Five Fascinating Facts about Paul Jacoulet
French artist Paul Jacoulet (1896–1960) was in equal parts artistic innovator and enthusiast for Japanese culture. Earning international acclaim for his woodblock prints that showcased his mastery of Japanese woodblock prints and his emulation of the ukiyo-e tradition, Jacoulet’s work was so skilled they could easily be mistaken for a masterpiece by Utagawa Hiroshige or Katushika Hokusai. In this article we’ll explore some fascinating facts that outline his career. If you’re not familiar with Jacoulet’s prints, now’s your chance to dive in.
Jacoulet’s journey to artistic acclaim was far from typical of artists working in the early 20th century. In addition, though his works are celebrated among collectors today, Jacoulet’s productive years – primarily between 1939 and 1960 – were punctuated by both triumphs and defeats owed to the challenges of wartime and meeting global tastes. Let’s take a closer look.
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#1: Although French by birth, Jacoulet was a devoté of Japan.
Though he was born in Paris sometime around the turn of the century (sources differ as to whether he was born in the 1890s or the early 1900s), Jacoulet moved to Japan at age 4 after his father accepted a teaching position at Tokyo University. Jacoulet grew up steeped in Japanese culture and language. He developed a specific passion for both Noh and Kabuki theater during these early years that perhaps fed into his later artistic style.
#2: Jacoulet fell in love with the art of Japanese fantasy.
Though Jacoulet’s early works tend to focus on almost documentary studies of indigenous cultures of the South Pacific, including French Polynesia, as his work progressed he was lure into the ukiyo-e tradition.
First emerging in 17th century Japan, ukiyo-e, or “floating world” compositions were typically woodblock prints that showcase scenes of a wide variety of subjects taken from contemporary culture. From traditional historical narratives to vignettes of Kabuki theatre performers, ukiyo-e compositions often emphasized the magic allure of the visual image and served as a momentary escape for the viewer into an enveloping space of color and form.
#3: Jacoulet barely survived World War II.
Just as Jacoulet’s career was ascending, so too were the political rumblings that would eventually explode into World War II. With such hostilities on the rise in the 1930s, many Westerners who had made Japan their home decamped for less fraught terrain, Jacoulet, though, was undeterred. Rather than leaving, he decamped to Karuizawa in central Honshu where he lived off the land and scraped by until the conflict came to a close in 1945.
#4: Jacoulet was one of the 20th century’s most talented masters in one of the world’s oldest artistic traditions.
Jacoulet turned to woodblock printing in the 1930s, and from that point his abilities in the medium grew exponentially. This afforded Jacoulet the ability to closely emulate Japanese printmaking styles.
Woodblock printing emerged in Japan as early as the 8th century, but it was not until the 18th century that advances in printmaking afforded Japanese printmakers the capacity to work in vibrant, multicolored prints with relative ease. It was this turn that aided the rise of the ukiyo-e genre, but it still mandated that artists working in the tradition were expert at the techniques of woodblock printing. Each color used required a different block, yet each also had to be carved precisely so that, when printed, they would align perfectly. In addition, larger prints would require additional blocks.
Jacoulet, though, seemed to have embraced these challenges, as he was able to conjure prints with expert harmony. He also often worked on a relatively large scale. Rumor has it that some of Jacoulet’s prints were so massive they required more than 50 blocks to print.
#5: Jacoulet was undeterred by criticism and proved to be incredibly prolific.
Following World War Ii, Jacoulet returned to relative artistic success in Japan and thus seems to have refocused on selling his work on a more global stage. In the early 1950s, Jacoulet worked with an ex-pat associate who served as his de facto art dealer in New York, but the reception of his work stateside was lukewarm. Some critics didn’t understand how a French artist could appropriate the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition, while others saw his prints as too commercial and not up to the standard of fine art.
By the time of Jacoulet’s death in 1960, the artist had produced more than 150 prints that were making their way into collections at an increasing pace. Today he is widely recognized as one of the most versatile and unique artists of his generation, with examples of his work in prominent collections around the world and a growing effort to better document his life and career. Jacoulet’s status was further cemented with the record-breaking sale of one of his prints in 1980. This was the sale of The Parisian Lady (Une Parisienne), a print initially made in 1934, for $25,000.
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Jet Off to Japan with Paul Jacoulet’s Prints
The Parisian Lady perhaps achieved this record high price as it demonstrated how easily Jacoulet could blend artistic styles as he paired a European fashion-forward dress with the bold contours and soft washes of color characteristic of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. By bridging cultures, Jacoulet showcased his versatility while also bringing the beauty of the ukiyo-e tradition to an even wider global audience. Collecting Jaoculet’s prints, then, means owning a piece of history while also celebrating one of the most intriguing intersections of artistic traditions in the space of one print.