What is Japonism?
Ever since about 1700, there had been a continuing interest in Oriental design and culture in western Europe. Japanese blue and white porcelain was already reproduced across the Continent, notably at the Meissen works in Germany, and the Chantilly factory in France. Japanese ceramic art, too, was quite influential in Europe by the early 18th century, as was Japanese lacquer. At the same time, specialist collectors were already importing highly refined, classical Japanese paintings (yamato-e), from the Kamakura and Muromachi Shogunates (1185-1573), as well as the early period of the Tokugawa Shogunate (c.1600-1850). Thus by the 19th century, Japanese works of both fine art and applied art were becoming available in ever increasing quantities. (For other Far Eastern fashions, see: Chinoiserie and Chinese Art.)
This growth in cultural contacts with Japan was given a major boost during the period 1848-1854, as a series of new treaty obligations forced Japan to commence trading with Europe and America thus putting an end to 200 years of national isolation. By 1852, The Museum of Ornamental Art in London (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) already had an extensive collection of Japanese works of art, while a series of exhibitions (London 1851, Dublin 1853, Edinburgh 1856 and 1857, Manchester 1857, and Bristol 1861) introduced Japanese art to the general public, culminating in the 1862 International Exhibition in London - one of the most important and influential showcases in the history of oriental art in the West. This was followed in 1867 by the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in Paris, which included a Japanese pavilion for the first time. A year later, a revolution in Japan returns the Meiji Emperor to power and adds a further stimulus to trade with the West. In 1878, another World Fair in Paris provides yet more opportunities to exhibit new artworks from Japan.
The real history of Japonism, however,
began in Paris in the early 1860s with the sudden craze for Japanese ukiyo-e
woodblock prints. These cheap but colourful prints had become so common
in Japan that they were used as packaging materials for more valuable
artifacts. For example, the first copy of Katsushika Hokusai's masterpiece
The Hokusai Manga (1811) seen by French artist Felix Bracquemond,
had been used to wrap a consignment of porcelain. In 1862, La Porte
Chinoise, a shop selling a variety of Japonaiserie including
ukiyo-e prints, opened in the Rue de Rivoli, the highly fashionable
shopping street in Paris. Meanwhile, a flood of articles about Japanese
aesthetics, as well as techniques
of painting and traditional folk
art, began to appear in the French press, adding to the frenzy for
oriental culture. (Japanese aesthetics also began to appear in English
educational art books. For example, the signature Japanese use of areas
of flat colour was included in Owen Jones' textbook The Grammar of
Ornament, 1856.) In addition, several influential English individuals
and collectors began promoting Japanese art. They included Samuel Bing
(1838-1905) who published a magazine entitled Le Japon Artistique
to complement his Japanese art shop in Paris in the 1880s, patronized,
among others, by Van Gogh (1853-90) and Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901).
Another enthusiast for Japanese culture was Sir Rutherford Alcock (British
Ambassador in Tokyo from 1859) who helped to organize the official Japanese
stand at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, as was the English
botanist and designer Christopher Dresser (18341904) who visited
Japan in 1876 as the official guest of the country. Also, a number of
Japanese art dealers were active in Paris, such as Tadamasa Hayashi and
Ukiyo-e prints, as well as Japanese paintings, were widely admired by European artists for their refreshingly non-European characteristics: in particular, their asymmetrical compositions, use of strong diagonals and silhouettes, use of bold cropping techniques, elongated pictorial formats, aerial perspective and other new angles of vision, and a focus on expressively decorative motifs. Large 'flat' (unshaded) areas of vibrant colour were also conspicuous. Most of these characteristics of Japanese art were a direct contradiction of traditional Western academic art and were welcomed by 19th century artists, as a source of new ideas. Ukiyo-e images, for instance, with their curvilinear lines, patterned surfaces and flat picture-planes, were a major source of inspiration for Post-Impressionist styles like Synthetism (1888-94), Cloisonnism (1888-94) and the Nabis (1890s), as well as Art Nouveau (c.1890-1914), Jugendstil (c.1890s-1914) and Vienna Secession (1897-1939). Some compositional features, such as spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of colour and line, and the use of bold, unshaded colour in flatter compositions, helped to pave the way for the revolution in abstract art which began in the late 1900s, with the advent of Cubism. Japanese design (furniture, books, paper, architecture, gardens) also influenced Victorian art - notably the English Arts and Crafts Movement - from the late 1880s onwards.
The American painter Whistler (1834-1903), one of the earliest devotees of Japonism, was responsible for several Japanese-style paintings, including: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65, Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC). He also introduced the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Japanese art, thus initiating a Japonist cult within this Bohemian circle.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) adopted elements of Japanese painting in both his portraiture and landscapes. In portrait art, for instance, we have his Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume (1875, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); while his Japonist-style landscape painting is exemplified by Apple Trees in Blossom (1873, Private Collection), with its lightness of touch, and gentle colouring. See also the Japanese-style spindly bushes and asymmetrical composition in The Church and the Seine at Vetheuil (1881, Private Collection). Monet also designed his own Japanese-style water garden at Giverny, where he painted a huge number of aquatic landscapes, including the Japonist Water Lily Pond (1899, Philadelphia Museum of Art), and The Japanese Bridge (1918-24, Musee-Marmottan, Paris).
After attending the major 1890 exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, the American Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was inspired by the Japanese woodcuts of Utamaro (c.17531806), and went on to create a series of ten colour etchings in homage to his works. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) went one step further and made use of traditional Japanese woodcut techniques both in his Synthetist movement and in individual works like The Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888, National Galleries of Scotland), which borrowed the design for the wrestlers from the Ukiyo-e master Hokusai.
Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, were a great source of inspiration for Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), who greatly admired the intense colour, bold design, and simple elegant lines. Introduced to ukiyo-e prints at the art gallery owned by his brother Theo, and at the nearby Bing Gallery, Van Gogh made copies of designs by the Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige, as in his Japonaiserie: Bridge in the Rain (1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Other works which include motifs taken from Ukiyo-e woodcuts, include his Flowering Plum Tree (1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), and The Courtesan (1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), the latter based on a print by Keisai Eisen (17901848) taken from the cover of the magazine Paris Illustrated. In addition, his Portrait of Pere Tanguy (1887, Musee Rodin, Paris) contains images of six different ukiyo-e as part of the background.
Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) made use of exaggerated colours, contours and facial expressions, used in prints of Kabuki actors, in order to create his eye-catching poster art, while members of Les Nabis such as Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard were inspired by the unusual angles and viewpoints of Ukiyo-e printmakers like Hokusai.
Other modern artists who were influenced by the fashion for Japonism include: Impressionists Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro; printmaker Felix Vallotton, graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley, lithographic poster designer Alphonse Mucha and Viennese Sezessionist Gustave Klimt, as well as architects Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Edward W.Godwin and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and ceramicists Taxile Doat and Edmond Lachenal. In Scotland, C.R.Mackintosh and the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915) were strongly influenced by Japonist styles and colours.
Works reflecting the style of Japonism and Japanese visual art can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY