Japonisme

Japonisme refers to the fascination for Japanese culture that emerged in Europe after the re-opening of trade with the West in 1853.  Like Orientalism, Japonisme was shaped by European colonial expansion and fascination with exotic people and places.  Parisians were first introduced to Japanese culture at the 1867 World’s Fair, and Japanese products such as fans, kimonos, bronzes, and silks quickly became all the rage.

Ando Hiroshige, Station of Otsu: From the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (The “Reisho Tokaido”), ca. 1848–49. Metropolitan Museum

The Impressionists were especially attracted to the woodcut prints of the ukiyo-e (“the floating world”), an art form that originated in the city of Edo (Tokyo).  These prints depicted everyday life in a simple, cartoon-like manner.  The modern life subject, and the absence of modeling and perspective made the pictures attractive to members of the Impressionist group who were seeking fresh new ways of seeing.

Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1874

This painting by Edgar Degas shows a compositional arrangement that is very similar to Hiroshige’s Station of Otsu.  The strong diagonal division of the composition flattens the space, and makes the formal arrangement of the picture more dominant.  We see the arrangement of shapes first, while the illusion of space becomes a secondary concern.  According to Claude Monet, it was the compostion of Japanese prints that most impressed the Impressionists:

“In the West what we admired most of all was this bold way of cropping images; these people taught us to compose differently'”
Cited in Monet and Japanese Art, Museum of New Zealant Te Papa Tongarewa 

Torii Kiyonaga, Interior of a Bath House, Edo period, about 1787
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Degas’ Bathers owe a great deal to Japanese influence (brothel scenes were common in ukiyo-e prints).  This print by Torii Kiyonaga actually belonged to Degas.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Yahagi Bridge on the Yohagi River near Okazaki 1855. Allen Memorial Art Museum

Many of Monet’s compositional devices were borrowed from Japanese sources, including his assymetrical compositions, and his use of a strong diagonal.

Learn more:  Monet and Japan (NGA):  http://nga.gov.au/monetjapan/Default.cfm?Mnu=1&RelateMnu=1

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Web Resources:

Japonisme (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jpon/hd_jpon.htm 

Monet and Japan, National Gallery of Australia
http://nga.gov.au/monetjapan/Default.cfm?Mnu=1&RelateMnu=1 

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