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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays


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-à-brac—including fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and silks—had begun pouring into England and France.

It is said that James McNeill 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 Kitagawa 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.