Bertha Lum made a significant contribution to the Japonisme movement with her woodblock prints and paintings. Lum's prints combine sinuous Art-Nouveau curves with flat planes of color that harken back to 19th century ukiyo-e. The subject of her work ranges from children to landscapes to mysterious figures from Asian folklore and legend. Perhaps because she was a foreigner and could only experience Asian life on the outside, Lum envisioned Asia as an exotic, magical place full of lantern light, swirling smoke, and smiling women, a vision which still appeals to viewers today.
Bertha Lum was born Bertha Boynton Bull in Tipton, Iowa to parents who were amateur artists. Although her family was not well-off, she was able to study for a year at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1895, and apparently worked as an artist during her youth. Around this time there were several important exhibitions which helped to popularize Japanese art and culture in America, including the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Lum's interest in Japanese prints may also have stemmed from Arthur Wesley Dow's art textbook, 'Composition', which featured his own color woodblock prints. In 1902, one of Lum's art teachers, Frank Holme, was inspired to try his hand at color printmaking. It would not be long before Lum got a similar opportunity.
In 1903, Bertha married Bert Lum, a corporate lawyer, and persuaded him to travel to Japan on their honeymoon. Lum was expecting to find many artists working as printmakers, but during this time, Japanese printmaking was in serious decline. It would be several years before the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo revitalized traditional Japanese printmaking with the shin hanga movement. Fortunately, on one of her last days in Yokohama, Lum happened across an old printmaking shop. She was able to learn a little about the printmaking technique and buy the necessary tools to get started.
It would be four years before Lum was able to return to Japan for further study. In the meantime, she made several noteworthy woodblock prints. These prints clearly show the influence of both French Impressionism and ukiyo-e. Theatre Street, made by Lum in 1905, employs a diagonal perspective that is similar in composition to prints by Hiroshige. But unlike crisply outlined ukiyo-e designs, Lum's work is softly printed with rich clouds of light and shadow. Lum only used a few sharp outlines in the foreground to delineate the figures closest to the viewer. The other figures fade into the misty night, giving the print a sense of drama and depth.
In 1907, Lum made her second trip to Japan, primarily to learn more about Japanese printmaking. Through a letter of introduction, Lum was able to study carving in the workshop of Bonkotsu Igami, a master carver. Lum worked there every day for two months, being taught mainly by Igami's two 12-year old apprentices. After Igami was satisfied with her level of competency at carving, he introduced her to a master printer. Lum learned by watching printers work from her own blocks, and later practiced their techniques of subtle gradients and layered colors. During her early years, Lum insisted on carving and printing her own prints, and she became masterful at both skills. However on subsequent trips to Japan, Lum decided to hire carvers and printers to work under her direct supervision. The Japanese system of collaborative printmaking was more practical and efficient than working alone. It made sense for Lum to work this way, as she was not only trying to establish herself as an artist, but also to raise two young children.
After Lum's third visit to Tokyo in 1911, her prints were featured in the Tenth Annual Art Exhibit in Ueno Park in 1912. She was the only Western artist in the show, and her prints were remarkably modern compared to her Japanese contemporaries. Based on the enthusiastic response to her work, Lum soon had print exhibitions at galleries in Chicago and New York. Lum's work was increasingly influenced by the stories of Lafcadio Hearn, a Westerner who translated Japanese legends and fairy tales into popular books.