The subject of this painting is probably the USS Powhatan, Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship on his second expedition to Japan in 1854. The previous year Perry had come to Japan, delivered a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the shogun’s officials, and left, promising to return. Perry’s 1854 expedition, larger than the first, comprised seven ships. Inset at the upper-left corner are portraits of Commodore Perry and his deputy, Henry Adams.
The black-hulled American warships, particularly the steam frigates that puffed smoke “like dragons,” frightened the Japanese and at the same time fascinated them, no ship more so than the Powhatan, which had been built in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1852. The artist Shinsei, about whom little is known, depicted the warship in typical Japanese style, with flat planes and fine details enhanced by decorative patterns of ocean waves and rising smoke.
The Perry Expedition
In 1852 the United States Congress and President Millard Fillmore appointed Commodore Matthew Perry to lead an expedition to Japan. The Perry Expedition, as it came to be known, had several goals: to secure the opening of one or more Japanese ports for trade as well as to provide a place for American ships to obtain supplies and fuel. The expedition also sought to ensure that the Japanese would come to the aid of American seamen in nearby waters if the need arose. Perry was further directed to gather information on Japan and conduct a survey of Japanese coastal waters. Perry sailed to Japan with a squadron in 1853. The following year he successfully concluded negotiations for the Kanagawa Treaty, in which Japan agreed to America’ s requests, thus marking the beginning of formal relations between the two countries. A respected military strategist, Commodore Perry was also a literary man. A highly informative and magnificently illustrated narrative on his expeditions was compiled—from his original notes and journals and those kept by officers—under his supervision by Francis L. Hawks and published under the title Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy, by Order of the Government of the United States (3 vols., Washington, D.C., 1856).