Japonism - The Japanese Art Style that Took the West by Storm

Back in the 1870s: Japan and its traditional culture have just opened their doors to the rest of the world. Today, Rise Art immerses you in this era when avant-garde artists were inspired by this entirely novel art, giving rise to the phenomenon of Japonism!

By Cécile Martet | 18 Aug 2023

The Discovery of a Whole New Aesthetic

In 1868, Japan opens up to the international community under pressure from the United States. Until this global opening, Japan maintains closed borders in an isolationist policy for two centuries. This isolation allowed the Japanese to preserve a purely traditional culture!

When French artists discover this exotic country, they are immediately fascinated by its culture and art, so distinct from their own. Indeed, with Japan's opening, a free-trade treaty is established. As a result, this facilitates the dissemination of Japanese art objects, in France and primarily in Paris.

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
 Mizuno Toshikata, "Tea ceremony", 1896

Thus, art merchants will witness and participate in the proliferation of cultural exchanges. Aesthetes and artists now form genuine collections of these unprecedented artistic objects, which were utterly fascinating for the time!

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Kosode with waterfall and fan motifs, second half of the 18th century, Matsuzakaya Collection.
Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Kosode with famous views motifs, mid-18th century, Matsuzakaya Collection.

During this period, a large number of artists wish to break free from the academic artistic conventions that have been imposed on them for so long. As a result, some artists perceive in Japanese art a completely new source of inspiration. They also see the opportunity to use it as a springboard in their quest for emancipation..

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Katsushika Hokusai's work "Shinagawa on the Tōkaidō, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," 1831-1833.

Many artists are thus seduced and inspired by this discovery of Japan. In their works, these artists now make reference to the art of this culture. They are also inspired by traditional artistic techniques, as well as the ideals and spiritual principles of this culture.

In 1872, Philippe Burty, a French art critic and great collector, uses for the very first time the term "japonism" to translate this exponential influence of Japan on Western art!

No Impressionism without Japonism

This influence of Japan on Western arts primarily impacted the Impressionist artists. During this period, the Impressionists shared the desire to break free from institutional art and aimed to create a new aesthetic.

When they discovered Japanese art, the artists were fascinated by the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. They were captivated by the composition and color of the prints, the vertical motifs, the decorations, as well as the depiction of lighthearted subjects.

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Utagawa Hiroshige, "Suijin Shrine and Massaki on the Sumida River", 1857

Just like the Japanese artists, the Impressionists promoted the art of landscape, portraiture, and genre scenes, which were considered minor in the hierarchy of genres.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an American painter based in France, was one of the first to enthusiastically embrace this form of exotic art. Quickly, the artist assembled a collection of Japanese objects that served as decorative accessories for his paintings.

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
James Abbott MacNeil Whistler, "Symphony in White N°2", 1864-65 
Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, "Caprice in Purple No. 2", 1864

In these two works, Whistler incorporates Japanese accessories. One can observe Japanese fans and vases, as well as cherry blossoms, which are typical of Japan. In his work "Caprice in Purple No. 2," a young woman in a kimono is depicted looking at prints by Hiroshige.

According to some critics, Impressionism may have been born out of this fascination with Japanese art. According to certain perspectives, if it weren't for this affinity for Japanese art, Impressionism might not have come into existence!

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Claude Monet, "The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool", Giverny, 1899

Another artist, also a leading figure of Impressionism, who was enamored with these Japanese works is Claude Monet. As you have rightly understood, he expressed his passion for Japonism primarily in his garden at Giverny.

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Katsushika Hokusai"Under the Mannen bridge in Fukagawa", 1830-32

His "Water Lilies" remind us of the prints by the famous Hokusai. The suspended bridge above a pond, the greenery, the composition of the artwork, and its colors are widely inspired by one of the prints by the Japanese artist!

Art Critic Théodore Duret's Perspective

"Claude Monet, among our landscape artists, was the first to have the audacity to go so far in his colorations. And it is through this that he has most stirred up ridicule, for the lazy European eye still mistakes the true and delicate range of tones of the Japanese artists for mere patchwork."

Théodore Duret, French writer and art critic

The Post-Impressionists fascinated by Japan

After a period of waning interest among artists in Japanese art, a renewed enthusiasm among French artists is felt again in 1890!

This interest is revived through an exhibition organized by the collector, critic, and art dealer Siegfried Bing. In the year 1890, this enthusiast of Japanese art organizes an exhibition dedicated to Japanese prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Poster for the "Japanese Masters" exhibition organized by Siegfried Bing in 1890, Christian Polak Collection

This exhibition had a significant impact on the Western art world. Above all, it played a fundamental role in disseminating the aesthetics of Japonism. However, this exhibition especially reached a completely new generation of painters: the Post-Impressionists!

These Post-Impressionists, in turn, collected inexpensive images from stores that reproduced Japanese prints. Thus, their relationship with the artwork was not the same: they purchased crepons, which did not possess the same characteristics as the prints. As a result, the lesson drawn from Japanese art was different for this new generation of artists.

Henri Matisse's Perspective

"Perhaps if we had only the originals to look at, we would not have been as impressed as we were by the reprints [...]. But is not eloquence all the more powerful and direct the cruder the means? [...] Once the eye has been cleansed by the Japanese crepons, I was prepared to receive colors according to their emotional power."

Henri Matisse

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Henri Matisse, "The Japanese Woman: Woman beside the Water," 1905

One of the Post-Impressionist artists most profoundly influenced by the japonisme movement is undoubtedly Vincent van Gogh. It is from 1886, when he arrives in Paris, that Vincent is exposed to the artistic avant-garde and to a city immersed in japonisme.

At this time, the availability of Japanese prints and crepons is becoming increasingly abundant. Van Gogh then decides to buy batches of prints and crepons. By the end of his life, he had amassed a collection of over 400 prints! The ones that inspired him the most were primarily works by the Japanese artist Hiroshige, which he copied in his oil paintings on canvas.

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Vincent Van Gogh, ""The Bridge in the Rain inspired by Hiroshige", 1887
Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Utagawa Hiroshige, ""Sudden Shower over Ohashi and Atake"", 1857

In his work "The Bridge in the Rain," inspired by Hiroshige, Van Gogh adds a frame covered with kanji characters, the ideograms borrowed from Chinese by the Japanese. As you might imagine, he doesn't understand a single word of them! These kanji characters serve purely as decorative elements in this context, enhancing the exotic aspect of his artwork. 

Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Vincent Van Gogh, “Plum Blossoms inspired by Hiroshige”, 1887
Japonisme : quand le Japon inspire l'art occidental
Utagawa Hiroshige, "Plum Orchard at Kameido", 1857

Van Gogh idéalise complètement le Japon. Il s'approprie leur art et fait coïncider ses rares connaissances sur le pays avec ses propres aspirations artistiques, tout comme l'ont fait avant lui les Impressionnistes !

Dans une lettre à son frère, Van Gogh nous explique

"Si on étudie l’art japonais, alors on voit un homme incontestablement sage et philosophe et intelligent, qui passe son temps à quoi ? à étudier la distance de la terre à la lune ? non, à étudier la politique de Bismarck ? non, il étudie un seul brin d’herbe. […] Voyons, cela n’est-ce pas presque une vraie religion, ce que nous enseignent ces Japonais si simples et qui vivent dans la nature comme si eux-mêmes étaient des fleurs ?"

Vincent Van Gogh, lettre à son père Théo, 1887


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