The Heritage of Hiroshige

Heritage of Hiroshige cover
Cover of “The Heritage of Hiroshige” with Japanese-style binding

Japanese connoisseurs are inclined to wonder at the fast-growing demand in the Occident for good examples of the art of ukiyo-ye color printing. Why, they ask, should Americans and Europeans pay great prices for these prints when, for a little more money and the expenditure of a little more pains, they can buy original paintings—if not the very greatest artists, at least men whose productions are above the mediocre?

It is a curious little problem, but the solution is by no means difficult. We collect Japanese prints for the same reason that many of us prefer a coin of Syracuse to a relief by Phidias, Botticelli’s lovely drawings of children to his paintings, the Great Anthology to Oedipus, the Vita Nuova to the Divine Comedy. We love these things because they are simpler, nearer to ourselves than the masterpieces, because we cannot understand the greatest things.

Heritage of Hiroshige cover back
Back cover of “Heritage of Hiroshige”, with roundel of a dragonfly

The San Francisco firm of Paul Elder & Co. has obtained an enviable reputation by its publications of illustrated works on Japanese art.

So wrote reviewer “L. C.” in the New York Times on 15 September 1912 about Dora Amsden’s Heritage of Hiroshige. The book tells the story of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) as seen through the art collection of John Stewart Happer (1863-1936). For Dora Amsden (1853-1947), it was her second work on Japanese art for Paul Elder, following Impressions of Ukiyo-ye in 1905.

This is a very handsome book, and the paper, binding, and art reproductions are high-quality. Although Elder was known for skimping on production costs for many of his books, he clearly did not do so here. Two different bindings are known (see photos).

Heritage of Hiroshige cover2
Alternate binding for “The Heritage of Hiroshige”

L. C. finishes his Times review with a bleak portrait of Japan in 1912:

There is something very saddening about these books, now appearing so frequently, dealing with the old arts of Japan. It was only a little over a half a century ago that Hiroshige died, and in that half century Japan has become a “great power”—and has lost her arts, her poetry, her romance, and her happiness. Some Japanese are trying to organize a “revival” of the ancient arts of their country. It is a vain hope, a beating of the wind. Modern “civilization” acts on art and on romance as a biting acid on a delicate substance, a miasma that withers and destroys. A hundred years ago the Japanese, despite the suppressions of the feudal system, were undoubtedly the happiest people in the world. Today the factories in their cities grind hundreds of thousands into neurasthenia and death more pitilessly than any cotton mill in the Southern United States. They are paying for their “progress”—and they are paying dear.

Heritage of Hiroshige title
Title page of “The Heritage of Hiroshige”
Heritage of Hiroshige p08
“The Heritage of Hiroshige” p8-9
Heritage of Hiroshige p36
“The Heritage of Hiroshige” p36-7. The image is the well-known memorial portrait of Hiroshige by Kunisada

The Paul Elder Gallery

The gallery at Paul Elder's Post St store (1921-1948)

Can a bookstore also be an art gallery? If the bookstore was Paul Elder & Company, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

Elder had learned about the book business while working for William Doxey at his bookstore in the Palace Hotel on Market Street. But while photos of Doxey’s shop show nothing but books, Elder’s stores included a healthy dose of objets d’art: paintings, prints, pottery, metalwork. This was the influence of Morgan Shepard, Elder’s partner from 1898 until 1903. Shepard was both an author and an artist, and he decorated the original 238 Post store (1898-1903).

Art objects were for sale from the beginning, but it wasn’t until 1909 that Elder had a lecture hall/exhibition space within the bookstore. Both the 239 Grant store (1909-1921) and the 239 Post store (1921-1948) had gallery rooms. The photo at right shows the Post St gallery adorned with Asian prints.

How many exhibitions did Elder host? Very many. Years ago I started making a list of all the artists’ shows at the Paul Elder Gallery, but I gave up when the count grew past fifty. It seems that the gallery was never empty for long.