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The American merchant Eugene Van Reed

The American merchant Eugene Van Reed, by Hashimoto Sadahide

The American merchant Eugene Van Reed, by Hashimoto Sadahide (Japanese, 1807-1873), 1861. Ink and colors on silk. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mrs. Noble T. Biddle, 2001.8. 

The artist, Sadahide, represents an early American merchant in Japan as a rather proud figure on horseback. The merchant’ s Japanese attendant has on his jacket a medallion with an American eagle and the U.S. shield.

A 24-year-old Eugene Van Reed went to Japan in 1859, only six years after Commodore Perry’ s mission. Van Reed spent thirteen years in Yokohama working variously as a clerk in the American consulate, a trader, an arms dealer, and a travel agent for Japanese people wishing to visit the United States. He is best known— or most infamous— for his activities during the latter years of this period.  According to the website of the Japanese American National Museum: “In 1868, Van Reed sent a group of approximately 150 Japanese to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations and another 40 people to Guam. This unauthorized recruitment and shipment of laborers, known as the gannenmono, marked the beginning of Japanese labor migration overseas. However, for the next two decades the Meiji government prohibited the departure of ‘ immigrants’ due to the slavelike treatment that the first Japanese migrants received in Hawai’ i and Guam.”

This painting of Van Reed was donated in 1918 by Margaretta Van Reed Biddle, who was Van Reed’ s sister. They were born in Pennsylvania but lived in San Francisco after their father moved the family to California just after the Gold Rush of 1849. Presumably her brother commissioned Sadahide to paint his portrait and later gave it or bequeathed it to his sister.  The bamboo frame is likely to have been on the painting when it was donated in 1918. In fact, the frame could possibly be original to the painting. Japanese paintings did not traditionally have such frames, but this frame could have been chosen by Van Reed.

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).