Romance and Realism | A Portrait of Japan in 1900

Photography by Felice Beato & Adolf de Meyer

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  • 3 min read

At the dawn of the 20th Century, The Land of the Rising Sun was just opening up to the West. And two European photographers were there to capture this exotic world, their visions of Japan markedly different.

A fashion photographer and insatiable traveller, the Baron Adolf de Meyer’s work had graced the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Before his arrival on the scene, fashion photography had been modelled factually, drably, a bit like the Argos catalogue (sorry Argos). De Meyer was the first to fill the genre with life, creativity and highly stylised shots. He then became known for his elegant portraits of society figures and celebrities, immortalising Josephine Baker, Vaslav Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes along the way.

Visiting Japan in the spring of 1900 with his wife Olga Caracciolo, De Meyer captured this fantasy country in his idiosyncratic style: romantic, atmospheric and unapologetically chic. He later destroyed most of the photos (artists eh?), but a few have been salvaged. They've even caught the eye of Louis Vuitton’s publishing house, which recently compiled some of the images into a limited edition book. Oh là là!

Meanwhile, Felice Beato was an Italian–British war-photographer and photojournalist. He was the first to focus on Asia and the Near East, settling in Yokohama in the mid 19th Century. Beato came from a more realistic, ethnographic approach, taking hundreds of portraits and devotedly documenting every aspect of this unfamiliar country.

To accompany the launch of our De Meyer and Beato notecard set we've brought together a collection of their works, offering a rare glimpse into this unprecedented time in Japan’s history. Celebrating beautiful natural surroundings, revered architecture and everyday people: the spirit of Japan at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Samurai, Yokohama. Felice Beato, 1864–65. A straightforward but intense study of an anonymous samurai, just before the class was officially abolished.

Beato specialised in the ‘carte de visite’, 2 by 4 inch photographs mounted on to cards. Often they’d be albumen silver prints with colour hand-applied retrospectively. A bit like trading football cards, for Victorians their invention created a veritable ‘cartomania’: a massive trend for exchanging pictures of celebrities, monarchs and exotic portraits and showing them off in parlour rooms.

Japanese High Priest in Full Canonicals. Felice Beato, 1869.

Studio Portrait: Tateise Onogero, Interpreter at the Japanese Embassy, Standing Holding a Hat and Sword. Felice Beato, 1867.

Sumo Wrestlers. Felice Beato, 1867-69.

Woman with Tea Set Playing the Koto. Felice Beato, 1860. The koto is the national instrument of Japan.

Sleeping Beauties. Felice Beato, 1866-67.

Four Women Under a Shelter Viewing a Waterfall. Adolf de Meyer, 1900.

View of Blossoming Cherry Trees and a Cluster of Buildings. Adolf de Meyer, 1900.

Nagara Shrine with a View over Otsu and Lake Biwa. Adolf de Meyer, 1900. Today, Otsu is a built-up city.

Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan. Adolf de Meyer, 1900. A bit of a difference compared to the throngs of tourists and street hawkers you'll find on the street today.

Hokanji Temple (Yasaka Pagoda), Kyoto, Japan. Adolf de Meyer, 1900.

Cherry Trees in Blossom Along the Roadside. Adolf de Meyer, 1900.

Cherry Trees Along a Canal. Adolf de Meyer, 1900.

Self-Portrait in a Japanese House. Adolf de Meyer, 1900.

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