Visions of the Orient: Western Women Artists in Asia 1900-1940

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

The following article is from the Fall 2011 issue of Women in the Arts

Visions of the Orient: Western Women Artists in Asia 1900-1940 features four women artists, Helen Hyde (1868-1919), Bertha Lum (1869-1954), Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956), and Lilian Miller (1895-1943), who lived in Japan following the country’s 1853 ‘opening’ to the West for trade. During this period, Westerners quickly embraced the country’s novel imagery, and artists were drawn to Japan to see and interpret it firsthand. While male artists like Robert Blum (1857-1903), John La Farge (1835-1910), and Theodore Wores (1859-1939) took extended trips to paint while bolstering their reputations as globe-trotters, Hyde, Lum, Keith, and Miller made their homes in Japan to establish careers designing Japanese-style woodblock prints. They appropriated subjects, styles, techniques, and aesthetic theories, paying homage to the ‘exotic Orient’ while catering to Western audiences’ ideas of Asian cultures.

By 1900, Helen Hyde had set up residence in Tokyo as the first of the four women artists who, over the next three decades, would live in Japan and present ‘Oriental subjects’ for Western audiences. Hyde was soon followed by Lum, Keith, and Miller. The latter three artists all lived in Tokyo in 1920, keenly aware of Hyde’s legacy and one another’s work. These artists have each been studied individually, but this exhibition is the first to examine them as a group, and the first to focus on them as painters as well as printmakers.

All four artists lived independently of men – only Lum married, and she largely resided apart from her husband before they divorced – and their lives and careers were each, in different ways, centered on women. Their careers place them as ‘proto-Feminists,’ with women comprising many of their patrons, colleagues, and supporters, as well as their primary subjects. All four came from backgrounds of relative privilege. Although it was determination that took them across the Pacific, they used money and connections – in the political, business, and religious communities – to gain access to the Japanese artists, artisans, and publishers who helped them create and sell their art, as well as to the ‘native’ subjects who populate it. Their artwork was largely intended for expatriate residents of Asia, as well as armchair travelers in American and Europe.

The careers and artwork of these four women can be understood through Orientalism, Westerners’ skewed perception of Asian cultures based on the unequal power dynamic between the two regions. Yet, Hyde, Lum, Keith, and Miller demonstrate the complexity of an Orientalism that gave women a privileged role in interpreting Asian cultures, which Westerners often interpreted as representing a ‘feminine realm.’ Additionally, the genres of watercolor painting, woodblock printing, and travel literature were seen as appropriate spheres for women seeking a living in a world dominated by men. Visions of the Orient traces the artists’ shared themes: a romantic focus on ‘unchanging’ Asian tradition, an emphasis on the subjects of women, children, and gentle landscapes, and a stylish lyrical naturalism. It also demonstrates each artist’s distinctive interpretation of the Orient, as they shaped their desires into visions that would resonate with paying audiences.

Helen Hyde constructs Japan as an Eden of women and children, a world without men and beyond modernity. Set in gardens or in cozy interiors, her pictures are replete with symbols of nature and domestic comfort. In her paintings and self-published prints, which she called her ‘children,’ Hyde depicts an existence that she could create only partially in her own artistic Tokyo home. Raised in San Francisco and trained in Europe, Hyde lived in Japan from 1899 to 1915. In a letter from 1913, Hyde issued a de facto manifesto: ‘I started out you know to befoggle people’s intellect and critical sense, to go straight to the unguarded heart. And it seems to be what the children are eternally doing!’

In contrast to Hyde’s pastel and pastoral visions, Bertha Lum began depicting the exotica of ghostly Japan from her first trip there in 1903. Lum fashioned Japan, and later China (where she lived periodically from 1922 to 1953), as an ethereal place of glowing light, murky forests, and swirling waters, populated by mystical goddesses and Buddhist divinities. Lum’s sumptuous oils and self-published prints resent Asia as a place of magical transformation. She made a career selling dreams of enchantment to her countrymen and women, while escaping the drabness of Iowa where she was born, of Chicago where she attended art school, and of Minneapolis where she married. As Lum wrote in her book Gods, Goblins, and Ghosts (1922), ‘In the heart of the deep glorious night you know so well in the East, reality is brushed aside and only the forces beyond the shadows … are real.’

While Lum saw the Orient as a muse, Elizabeth Keith interpreted it as a museum. After journeying to Tokyo in 1915 to visit a sister living there, Keith stayed in Japan until 1924; she traveled widely in Asia through a network of missionaries and educators. In her paintings, woodblock prints (produced by the publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō), and colored lithographs, Keith sought to capture with ethnographic accuracy the customs and costumes of vanishing Asia, even if she had to provide her models with properly antique outfits. As Keith stated in an unpublished 1935 interview, ‘My own prints – good or bad – are faithful attempts to interpret the Far East as I see it, whether in Korea, China, the Philippines, or Japan.’ Through gathering, describing, and preserving, Keith constructed an Orient which she connected with emotionally and could control intellectually – in contrast to the chaos that she often experienced.

Lilian (‘Jack’) Miller looked for romantic inspiration in the landscapes and old temples where she had played since childhood. Born in Tokyo to missionary parents, Miller lived in Japan and Korea except for attending high school and college in the U.S. Miller was at home in Asia and trained under two Japanese ink painters. Yet in her self-produced prints, as in her poetry published in Grass Blades from a Cinnamon Garden (1928), Miller’s Orient is picturesque and pure. Miller wrote of her woodblock print The Crescent Moon Swings Low – Korea, ‘The pellucid atmosphere of the ‘Land of Morning Calm’ is one of its greatest beauties. Because of this clearness, the colors … are gloriously vivid, and the mountains … take on glowing shades of sapphire and ultramarine which are beyond the expression of the artist’s brush.’ Miller depicted the landscape as both a nurturing maternal presence and a dream lover, with gentle mountains, deep forests, and moonlit nights.

Visions of the Orient portrays Hyde, Lum, Keith, and Miller as painters, printmakers, and authors, showcasing their publications, art, and even blocks, proofs, tools, and seals. It also shows how they presented themselves – from personal letters, interviews, and essays – and how they were perceived in contemporary reviews. The exhibition addresses Orientalism, diverse creative reactions to Asia, and women artists’ struggles to build careers in the early twentieth century. Whether we see these artists as quiet rebels from patriarchy, or as seductive agents of colonialism, their visions of the Orient reveal a compelling chapter in trans-Pacific culture.

Kendall H. Brown, curator of Visions of the Orient, is a professor of Asian art history of California State University, Long Beach.

Visions of the Orient is organized by the Pacific Asia Museum with the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. The presentation of Visions of the Orient at NMWA is supported by its members.


Brown, Kendall H., ‘Visions of the Orient: Western Women Artists in Asia 1900-1940,’ Women in the Arts (Fall 2011): 22-25.

1. Bertha Lum’s The Dragon Well. Brown, ‘Visions of the Orient,’ 23.’
2. Bertha Lum’s Tanabata. Brown, ‘Visions of the Orient,’ 24.
3. Helen Hyde’s Baby Talk. Brown, ‘Visions of the Orient,’ 24.
4. Helen Hyde’s The Bath. Brown, ‘Visions of the Orient,’ 24.
5. Elizabeth Keith’s Waiting for the Flight/Moro Boy. Brown, ‘Visions of the Orient,’
6. Lilian Miller’s East Mountain, Kyoto Dusk. Brown, ‘Visions of the Orient,’ 24.

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