Japonisme

See works of art
  • The Old Plum
    1975.268.48
  • Xu You and Chao Fu
    JP1589
  • Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child
    JP1278
  • Kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei in the Play The Colored Reins of a Loving Wife (Koi nyōbō somewake tazuna)
    JP2822
  • Otsu
    JP804
  • Kinryūsan Temple at Asakusa, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
    JP2519
  • Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass
    29.100.127
  • Maternal Caress
    16.2.5
  • At the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue and Her Sister
    41.12.18
  • Delightful Land
    36.6.4
  • Street Corner
    28.50.4_3
  • Interior with a Hanging Lamp, from the series Landscapes and Interiors
    25.70.23

Works of Art (13)

Essay

After Japanese ports reopened to trade with the West in 1853, a tidal wave of foreign imports flooded European shores. On the crest of that wave were woodcut prints by masters of the ukiyo-e school which transformed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects from “the floating world” could be presented in appealingly decorative ways.

Parisians saw their first formal exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts when Japan took a pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1867. But already, shiploads of oriental bric-a-brac—including fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and silks—had begun pouring into England and France.

It is said that James Whistler discovered Japanese prints in a Chinese tearoom near London Bridge and that Claude Monet first came upon them used as wrapping paper in a spice shop in Holland. James Tissot and his friend Edgar Degas (29.100.127) were among the earliest collectors of Japanese art in France, but their own art was affected by exotic things in very different ways. Unlike Tissot, and others who came under the spell of Japan, Degas avoided staging japoneries that featured models dressed in kimonos and the conspicuous display of oriental props. Instead, he absorbed qualities of the Japanese aesthetic that he found most sympathetic (1975.268.48): elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspective, spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of color and line, and a focus on singularly decorative motifs. In the process, he redoubled his originality.

Degas’ American friend Mary Cassatt (16.2.5), who declared that she “hated conventional art,” found in Japanese woodcuts like those of Utamaro (JP1278) a fresh approach to the depiction of common events in women’s lives. After visiting a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the spring of 1890, she produced a set of ten color etchings in open admiration of their subjects, compositions, and technical innovations.

Experimentation with a wide range of pictorial modes, and with printmaking techniques as well, coincided with the growing popularity of Japanese woodcuts during the 1890s. Toulouse-Lautrec (41.12.18) adopted the exaggerated colors, contours, and facial expressions found in Kabuki theater prints (JP2822) in order to create his eye-catching posters. Meanwhile, Pierre Bonnard (28.50.4(3)) and Édouard Vuillard (25.70.23), who called themselves “Nabis” or “prophets” of a new style of art, relied upon the piquant, unusual viewpoints of ukiyo-e printmakers (JP804; JP2519) for inspiration. Only Paul Gauguin (36.6.4), who was attracted to the native arts of many cultures, sidestepped the then-current practice of lithography and adapted Japanese woodcut techniques (JP1589) to the abstract expression of his forward-looking art.

Colta Ives
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

Citation

Ives, Colta. “Japonisme.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jpon/hd_jpon.htm (October 2004)

Further Reading

Ives, Colta. The Great Wave: The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974. See on MetPublications

Related