Portrait of the Week #13: Charles Wirgman

Charles Wirgman (1835 – 1891) was one of those engaging, eccentric, polyglot personalities who adventured around the Far East in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many deserved their reputation as semi-criminals out for quick money, but Wirgman, though probably never rich, has nowhere left an image of such avariciousness. He was correspondent of the Illustrated London News in Japan in the 1860s, where he arrived in April 1861, and was a vital eye-witness observer of the opening of the country. Active in the treaty port press, he founded his own satirical review, the Japan Punch, in Yokohama in May 1862. He contributed in part to the development of Meiji oil painting by training Goseda Yoshimatsu, and Takahashi Yuichi, and indirectly contributing to that of several others….

Wirgman died in 1891, and was to be followed by his Japanese wife Kane in 1897 and their son Ichiro, himself married but childless, in 1922. However, his reputation and his importance were never eclipsed by the later and much richer growth of Japanese oil painting. His work was also exhibited in the retrospective of Japanese oil painting by members at Yuichi’s studio in 1893. There was probably an exhibition in 1904 in Yokohama, and there were other retrospectives in Tokyo in 1937 and Yokohama in 1970.

Despite its limitations, Wirgman’s work has always remained as the first significant body of drawings and paintings by a western artist in Japan and with which Japanese were in contact. He is also one of the few western artists to be buried there.

This is an extract from a biography by John Clark. The full biographies for each Portrait of the Week are contained in the Japan Society series Biographical Portraits (Vols. I – VIII). If you would like to purchase any of these volumes, they can be found online in the Japan Society Shop, with a special discount for members.

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