A Life in Prints: Mary A. Ainsworth and the Floating World

February 3 – June 7, 2015
Ripin Gallery

In 1906, seventeen years after her graduation from Oberlin College, Mary A. Ainsworth embarked on a sea voyage that would forever change her life. Traveling on her own in Japan, she encountered the “Floating World” of woodblock prints of the Edo period (1603–1868) and began to collect these fascinating images.

The Floating World, or ukiyo, was the term for an underground realm of popular culture and entertainment peopled with geishas, kabuki actors, and sumo wrestlers, and supported by a rising class of merchants and artisans who lived in Japan’s urban areas. This group had gained in wealth—but not political status—as the economy became more diversified in the 18th century. “Pictures of the Floating World,” ukiyo-e, most often referred to woodblock prints of the people and places of that realm.

Unusual for a woman in her day, by the early 1930s Ainsworth had gathered one of the most significant collections of Japanese prints found anywhere in America, and she bequeathed it to the AMAM in 1950. A Life in Prints presents a historical overview of ukiyo-e using highlights of this extraordinary collection along with rare books and other materials.

Represented are such artists as Suzuki Harunobu, the first major producer of full-color woodblock prints; Kitagawa Utamaro, the foremost master of “beauty pictures,” known as bijinga; and Torii Kiyonaga, famous for prints of women who appear tall and graceful even when doing household chores.

After an 1842 government crackdown on subjects deemed inappropriate, Katsushika Hokusai and others turned to “bird and flower” prints, idyllic scenes of the countryside, and scenes of virtuous heroes. A strength of the collection from this time is Utagawa Hiroshige’s series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, of which the museum has an entire set. The exhibition concludes with prints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Japan rapidly industrialized following centuries of isolation.

The exhibition is accompanied by QR codes that you may scan with your smartphone for more in-depth information related to select works on view.

A Life in Prints was organized by Kevin Greenwood, the Joan L. Danforth Assistant Curator of Asian Art.

Related Event:
February 5, 5:30 p.m.
Art Building, Classroom 1

AMAM First Thursday: A talk titled “Bringing Home the Five-Legged Cow: Sherman E. Lee’s Collecting of Chinese Painting,” by Noelle Giuffrida, assistant professor of East Asian art at Case Western Reserve University, focuses on the former Cleveland Museum of Art director and his relationships with German expatriate collector-dealer Walter Hochstadter, Cleveland collector Helen Wade Greene Perry, and Japanese dealer Setsu Inosuke. Each played a key role in facilitating Lee’s acquisition of important Asian paintings for Cleveland during the 1950s and 60s.

Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (Japanese, 1725–1770)
Woman Throwing a Snowball at a Girl Reading a Love Letter, late 1760s
Color woodblock print
Mary A. Ainsworth Bequest, 1950.245