Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Visual Translation of Japan in Late 19th-Century Paris

Chinese And Japanese Exhibits At The 1867 World Fair in Paris
Source: WikiCommons - Le Monde Illustre 1867

Japonism is the term used for the influence of Japanese art in the west. This post is part of my Japanese Art project and is a combination of my own initial research on this topic and notes I made at a seminar I attended at the National Gallery in February called Gained in Translation: The Visual Translation of Japan in Late 19th-Century Paris - given by Karly Allen.

The seminar was about the influence of Japanese Art in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century
It is frequently acknowledged that the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were ‘influenced’ by the art of Japan, but what exactly do we mean by that? Were these painters more interested in the unfamiliar subject matter of Japanese art, or in the liberating use of line and colour? What sort of images were artists looking at, and how did they access them?

This talk will try to answer some of these questions through close scrutiny of paintings in the National Gallery. Focusing on figure painting, we will investigate the collections of Japanese prints owned by Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh to discover what they ‘translated’ from the Japanese images they loved.

History of the influence on Japan on art in Europe

Artists who were influenced by Japanese art include Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, James McNeill Whistler (Rose and silver: La princesse du pays de porcelaine, 1863-64), Monet, van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gaugin, and Klimt. Some artists, such as Georges Ferdinand Bigot, even moved to Japan because of their fascination with Japanese art.

Although works in all media were influenced, printmaking was not surprisingly particularly affected, although lithography, not woodcut, was the most popular medium. The prints and posters of Toulouse-Lautrec can hardly be imagined without the Japanese influence. Not until Félix Vallotton and Paul Gaugin was woodcut itself much used for japonesque works, and then mostly in black and white.
Wikipedia - Japonism

The key events were as follows:

  • 1635 - Japan becomes isolated from the rest of the world.
  • 1853-54 - Commodore Perry's fleet arrives and then concludes a trade treaty - Japan opens for trade
  • 1855 - Japan concludes trade treaties with Russia, USA, Great Britain and France.
  • 1856 - French engraver Félix Bracquemond came across a copy of the sketch book Hokusai Manga at the workshop of his printer; pages had been used as packaging for a consignment of porcelain. His subsequent dialogue with ceramicist Theodore Deck who had studied far eastern techniques fostered the ultimate growth of Japonisme
  • 1860-61 - reproductions (in black and white) of ukiyo-e were published in books on Japan.
  • 1862 - Japanese import and tea shop 'La Porte Chinoise' opens at 36 Rue Vivienne in Paris. This contributed to public knowledge of Far Eastern ways. Subsequently, it became ' de rigeur' for all department stores then started to have Chinese and Japanese departments
  • 1867 - End of the Edo period / beginning of the Meiji Period in Japan
  • 1867 - stoneware service decorated with motifs from Hokusai's Manga commissioned by Rousseau, a dealer in ceramics
  • 1867 - Exposition Universelle in Paris - includes Japanese objects and prints
  • 1867-8 - Manet paints Zola against a background of Japanese woodcuts in Manet's studio.
Portrait of Emile Zola
Edoaurd Manet
Musee d'Orsay / Wikicommons
  • 1872 - "Japonisme" created as a term by a French art critic, Philippe Burty, to "designate a new field of study--artistic, historic and ethnographic" which would present a more systematic and comprehensive approach to the newly discovered Japanese art.
  • 1876 - Monet paints 'La Japonaise' (now in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston)
  • 1878 - Exposition Universelle in Paris - includes a Japanese Pavilion
  • 1878 - Ernest Chesnau published Le Japon a Paris on the influence of Japanese Art.
  • 1887 - Vincent and Theo Van Gogh exhibit their collection of Japanese woodcuts at Le Tambourin, Boulevard de Clichy
  • 1888 - Parisian dealer Samuel Bing founded Le Japon Artistique - a new periodical printed in German and English and effectively 'created' Japonisme. Van Gogh subscribed to this
  • 1890 - Exhibition of woodblock prints at L'Ecole fes Beaux Arts - a display of 763 woodcuts.
  • 1893 - Bing organises exhibition of prints by Utamaro and Hiroshige.
  • 1900 - The Japanese pavilion at the international exhibition in Paris included India ink drawings, calligraphy and early sculptures.
  • Japanese art influences Art Nouveau and the Symbolist movement.
In the spring of 1890, shortly after visiting an extensive exhibition of Japanese prints at the Ecole des beaux-arts, Paris, Mary Cassatt wrote a note to Berthe Morisot: "You who want to make color prints wouldn't dream of anything more beautiful. . . . You must see the Japanese—come as soon as you can."
Art Explorer - Introduction: Cassatt's Influence from Japanese Art
Mary Cassatt et sa soeur au Louvre (1879-80)
Hilaire Germaine Edgar Degas
Pastel, over etching, aquatint, drypoint, and crayon électrique on tan wove paper
305 x 127 mm (image/plate); 313 x 137 mm (sheet)

Art Institute of Chicago

Whistler, Tissot, Monet, Manet and Degas were all buying up Japanese prints. Comparisons were made with the great artists of the western traditions of printing eg Durer. Europeans were 'discovering' Japanese art - which of course already existed even if the western world didn't know about it! Many of the artists developed very significant collections of Japanese Art:
  • Mary Cassatt and Degas were friends and worked closely together.
    • Cassatt had the means to build up a large collection of prints. She was hugely influenced by the art from Japan.
    • Prints of Japanese courtesans appear to be clearly reflected in his works of women bathing.
    • Degas' painting of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre is clearly influenced by Japanese art in terms of cropping and colouring. This mixed media version is also an etching which has been coloured. This one in the Metropolitan Museum shows it in a different format and as a mono version. In my opinion, I think Degas was trying to get more of a sense of the quality of some of the printing effects achieved by the Japanese.
  • Van Gogh acquired 474 prints - many of them from Bing. Vincent and Theo Van Gogh put on an exhibition of Japanese prints before Vincent went to work in the south of France. Van Gogh tried to reproduce the line of the wood block print in his pen and ink drawings. Some of the perspective 'issues' in his paintings is believed to relate to how perspective is treated in Japanese prints.
  • Monet owned 12 volumes of Hokusai's Manga. The walls of his dining room at Giverny are decorated with Japanese prints.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York provides an interesting timeline overview of Japonisme

Woodblock print, about 1768,
Suzuki Harunobu
Techniques - Block print on paper; 26 cm x 19 cm (unframed)
V&A Museum no. E.1053-1963 / Wikipedia

Karly Allen suggested that the key artists were as follows. I've added the hyperlinks.
Suzuki Harunobu (1725-70)
Isoda Koryusai (active 1765-80s)
Kitigawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
Torii Kiyonaga (1752- 1815)
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864)
She showed us how Japanese prints compared to compositions by western artists - which is difficult to reproduce in a blog post because tracking down images takes a lot of time! However I'm going to try and do at least one post which demonstrates this. Once you start seeing the comparisons, one quickly becomes very clear about the degree of influence.
To the Impressionists and their second generation successors, Japonisme spelt liberation, the revelation of techniques which released them from the old traditional concepts of classical modelling taught at the academies.
Siegfriend Wichman Japonisme
A number of the museums are really excellent sources of information about how Japanese art and prints in particular influenced western art.

Some of the influences on the Impressionists were identified as being the following. I've suggested some of the artists whose work particularly exemplifies this:
  • their particular way of cutting off/cropping their subject (Degas)
  • asymmetric compositions leaving lots of empty space (Degas)
  • graphic treatment of bands of colour (Cassatt)
  • combining flat but intense hues (Monet, Van Gogh)
Robert Genn in his 2006 letter Japanese prints observed the following as being characteristics
Gradations in large areas with intermediate tones.
Integrated forms with implied borders.
Stylized, neutralized and formulized expressions.
Beguiling combinations of curved and straight lines.
The dynamic and slow-fast-slow nature of some curves.
Two-dimensional patterns within three-dimensional forms.
Plain, formalized and controlled perspective.
Use of solid black for strong contrast.
Pattern gradations on particular fabrics.
Hard-won gradations for sensitive areas such as hairlines.
Pictorial attention to ordinary domestic scenes.
Decentralized or off-picture subject placement.
Robert Genn - Japanese Prints
It seems to be me that the last quotation (below) is certainly one way of viewing what one can get out of a project of this sort.
Each of them assimilated from Japanese Art the qualities closest to their own gifts. All of them found in Japanese Art a confirmation, rather than an inspiration, of their personal ways of seeing, feeling and interpreting nature
Ernest Chesneau 'Le Japon a Paris'


  1. This is a superb post. The timeline you provided was particularly helpful for me to put it in context. Did a similar thing occur with the Egyptian artifacts being exhibited after the finds in1922?

  2. Thank you for this excellent post with lot´s of materials and resources.

  3. Another treasure trove here, thanks Katherine. I'm in danger of spending the rest of my life absorbing rather than painting.

  4. Yellow - the timeline certainly made a few things drop into place for me too.

    I'm no expert on the Eqyptian archeology or the twenties but I think you're right, that there was a fascination with all things Egyptian after the King Tut finds.

  5. Martin and Robyn - I'm pleased to share as usual and even more pleased to find others appreciate this!

    Robyn - I'm making up for a life of academic and professional qualifications which didn't involve art - and I intend to go on being an art students for the rest of my life! There's lots of time for painting! :)


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