Credited with advancing Japanese woodblock printmaking in the United States, Helen Hyde flourished in the era of Japonisme, a fascination with Japanese art and culture. Though some critics have suggested that her flat expanses of color and decorative effects are evidence of her engagement with the Arts and Crafts movement, her delicate application of color and preference for the artisanal workshop system align her work with the Japanese aesthetic so popular in the late nineteenth century.
Not long after her birth in 1868, Hyde’s parents left their home in New York to establish a residence in Oakland, California. There, Helen and her two sisters received instruction befitting young ladies of the day. It was at her father’s insistence that twelve-year-old Helen undertook art lessons from a neighbor, Ferdinand Richardt, a Danish-American landscape painter. In 1886, she enrolled in the San Francisco School of Design, where she took classes from the Impressionist painter Emil Carlsen; two years later, she transferred to the Art Students League in New York, studying there with Kenyon Cox.
Hyde’s introduction to the Japanese aesthetic that would define her mature style occurred during her travels through Europe between 1890 and 1894. She visited Germany, Holland, and England, but spent the majority of her time in Paris. As the city’s most prestigious academy did not accept female students, Hyde pursued private instruction from prominent teachers. She was also inspired by a monumental exhibition of Japanese prints shown at the École des Beaux-Arts, works which also influenced the careers of Mary Cassatt and Arthur Wesley Dow. When her submissions to the annual Salon exhibition were repeatedly rejected, Hyde became discouraged and returned home in 1894. Settling in San Francisco, Hyde explored her craft, sketching children in nearby Chinatown and acquiring rudimentary knowledge of color etching. It was during this period that Hyde earned the endorsement of the Ashcan painter William Macbeth who sold her work in his New York gallery. She also enjoyed success as a book illustrator.
At the age of thirty-one, Hyde moved to Japan, where she would reside, with only brief interruptions, until 1914. In addition to learning classical Japanese brushwork from Kano Tomonobu, she also studied with Emil Orlik, an Austrian artist working in Tokyo. Orlik sought to renew the old ukiyo-e tradition in what became the shin hanga (“new woodcut prints”) art movement. Although Orlik taught her to carve woodblocks, Hyde later deferred to established Japanese artisan tradition and hired a printmaker to carve woodblocks based on her drawings. Hyde’s prints depict a world without men, occupied by only women and their children. At a time when many artists focused on the bleak urban landscape and mass industrialization, Hyde—who wore kimonos and personalized her clothing and property with her Japanese crest—favored more conventional images of the natural landscape and family domesticity. Her love affair with pre-industrial Japan waned, however, when the Japanese Empire began urging westernization following the Russo-Japanese War. Suffering from poor health, she returned to the United States in 1914.
Having found restored health and new inspiration during an extended trip to Mexico in 1911, Hyde continued to seek out warmer climates and new subject matter. During the winter of 1916, Hyde was a houseguest at Chicora Wood, the Georgetown, South Carolina, plantation illustrated by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith in Elizabeth Allston Pringle’s 1914 book A Woman Rice Planter. The Lowcountry was a revelation for Hyde. She temporarily put aside her woodcuts and began creating sketches and intaglio etchings of Southern genre scenes and African Americans at work. During her stay, Hyde encouraged Smith’s burgeoning interest in Japanese printmaking and later helped facilitate an exhibition of Smith’s prints at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hyde’s paintings and prints appeared in exhibitions at the Paris Salon, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Today, her work can be found in the collections of prestigious public institutions, including the de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum, and the New York Public Library.