How Japonisme Shaped Modern Art

Japonisme in art: The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny by Claude Monet. The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny by Claude Monet. Public Domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Coined in the late 19th century to describe the Western craze for Japanese art and design, the influence of Japonisme blossomed after Japanese ports reopened to Western trade in 1854 after being closed to the West for over 200 years, and in doing so helped to lay the foundations for Modern Art.

“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”

Vincent van Gogh

Known as Sakoku, Japan’s long period of isolation changed with the arrival of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and with it welcomed imports of photography and printing techniques from the West. This new trade channel flooded Japanese arts into Western society. Its impact on art would be long-lasting, as Japanese iconography and concepts were incorporated into European art by a new wave of artists hungry to change artistic boundaries and bring about artistic revolution.

Japanese art’s striking characteristics fascinated many artists. Flat planes, bold colors and vivid stylisation inspired a host of modern art forms, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau and the Aesthetic Movement, and these influences were clearly visible in the art of Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas.

Japonisme in art: KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI - Kanagawa oki nami ura. Sold for $2,760,000 via Christie’s (March 2023)

Katsushika Hokusai – Kanagawa oki nami ura. Sold for $2,760,000 via Christie’s (March 2023)

This rediscovery of Japanese art had an immeasurable effect on the composition, palette, and perspective of Western art, and would provide the foundations of Modern Art. This integration was often based on European ideas of Japanese culture, as much as authentic influence, as Western audiences amassed artworks and high-end objets d’art, and even inexpensive prints that were included as packing material for fragile luxury goods.

New Ideas

L'Etoile (The Star) by Edgar Degas.

L’Etoile (The Star) by Edgar Degas. Public Domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Enchanted by the colors, shapes, and crafts of Japan, Japonisme was the French interpretation of that culture’s aesthetics, with Ukiyo-e prints (like Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa) one of the main Japanese influences on Western art. Inspired by this new approach to composition, flattened planes, and abstract interpretations of color, Western art was transformed.

It wasn’t just the diagonals, asymmetry, and negative space that inspired Western artists though. It was also the Japanese idea that utilitarian objects, like vases, could also be considered art. This was the beginning of a radical shift in how France viewed art that would instigate the rebellion of Impressionist painters, as long held views of what comprised art were washed away in a rush of brush strokes and non-representative color.

Artists experimented with new ideas of perspective and the change was dramatic. While these images remained realistic, their simplified palettes, unusual viewpoints, sparse arrangements, and flattened space, along with unconventional cropping created new and exciting compositions. Reminiscent of woodblock prints, the flat planes, in particular, would become central to Modernist painting.

Japonisme in art:

Claude Monet – Le Bassin aux nymphéas. Sold for $24,722,500 via Sotheby’s (November 2010)Le Bassin aux nymphéas. Sold for $24,722,500 via Sotheby’s (Nov 2010).

Degas cropped his sequence of ballet dancers to create a sensation of movement. Borrowing again from Japanese artists, Impressionists used unusual angles and directional lines of perspective in their radical (at the time) depiction of everyday scenes and interior portraits. Bright floral motifs were a recurring theme in Japanese art and Impressionists were particularly fascinated by them. The influence of oriental flowers is evident in Monet’s late art, and his water garden at Giverny was based around Japanese flora. It even featured a curved Japanese bridge, but his famed Water Lilies represent the clearest homage to Oriental flora.

Influenced Artists

Western artists looking East were already seeking a fresh perspective. And in Japonisme they found it. Tired of Renaissance illusionistic painting, new outlooks of vivid color and Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints drew the attention of van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne. Cézanne’s series of Mont Saint-Victoire (1886-88), shows the influence of Hokusai’s Fuji Seen from the Katakura Tea Plantation in the Province of Suruga (1830-31). Hokusai’s casually posed figures influenced the figurative work of Edgar Degas, as well as Toulouse-Lautrec’s scenes of Parisian nightlife, while the flat pictorial space and composition in Georges Seurat’s composition and flat pictorial space in The Circus (1889) shows its influence of Japanese prints.

Van Gogh’s adoption of Japonsime began with illustrations by Félix Régamey in The Illustrated London News and Le Monde Illustré, and ukiyo-e prints bought in Paris. This translated into his portrait of color merchant, Julien Tanguy in Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887). Two versions exist with Japanese backdrops by Hiroshige and Kunisada. Inspired by colorful Japanese woodblock prints, van Gogh was greatly influenced by Hiroshige, and copied two of his prints in Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) (1887) and The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), which wore their influence with pride.

Japonisme in art: James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Nocturne.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Nocturne. Sold for $16,250 via Sotheby’s (November 2015)

The influence of Hokusai was also felt by Monet, as his famous Water Lilies echoes Hokusai’s depictions of flowers without backgrounds. If this was a subtle nod to Japonisme, then his depiction of his wife in Japanese costume against a background of falling fans in Madame Monet en costume Japonais, was a lot clearer in influence. Others, like Degas, were influenced by adding Japanese asymmetrical composition to aerial perspectives to their painting.

At the same time, James Abbott McNeill Whistler began to reject the Realist style and found solace in the technical simplicity of Japonisme’s aesthetic. His influence wasn’t reflected in his style, but by Japanese methods of composition. His nocturnes of the River Thames show compositional and thematic similarities with prints by Hiroshige, but his Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876–1877) which is housed in The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. that is now considered an important example of this fusion of East and West.

Japonisme in art: Plum Park in Kameido by Hiroshige.

Plum Park in Kameido by Hiroshige. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Continued Influence

Japonisme in art: Flowering plum tree by Vincent van Gogh.

Flowering plum tree by Vincent van Gogh. Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The influential critic Ernest Chesneau once wrote that Japonisme was “no longer a fashion, it’s infatuation, it’s insanity.” And the far-reaching impact of Japonisme and its flattened surfaces based on Japanese woodblock prints would help pave the way for Modern Art. Evident in the work of many Impressionists, they brought about a new and exciting approach that shaped the movement’s most fundamental ideas.

Largely a French obsession, Japonisme led to one of the most productive creative periods in the history of European art. It did so with a thick wedge of appropriation, as art was often produced from a Western perspective. With the arrival of avant-garde modernist abstractions in the early 1900s, Japonisme’s influence waned. Even as it faded from popularity though a new artistic approach was embraced, with Pablo Picasso’s proto-Cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Matisse’s Fauvist Dance (1910) adopting the approach of Japonisme-influenced artists, while Whistler’s Nocturnes showed development toward Abstraction.

Perhaps the greatest individual influence on Western art was Hokusai. His prints were affectionately imitated by van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, giving him a revered status in modern Western art. Tonalism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and the Aesthetic movement all had roots in the bold color planes, asymmetrical compositions, unconventional poses, and everyday subjects of his prints. This transformed Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and brought about a revolution in art the likes of which had never been seen before.

Sources: – 7 Things You Need to Know About Japonisme | – Japonism | – How Japanese Art Influenced Impressionism | – How Japonisme Forever Changed the Course of Western Design | |