This painting, done partially with woodblock printing, depicts a battle in the short and little-known conflict between China and France in 1884-85, known as the Sino-French War. The specific scene depicts the Battle of Fuzhou, fought in Chinese waters on August 23, 1884. This rich and evocative picture incorporates many of the elements of traditional Japanese art, but still depicts a fairly modern subject, which is one of the reasons it’s so startling. Note the waves breaking against the ship on the right; the waves are reminiscent of Hokusai’s style, and the human figures, bearing almost a comic-strip like appearance, are reminiscent of the earliest Japanese portraits of Westerners. The details here are very rich and the whole scene is kinetic and alive with action. Yet unlike earlier Japanese art, there is a sense of perspective. That’s a hallmark of the Utagawa school, the art movement from which this picture comes, and it’s one indication of how Western modes of culture were beginning to take root in Japan at the end of the 19th century.
As dramatic as this picture is, I don’t find the subject that interesting. The Sino-French War was just one of many conflicts, some declared, others not, that ensued when Western powers began carving up China and other parts of Asia into spheres of influence in the 19th century. The Sino-French War was mostly over Vietnam, which China regarded as its backyard, but in which the French had colonial interests since the 1860s. The war was, not surprisingly, a French victory. China was quite weakened by this time and unable to resist Western imperialist adventures.
The artist of this picture, Utagawa Kunisada, was one of several distinguished Japanese artists who had that name, and is sometimes known as “Utagawa Kunisada III,” but he was not the son and/or grandson of other artists called Utagawa Kunisada (both I and II were generally more distinguished). It was a feature of the Utagawa school for an artist to take the name of the master who trained him. Utagawa Kunisada was up-and-coming in Japanese art circles in the mid-1880s, but he earned most of his fame creating yakusha-e pictures, which are mostly of kabuki actors. Born in 1848, twenty years before the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, he must have had an interesting life, which spanned the period of Japan’s rapid modernization in the late 19th and early 20th century. He died in 1920.