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Japonisme: Western Fever for Japanese Art and Culture

James McNeill Whistler, Capricein Purple and Gold. The Golden Screen, 1864, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Japanese art

Japonisme: Western Fever for Japanese Art and Culture

During the mid 19th and 20th centuries, Western art saw the birth of Japonisme. The term was coined by Philippe Burty in 1872 and it refers to the craze of Japanese culture in Europe. In a time when artists started to reject traditional art-making, Japanese aesthetics seemed like a breath of fresh air. They loved its flatness, vibrant colors, depiction of nature, and stylization. It inspired them to try new techniques, compositions, and themes. Now, let’s take a trip through art history and see how Japanese art influenced Western art.

Japonisme. James Tissot, Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects, 1869, Private collection.
James Tissot, Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects, 1869, private collection. Wikipedia (public domain).

The Meiji Restoration

The year 1867 was the start of a new era for Japan. During the Tokugawa or Edo period (1603-1867), their authorities feared any sort of foreign influence. Therefore, they isolated themselves. However, the stability started to crumble and Western pressure to open commerce, especially from the United States, grew. Furthermore, the samurai’s economy weakened and they orchestrated a coup. As a result, the emperor regained his power and changed the way of administrating the country. Consequently, the fears of the former regime became true and the country suffered Westernization. However, the West did not remain immune to Japanese influence either.

Japan, Je t’Aime

In 1854, the Japanese ports reopened for Western ships. As a result, objects and artworks traveled to Europe, fascinating everyone. For example, fashion came up with the “pagoda” dress, inspired by the architectural form of some Asian cultures. Moreover, interior design introduced Japanese elements into people’s homes. And, who can forget the famous Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini which premiered in 1904 in La Scala? The opera was based on works of literature. The sources were the novel Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti and the short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long. 

From left to right: Pagoda dress, Recollections; Gabriel Viardot, Display Cabinet, ca. 1895, Corning Museum of Glass, New York, NY, USA; Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Poster for Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, 1904, library and archive of the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan, Italy.
From left to right: Pagoda dress. Recollections; Gabriel Viardot, Display Cabinet, ca. 1895, Corning Museum of Glass, New York, NY, USA; Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Poster for Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, 1904, library and archive of the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan, Italy.

Some objects appeared in large exhibitions such as the World’s Fair in Paris and Vienna. However, others arrived with much less pomp and circumstance. For example, James McNeill Whistler discovered prints in a Chinese tea room in London Bridge. Regardless, Japanese art and culture influenced both impressionism and post-impressionism and beyond.

Left: Japanese ceramics in the Japan Pavilion, 1889, Paris, France; right: Japan pavilion, 1900, Paris, France.
Left: Japanese ceramics in the Japan Pavilion, 1889, Paris, France. Marc Maison; Right: Japan pavilion, 1900, Paris, France. Marc Maison.

When Impressionists Met Ukiyo-e Prints

One of the most influential styles was ukiyo-e, meaning images from the floating world. This was a traditional form of woodblock print from the Edo period. It depicts hedonistic scenes from urban society. For example, among the various themes are courtesans, Kabuki actors, and romantic landscapes.

Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, from Thirty-three Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY, USA.
Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, from Thirty-three Views of Mount Fuji, ca. 1830, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Claude Monet was one of the impressionists most visibly inspired by Japanese art. Apparently, he saw ukiyo-e prints for the first time as wrapping paper in Holland. In fact, his wife’s portrait wearing a kimono is surrounded by Japanese fans. Of course, his famous garden reflects his love for that culture. Furthermore, he collected dozens of prints that still decorate his house in Giverny, France today.

Japonisme. Left: Claude Monet, Madame Monet wearing a kimono, 1875, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA; right: Claude Monet, Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge, 1899, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, USA.
Left: Claude Monet, Madame Monet wearing a kimono, 1875, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA; Right: Claude Monet, Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge, 1899, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Paint like a Japanese

Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas also represented Japonisme. Rather than depicting Japanese subjects, both friends adopted Japanese techniques to their works. Subsequently, Cassatt moved away from tridimensionality and used flat colors to represent scenes of women’s lives instead.

Japonisme. Left: Kitagawa Utamaro, 1790, Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, USA; right: Mary Cassatt, 1890-1, Maternal Caress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, USA.
Left: Kitagawa Utamaro, Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child, 1790, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA; Right: Mary Cassatt, Maternal Caress, 1890-1, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Meanwhile, Degas exposed his Japonisme through his famous dancers. In Japan, there was a fear of fullness, which contrasted with the Western fear of emptiness in art. Therefore we can see big spaces with nothing but flat colors. Additionally, he incorporated asymmetry into his compositions. Just take a look at the painting below. In the academic tradition, the dancers would have been placed at the center of the canvas, the perspective would have been perfect and we wouldn’t be seeing those flat colors.

Japonisme. Edgar Degas, 1877, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY, USA.
Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Post-Impressionism and Japonisme

Without a doubt, one of the post-impressionists painters most representative of Japonisme was Vincent Van Gogh. Actually, he wouldn’t stop talking about it in his letters to his brother, Théo.

“All my work is a little based on japoniserie, (…) Japanese art in decline in its homeland takes root in French impressionist artists.”

Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Théo van Gogh, Arles, 1888. Art d’histoire.

Indeed we can see the influence in his paintings. For example, in this portrait below of Julian-Francois Tanguy (1825-1894). Tanguy owned an art supply shop in Paris and helped many artists by showing their works, including van Gogh. Furthermore, it was in this city where van Gogh met Japanese art as well as Impressionism. The background in this portrait consists of Japanese prints.

Japonisme. Vincent van Gogh, 1887, Portrait of Père Tanguy, Musée Rodin, Paris, France.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887, Musée Rodin, Paris, France.

In fact, he was a great admirer of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Sometimes he even made copies of Japanese artworks.

Japonisme. Left: Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; right: Vincent van Gogh, 1887, Flowering plum tree (after Hiroshige), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Left: Utagawa Hiroshige, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, 1857, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Right: Vincent van Gogh, Flowering plum tree (after Hiroshige), 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Van Gogh’s friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was another follower of Japonisme. Later on, his famous posters drew from Japanese techniques, silhouettes, flat colors, diagonal compositions, and cut-off images.

Japonisme: Left: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris. Right: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895, Divan japonais, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Left: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893, Wikimedia commons (public domain); Right: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan japonais, 1895, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Art Nouveau and Japonisme

It’s no surprise that Art Nouveau and Japonisme went hand in hand. Siegfried Bing, owner of the art gallery Maison de l’Art Nouveau, was an important promoter of Japanese art. He not only exhibited paintings but everyday objects taking from Japanese aesthetics. Moreover, Bing commissioned works from the Nabis artists such as Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis.

Pierre Bonnard, 1899, Nannies' Promenade, Frieze of Carriages, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY, USA.
Pierre Bonnard, Nannies’ Promenade, Frieze of Carriages, 1899, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

We can definitely see those Japanese elements from previous works. For example, in Pierre Bonnard‘s piece. Here we find again those big empty spaces, the diagonal composition, the flatness, the silhouette in S, and the folded screen.

The Viennese Secession and Japanese Art

“What we are trying to do is what the Japanese have always done and no one can imagine machine-made arts and crafts in Japan.”

Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, The Work-Program of the Wiener Werkstätte, 1905. Coursehero.

For the artists of the Viennese Secession, Japanese craftmanship contrasted with Western industrialization. They wanted to return to a time when everything was made with care and dedication, not modern mass-production. In this way, they shared with Art Nouveau the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning the total work of art. For this, nature is the ultimate example. Furthermore, they were drawn to the elongated forms, the verticality of the compositions, the flatness, and abstraction of Japanese works.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-8, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Belvedere Palace, Vienna, Austria.
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-8, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

No one was crazier for Japanese art than Gustav Klimt. He not only applied those elements into his works but even dressed in a sort of kimono and collected prints. Certainly, his paintings do feel like floating worlds.

So, this is how Japan took over Western art. It started with academic paintings of women wearing kimonos surrounded by Japanese objects. Later the artists reached an internalization of Japanese aesthetics in the Viennese Secession.

“Japanese art is important as a teacher. From it, we once again learn to feel clearly how far we have strayed from nature’s true designs through the persistent imitation of fixed models; we learn how necessary it is to draw from the source; how the human spirit is able to absorb a wealth of magnificent, naive beauty from the organic forms of nature in place of pedantic, decrepit rigidity of form.”

Julius Lessing, report from the Paris Exposition Universelle, 1878. Art Nouveau Club.

Works referenced


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An International Relations graduate and an art lover. I prefer art prior to the 20th century, in general. I’m interested in art from Mexico and by female artists.

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