake Biwa (known until the end of the 19th century as Lake Ōmi) in Western Japan. Around the beginning of the 16th century, Prince Konoe Masaie (1445–1505) and his son, Prince Konoe Hisamichi (1472–1544) were inspired to compose a series of eight poems about the lake. To commemorate the beauty of a bridge that spans it, for example, they wrote:
Leaking dew and drizzle,
It has become thin
On its long journey across the mountains:
The evening sun crossing Seta Bridge
moru yama toku
yuhi no wataru
Seta no nagahashi
The poem is partly a comical reference to the fact that Lake Ōmi was the terminus of the Tōkaidō Highway, a 319-mile route connecting nearby Kyoto to Edo in Eastern Japan. In this poem, Masaie and Hisamichi anthropomorphize the sun, describing how tired it must be from its westward journey across the sky, just as a traveler would feel after traversing the Tōkaidō.
Among the countless artworks that illustrate these poems, a set of woodblock prints that Utagawa Hiroshige designed around 1834 are arguably the most famous. In his print Evening Glow at Seta from that series, the artist inscribes the aforementioned poem in the upper left corner. The remainder of the composition displays the lake during a spectacular sunset. The distant sky is ablaze with a gradation of yellow and orange, the blue of the water is broken up by patches of pale yellow reflecting the sky, and white, rhomboidal sails mark the position of boats scattered along the shoreline. Everything else–including the nearby trees in the lower left, the bridge spanning the water, the mountains on the opposite side of the lake, and Mount Fuji in the far distance–stands in stark silhouette.
Evening Glow at Seta is a glorious image, and 186 years of age have not diminished its visual presence in the slightest. Amidst my obsessive attention to the national news, when I need a reminder of the natural wonders of daily life, I make sure to gaze out my window and soak up the beauty of what I can see in person. And at any time of day or night, works of art such as this print allow me to bask in the warmth of the sun.
– Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Curator of Japanese Art
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)
Evening Glow at Seta
From the series Eight Views of Ōmi
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1834
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (23212)