Japonism (ジャポニズム)

Japonism (Japonisme in French) is a term for an interest in and an appreciation for Japanese arts that appeared in Europe. Japonism is commonly pronounced 'Japonism' as opposed to 'Japonisme,' and this is the term used throughout this article for convenience.

Japonism was not a mere momentary trend but a movement which continued for over 30 years in developed countries at the time. In Western countries, it is seen as one stage of a large transformative movement in the Western modern sense of beauty and scientific perspective, comparable to the Renaissance. In particular, the exhibition of pieces at the world fairs (international expositions) of the mid-19th century, shed light on Japanese art (including ukiyoe woodblock prints, works of the Rinpa School and crafts), which influenced impressionist and Art Nouveau artists.


Japonism significantly influenced not only painters but also writers and poets. Famous examples include Vincent Van Gogh's copy of Hiroshige UTAGAWA's "Meisho Edo Hyakkei" (100 selections of scenic views in Edo [old Tokyo]) and Claude Monet's painting of a girl wearing a kimono. Furthermore, Japonism influenced the perception of color as well as the composition of life and landscape paintings among painters such as Edgar Degas. Waka (Japanese poetry) and others were also translated and influenced writers and poets such as Mallarme, as shown by Mallarme's quatrain written down on a sensu (folding fan).

Although Japonism was triggered by Orientalism, it was not merely a fleeting trend. Repeated large-scale cultural transformations had occurred in Western Europe since around the 14th century. A movement pursuing photorealism was gradually intensified with the back-to-nature movement launched during the Renaissance which brought the modernization of Western culture, as well as with the modern perspective developed in the world of art which attempted to depict figures as they were. As a result, realism was established both in name and in reality by Courbet and others during the middle of the 19th century. After the decline of realism in the latter half of the 19th century, there was a transformation to impressionism and then to modernism to which abstract paintings belonged. Japonism is thought to have decisively influenced these transformations at an early stage. Japonism was not only a trend but also the beginning of a worldwide art movement that was to continue for nearly a century.

Japanese manga (comics) and animation have gained a high level of popularity in countries such as France, a phenomenon known as 'Modern Japonism.'
A theory suggests that Damier Canvas and Monogram Canvas patterns by Louis Vuitton were influenced not only by contemporary Gothic taste and Art Nouveau but also by Japanese checkered patterns and family crests.


Period of Japonaiserie
Japonaiserie is an interest in the exoticism of Japan. Japanese handicrafts were originally assessed according to their visual curiosity, like products of Orient and China. Japonaiserie is understood to be part of Japonism or the former stage of Japonism.

Between 1848 and 1854, many merchant ships from Western countries sailed to Japan which had recently reopened to trade due to the arrival of foreign Black Ships. Conditions in Japan became widely known in Western countries as a result of the photographic and printing technology that was being developed at that time. Japanese woodblock prints called ukiyoe as well as other arts and crafts instantly became popular in Europe and the United States.

The first stage of Japonism started from the enthusiastic collection of Japanese works of art, particularly ukiyoe woodblock prints. The first example of this was in Paris, France. The French etcher Félix Bracquemond chanced upon "Hokusai Manga" (Hokusai's Sketches) at a printer's workshop around 1856. It is said that Hokusai Manga was used as the packing material for shipping porcelain.

Ukiyoe is introduced in monochrome in a book on Japan published from 1860 to 1861.

Charles Baudelaire wrote a letter in 1861
Long ago I received a box filled with Japanese crafts which I shared among my friends.'
In the next year, a shop named La Porte Chinoise, at which various Japanese products including ukiyoe were sold, opened on Rue de Rivoli, the most fashionable shopping street in Paris.

In 1871, the opera "La princesse jaune" (The Yellow Princess)" composed by Camille Saint-Saëns and written by Louis Gallet opened to the public. The story revolves around the jealousy that a Dutch girl feels for an ukiyoe with which her boyfriend has become infatuated.

The Ukiyoe first discovered by Bracquemond was a classical masterpiece by Hokusai KATSUSHIKA, but most ukiyoe initially exported to Europe were the relatively modern work of painters of the 1860s and 1870s. It was a little later when masters who had produced works prior to those painters were introduced to Europe and became appreciated. Intellectuals in the United States at the time asserted that Edo period works such as woodblock prints were vulgar and nothing more than a passing trend. They added such pieces should be distinguished from sophisticated works of Japanese religious and national heritage produced by artists such as Sesshu and Shubun.

A large number of collectors, writers, and art critics from France went to Japan during the 1870s and 1880s. As a result, publications and crafts related to the aesthetics of Japan became more widely known in Europe, particularly in France. Notable examples include the liberal economist Henri Cernuschi, the critic Théodore Duret and a British collector William Anderson who lived in Edo for several years to teach medicine. Even now, Anderson's collection is on public display at the British Museum. Taking advantage of the spread of Japonism, Japanese art dealers like Tadamasa HAYASHI started to do business in Paris. A lot of Japanese crafts were exhibited at the 1879 Paris Universal Exposition and enjoyed great popularity.

From Japonaiserie to Japonism

The picture by Manet shown in the right is thought to be typical of Japonaiserie. The background of the portrait includes Japanese pictures such as ukiyoe. Although the expressive method of Japanese pictures is not obviously incorporated into this painting, it shows Manet's interest in Japan. It is thought that the painting at the beginning of this text reveals similar inclinations in Vincent Van Gogh. Thus Japanese art was only evaluated as an aspect of exoticism.
However, the spatial expression and sense of color peculiar to Japan art, which were used in ukiyoe and other works, were gradually adopted by artists in Europe, resulting in 'Japonaiserie' developing into 'Japonism.'

Works by Japanese painters including Hokusai KATSUSHIKA and Utamaro KITAGAWA exerted a dramatic influence on artists in Europe. While publications including traditional Japanese art such as ukiyoe rapidly declined in Japan due to Westernization, Japanese art was highly praised in Europe. There are a large number of artists who were influenced by Japanese art including Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin and Gustav Klimt.

Every artistic field was influenced by Japan with the surprising exception of printing which remained unaffected. This is because mainstream printing in Europe was lithography as opposed to woodblock printing. However, it is not possible to discuss the lithography and posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec without taking considering of the influence exerted by Japanese art. Paul Gauguin and Félix Vallotton were the first artists to produce work incorporating Japonism into woodblock printing, although these were printed in monochrome.

James McNeill Whistler played an important role in the transmission of Japanese art to Britain. Since Paris was known as a distribution or trading center of Japanese products at that time, Whistler amassed an excellent collection of Japan art during his stay in Paris.

Some works by Vincent Van Gogh imitated the style of ukiyoe or used ukiyoe as motifs. For instance, six ukiyoe pieces are included in the background of the work titled "Portrait of Pere Tanguy" (owner of an art shop). Moreover, in 1886, after he chanced on a piece of Ukiyoe by Eisen KEISAI in "Paris Illustre," a magazine published in Paris, he painted a picture entitled 'The Prostitute' in 1887. Gogh had already collected Japanese woodblock prints in Antwerp.

In the field of music, the opera "Madama Butterfly" composed by Giacomo Puccini was influenced by Japonism. Moreover, the famous operetta "The Mikado" by playwright William Gilbert and a composer Arthur Sullivan was inspired by an exhibition of Japanese art held at Knightsbridge in London.

These artists adopted many features of Japanese art. At that time when Japonism enjoyed popularity, artists in Western countries had a great interest in the irregularity and asymmetry of Japan art. Japanese art uses perspective differently from Western art, placing the focus away from the centre. In addition, it utilizes bright colors and a planar construction without the use of realistic shading. These elements were completely different from the Roman-Greco art which was the foundation for painters until the 19th century. In a period when painters in the West reached a deadlock in modern expression techniques, an encounter with Japanese art became an opportunity to free their minds from the customs restrained by tradition.

Ukiyoe are comprised of lines, clearly separated into empty space and patterns, which gives little stereoscopic effect. These features influenced Art Nouveau. The ukiyoe technique of using straight and curved lines subsequently became commonly used in every field of painting and graphic design. The form and color composition adopted from these ukiyoe are thought to be an element of expression in modern art. As a result of Japonism, Japanese elements came to be incorporated into the later graphic design of all crafts ranging from furniture and clothing to jewelry.

The Influence of Japonism

The picture shown in the upper left is entitled "Corner of the table" and was painted by Henri Fantin-Latour, a French realism painter of the mid-19th century. The picture in the lower left is a poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a French painter of the late 19th century. Lautrec was a painter who was strongly influenced by Japonism. This poster by Lautrec may not appear to be special in the eyes of modern people. However, it uses a technique that would have been novel to Westerners of the time.

First of all, the edge line of the table in this poster runs diagonally as if cutting the picture exactly in half. Such bold diagonal lines were rarely seen in paintings prior to Japonism. Horizontal lines were the norm as shown in the picture painted by Fantin-Latour. It is thought that the composition of ukiyoe produced by Hiroshige, shown in the right, provided Lautrec with inspiration.

Moreover, Fantin-Latour created a feeling of solidity by using perspective and shading as well as the depiction of detail. Meanwhile, Lautrec completely abandoned three-dimensionality, using the technique of combining various planes. The technique in which people or objects are outlined was rarely seen in Europe before the introduction of Japonism. The use of color is bold, and vivid primary colors occupy a considerable area of the picture. This is in marked contrast to the painting by Fantin-Latour despite the difficulty in comparing oil paintings and lithography.

In paintings before the introduction of Japonism, the horizon was usually depicted horizontally in the lower half of the picture, although it is difficult to compare this in the two pictures shown on the left. After the introduction of Japonism, techniques in which the horizon was depicted in the upper half of the picture or the entire background of the picture was occupied by ground or floor became commonplace. These influences of Japonism came to be commonly seen in all visual representation within Europe during the 20th century. As a result, it became futile to attempt to make a clear distinction between works influenced by Japonism and those that are not.

[Original Japanese]