A Hawaiian Master Revisited: Charles Bartlett at the Honolulu Academy of Arts

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    Kobe, 1915, Charles William Bartlett (1860-1940), England/active Hawaii, Watercolor, Gift of Anna Rice Cooke, 1927 (5458)

August 06, 2009 - October 04, 2009
Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

Watercolors and Prints of Japan

Charles W. Bartlett (1860-1940) arrived in Japan in 1915. He had been traveling around Asia for more than a year, and his interlude in Japan was intended to be a stop on his return to his home country of England. However, the ongoing First World War fueled fears about the danger of travel. Consequently, Bartlett spent over a year in Japan, after which he proceeded to Hawaii, where he would eventually abandon further travels and make his permanent home.

Little could Bartlett have imagined that his time in Japan would forever change the course of his artistic career. Like most tourists, he entered the country through the port of Yokohama, and visited the ancient capital of Kyoto before finally stopping in Tokyo. He remained active as an artist while traveling around Japan, and the Academy preserves many of his watercolors from that time, particularly of scenes in and around Kyoto. However, unlike most tourists, Bartlett showed little interest in the country’s prominent monuments, and most of his sketches depict quiet scenes of daily life or humble interiors of traditional houses and village temples. Bartlett had already showed an interest in such genre scenes as early as his watercolors of Holland and his sketches of South Asia, but his work in Japan nevertheless indicates a dramatic departure from his preferred subjects in India, where he had shown a near obsession with such monuments as the Taj Mahal.

When Bartlett arrived in Tokyo, he met the watercolorist Elizabeth Keith. Like Bartlett’s wife Kate, Keith was a Christian Scientist, and the two quickly became close friends. Through Keith, Bartlett was introduced to the young woodblock print publisher Watanabe Shözaburö, who had been producing reproductions of classical ukiyo-e, and was searching for an inspiration that could revitalize the Japanese woodblock print tradition. Watanabe would find this inspiration in Bartlett’s watercolors. He soon approached Bartlett about a series of woodblock prints based on his watercolors of India, followed by a series based on images of Japan. By the time Bartlett left for Hawaii, both series were already in production.

Unlike Bartlett’s innovative depictions of India, his prints of Japan show considerable traditional influence, particularly from the great 19th-century master Hiroshige. A comparison of his earlier watercolors of Japan from 1915, which reveal a more individual aesthetic, suggests that much of this influence must have come from Watanabe and his studio of carvers and printers intimately familiar with Hiroshige’s oeuvre.

India and China remained a lasting influence on Bartlett’s work, and he continued to produce paintings, prints, and etchings based on his travel sketches of these countries for the rest of his life. However, Bartlett’s interest in Japan seems to have been more fleeting, and virtually all of his surviving images of Japan date from the years he was in the country, 1915-1916. The Academy’s significant holdings of watercolors, sketches, and woodblock prints from these years are practically the only evidence of this important, but momentary, time in the artist’s life.—Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art

A Printmaker in Paradise: The Art and Life of Charles W. Bartlett catalog is available at the Honolulu Museum of Art Shop and online.