Winnifred Eaton and Genjiro Yeto: The Asian-American Artists Behind A Japanese Nightingale
August 1, 2019
The second half of the nineteenth century saw the peak of an artistic movement known as Japonisme, or the use of Japanese inspired design elements in European and American art. In 1854 with the Treaty of Kanagawa, trade opened between Japan and the United States for the first time in 200 years. American artists were drawn to the “purity” and “originality” that they saw in Japanese art. James McNeill Whistler, a well-known American artist based in the United Kingdom who often painted in the Japonisme style, is quoted to have said of this newfound interest in Japanese design, “grafted on the tired stump of Europe, the vital shoots of Oriental art.” Some of these design elements included the use of strong diagonals; large, flat fields of color; symmetry of forms; abrupt cropping of figures at the edge of the picture plane; depictions of women wearing kimonos; and an interest in incorporating nature. What began as a borrowing, or appropriation, of Japanese art soon developed into unique stylistic movements such as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau.
Most of the well- known artists who participated in Japonisme were white men such as Whistler or the American Impressionist painters Childe Hassam and John H. Twachtman. Women and other minority artists were far less represented and often had trouble breaking into the “fine arts” market. One avenue that was open to them was the field of the so called “minor” art of book cover design. In order to investigate the works of women and Asian American who participated in the Japonisme movement through book design and popular illustration, the Delaware Art Museum currently has on view a small exhibit titled Japonisme in American Book Design. This exhibit is comprised of a number of books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as a ukiyo-e style woodblock print by the artist Bertha Lum.
One of the books currently on view is A Japanese Nightingale. Published in 1901, this book is somewhat unique within the American Japonisme movement in that it was both written and illustrated by Asian-American artists. A romance containing similar themes as John Luther Long’s Madame Butterfly, this novel played into the popularity of casting exotically beautiful Japanese women as love interests for white men. The story follows a young American man named Jack vacationing in Japan for a number of months. Before leaving on his trip he promises a good friend with half-Japanese ancestry to not engage in the common practice of wealthy American men taking a young Japanese “wife” for the extent of their stay in the country. Despite his promises, and even recognizing the harm these temporary “marriages” have on the women and potential children, Jack falls in love with the beauty of the young Yuki and partners with her. Unlike the tragic ending of Madame Butterfly and other Japanese inspired romances of this kind, A Japanese Nightingale concludes, after a plot-twist and a desperate search, with Yuki and Jack happily married for real. A Japanese Nightingale was soon adapted into a play and opened on Broadway in 1903.
Onoto Watanna, the author of A Japanese Nightingale, was in fact a pen name for the novelist, journalist, and eventual screen writer Winnifred Eaton. Eaton was born in Montreal to a British father and Chinese mother. She moved to New York City around the turn of the century and A Japanese Nightingale was her first novel published in the United States. It has been suggested that Eaton took on the pseudonym of “Onoto Watanna” to hide her Chinese ancestry and escape the persecution of Chinese-Americans following racist government policies such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Nevertheless, casting herself as a woman of Japanese ancestry also allowed Eaton to capitalize on American interest in Japanese subjects and artistic styles. Eaton went on to pen a number of other Japanese romances including The Wooing of Wistaria, The Heart of Hyacinth, and The Love of Azalea, all of which are included in the Japonisme in American Book Design exhibit. By the early 1920’s Eaton was working as a screenwriter in addition to continuing as a novelist. This work in Hollywood continued until her retirement in the 1930s. Eaton seems not to have enjoyed her time as a screenwriter as she wrote negatively about her experience in articles for Motion Picture Magazine.
The cover art, while unsigned, may have been designed by Genjiro Yeto, who composed all of the illustrations and interior decoration. Yeto was born in Japan to an artist family, and was active in the United States between 1890 and 1911. It has been suggested that Yeto participated in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, at this point being financially able to devote himself entirely to art. There he would have been introduced to major works by the American Impressionists. This likely influenced his decision to enroll in the Art Students League in New York where he soon became a student of landscape and genre painters Robert Blum and John H. Twachtman, both of whom were influenced by the Japonisme movement. Yeto followed Twachtman to the Cos Cob art colony in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1896 for a summer course, and experience which would have a profound impact on Yeto. He would spend part of every year at Cos Cob, boarding at Holley House with a number of other artists and art students including Twachtman and Childe Hasam, until 1901. The denizens of Holley House, “embraced Yeto as an incarnation of the culture they had long admired.” The house soon saw a number of traditional tea ceremonies and depictions of the front porch show hanging paper lanterns. Yeto soon gained a number of book design commissions including A Japanese Nightingale. The book contains three color plates that were illustrated by Yeto, as well as monochromatic decorative illustrations that permeate every page. Reviews of A Japanese Nightingale proclaimed, “No scheme of pictorial display could be better suited to the pages, or more in harmony with the simple story,” and called the book, “one of the most unique and artistic specimens of book-making recently issued.” Yeto continued his career with book illustration and cover design, and eventually also became well known for his watercolors of floral designs. Several other of Yeto’s works, such as the cover for the 1903 edition of Madame Butterfly, are included in the Japonisme in American Book Design exhibit.
To learn more about Winnifred Eaton, Genjiro Yeto, and other artists who participated in the Japonisme movement, please visit the exhibit Japonisme in American Book Design, located next to the Kid’s Corner and Special Collections Library.
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