Alexander Hoare


The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago marks a high point regarding the commercial and cultural exchange of modernized nations of that time. The fair celebrated the advances and achievements of human civilization, and had the intent of promoting inventive ideas and economic cooperation between nations. These were the intended goals of the Columbian Exhibition and other World Fairs in the late 19th century, but the fair also served as an arena for countries to compare and evaluate the industrial, artisanal, and artistic capacities and values of other nations. The hierarchy among nations during World Fairs was particularly evident when examining the exhibits of fine arts. Eastern nations had typically been excluded from the fine arts exhibits, but this changed during the Columbian Exposition. Although Japan had attended many previous exhibitions in the 19th century, Japanese arts were not included until they were finally exhibited in the Hall of Fine Arts at the Chicago World's Fair. The Japanese government had been trying to improve their cultural reputation amongst Western nations since they began modernizing their state. The Columbian Exhibition's treatment of Japanese art shows that the Japanese government's intention to gain cultural status was partially successful. The reception of Japanese art during the Columbian Exposition proved to be extremely positive among Western nations, and especially in America, which was emerging as a global power in its own right. Favorable opinions of Japanese artwork in source materials published during the fair indicate that the Western art community, particularly in America, initially became receptive to Japanese aesthetics at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Previous scholarship on the subject of Japanese art at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair has emphasized the Japanese intentionality in shaping their exhibits and the politicized nature of the fair. Previous articles by Ellen Conant and Judith Snodgrass reflect this perspective. Both have demonstrated how specific pieces of Japanese art and the preparations of the Japanese government expressed the cultural message the Japanese hoped to express. Snodgrass specifically emphasizes the politicization of particular pieces of Japanese art (4 large incense burners), and emphasizes the nationalist goals of the art and the exhibit in the fair. Conant discusses the Japanese planning for the fair, going into detail about their art, architecture, and the purpose behind the Japanese government's decisions about the exhibit. Conant also briefly mentions American preparation for the Japanese exhibit and their reception and analysis of Japanese art, but only explains a few particular responses to the exhibit as a whole. Aside from Conant's section on reception in her article Japan “Abroad” at the Chicago Exhibition, historical understanding of the American and Western responses to Japanese art at the Chicago World's Fair has been inadequately scrutinized. Primary and secondary research yields a more complete view of the Western response, indicating that the American art-world was directly engaged in the preparation of the Japanese Fine Arts exhibit during the Columbian Exposition, and that the involvement of both the Japanese and American art-world publics contributed to the varied yet extremely positive reception of Japanese fine art by the American art-world public. Furthermore, by examining specific pieces of Japanese art from the Columbian Exposition and the American analyses of these pieces, it becomes clear that the American art-world's definition of art became more inclusive of different ideas and mediums of art which distinguished it from the European art-world's definition.

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