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Japonism and the birth of European Impressionism

How Japanese woodblock printing inspired the masters of the 19th century Impressionist movement.

The 19th century brought changes of immense impact to human society all over the world. From the industrial revolution to technological innovations like the car and electricity. Technology started to challenge traditional practices in several different applications which would result to massive social transformation.

As always art couldn’t but follow the same transformation. Beginning from France, artists were yearning for an alternative to conventional art which lead to the birth of impressionism and the movements after that like post impressionism, Fauvism and art Nouveau. The already established art community of conventional art, still only valued realism however. Portraits were supposed to be painted indoors with focus on the individual in the foreground just the way they were made during the renaissance. While the background served a supporting role in the composition. The same applied to still nature and even landscapes.

Claude Monet: Arrival of the Normandy Train,

Gare Saint-Lazare

As photography however was becoming more and more popular, realism was faced with the question of whether striving for a perfect depiction of reality was even worth it. The first artists who were about to become impressionists like Monet and Renoir started to paint in the new way that had become a trend of the time, by taking their canvases outdoors.

There they realized that painting the every day life of regular people in a manner of what we would today call a snapshot, was more fulfilling. They moved from the mythological beings and historical figures of the conventional French art scene to painting farmers at work and busy Parisian street cafes. Soon more and more artists embraced this new painting style, with its coarse fleeting brushstrokes that instead of recreating the subject down to every detail, aimed to just give the impression of it, by using colour and light.

Pictures of the floating world

Hiroshige (1797-1858), Two men on a sloping road in the rain

Dutch trade with Asia which saw its Golden age during the 17th century, was the main supplier of asian Art to the wealthy of Europe. Asian porcelain and textiles where already a trend among those who could afford them but once European artists discovered Japanese woodblock printing it became a very critical source of inspiration for an artistic style that aimed to depict life as it really was. Ukiyo-e or "pictures of the floating world" became the source of a different perspective towards painting.

So photography was what made artists rethink painting, in terms of how realistic it should be, but ukiyo-e made them rethink composition, perspective and even choice of subject.

Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), traditional Japanese women in an outing viewing cherry blossoms at Gotenyama.

Usually the themes of the Japanese woodblock prints would depict every day life as caught in a moment in time, preserving movement and natural expression. People packed with groceries running on a bridge during a downpour, people walking through a trail in the countryside, a day in the kabuki theatre and so on. All themes that fit perfectly with what European artists were aspiring to produce.

Hiroshige (1797-1858), The pagoda of Zōjōji and Akabane Bridge

A very notable difference which ukiyo-e held prominent in comparison to conventional European art was the balance between subject and background. The background wasn't simply there to support the subject, it was used in a way that was equally important to the subject. Sometimes it even occupied more space and forced the artist into focusing into pointing out the main subject through composition instead. Foreshortening and pictorial space are used in numerous prints as tools to emphasize the subject while offering equal importance to the background.

Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), woman with lantern and Umbrella

However maybe the most well known and copied characteristic of ukiyo-e was what is called the "birds eye view". This was a perspective very common in Japanese art where the composition seems to be seen by a viewer who stands higher than height of human eyesight. The image seems as if not seen by a person but as a documented moment in time.


European artists were collecting ukiyo-e woodblock prints at the time and the impact of their fascination was quickly witnessed in their own work. The term "Japonisme" was first coined by French collector and critic Philippe Burty, in his 1872 articles about the influence of Japanese Art.

Claude Monet

Claude Monet (1840-1926), impression, soleil levant

Monet was one of the founders of the movement of Impressionism and the name itself was taken from one of his paintings, titled "impression, soleil levant".

Owner of a massive collection of ukiyo-e prints, he found in them the answer to his questioning nature towards art.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Madame Monet wearing a kimono

Satisfying the trend of the time, but only in an aesthetic level, Monet painted his wife in a kimono, with traditional japanese fans on the wall behind her.

However his most ukiyo-e inspired work was created after 1883 when he moved to Giverny to live among the rural landscapes that where the subject of his artwork. There he created a large garden, heavily derived from japanese landscaping that even featured a japanese bridge. This garden would act as an aesthetic model for a large body of work that he would create looking at the surrounding nature directly.

Left: Hiroshige (1797-1858), Yahagi Bridge at Okazaki (Station 39)

Right: Claude Monet (1840-1926),The Japanese Footbridge

Inspired by Hiroshige's bridges in his compositions, Monet painted his own Japanese bridge in his Giverny residence accompanied by his beautiful Lilly pond. As seen in both artworks the ends of the bridge lie outside of the frame, a use of pictorial space, very unusual for European standards.

Vincent van Gogh

Left: Hiroshige (1797-1858), Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido

Right: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Flowering plum tree, after Hiroshige

Post Impressionist Vincent van Gogh had a long time fascination with woodblock prints. He would spend hours studying them when he moved to Paris and he had a large collection as well. He even organized an exhibition. One of the most well known cross roads of Japanese and European art was van Gogh's take on Hiroshige's "Residence with plum tree in Kameido". In this unusual for European standards composition, Hiroshige places the thick dark bark of a plum tree in the foreground, which looks as if its in the way of the view of trees and people in the back which serves as the background. Van Gogh copied the print down to the detail but with an impressionist brushstroke style and more vibrant colours.

In the portrait of his art supplier van Gogh gave him the grace and posture of a sage surrounded by Japanese images from prints. In his landscapes too the Japanese influence is prominent. The almost animate nature, the birds-eye view, the bright colours and the humbleness of the subjects capture the essence of ukiyo-e.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), The Ballet Class

Most of his fellow contemporaries showed their fascination with japanese art by using props in their artworks like hanging prints, fans, patterns and even dressing up their girlfriends in kimonos. Degas however had a different approach. He used all the compositional principles he had seen in the ukiyo-e prints without the use of Japanese items. In contrary, he used those principles to depict very French images, like his famous ballet dancers.

His painting "the ballet class" is a wonderful example of this. A class of ballerinas in the end of their lesson listening to ballet master Jules Perrot. The use of pictorial space in a manner where the two girls on the front occupy most space while the lines on the floor lead the eye all along the length of the room. The rest of the figures shrink in size according to the distance, with the characteristics of the ones in the far back much more vague that the ones in the front. Main subject and background carry equal weight, connected in a composition which favours the moment rather than a central subject.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), The Ballet Lesson

All the above principles can be detected in "the ballet lesson" as well, adding also a very clear birds-eye view.

The peacock room

As mentioned before, collecting Asian porcelain for the wealthy had been a trend that had been with them a few centuries already. The fine craftsmanship of Asian artists, the rarity of the items, the need to exhibit wealth and sophistication, all contributed into the rise of this fashion. The wealthiest would dedicate a separate room just for their porcelain and this was exactly the case with the owner of the Peacock room.

This beautiful room, an artwork in itself, was the creation of architect Thomas Jeckyll, specialist in Japanese style, and painter James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Whistlers "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain" hang over the fireplace, as does today that the room has been relocated from London to the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC.

The enthusiasts

Just like in any movement, beside artists, there was another group of people who always contributed into helping it move forward. Art critics, art journalists and enthusiastic collectors have each in their own way bridged the distance between artists and the general public. The aforementioned Phillip Burty and Edmond de Goncourte where two of the most prominent writers who spread the love for Japanese art.

Avid collector of Japanese art and Asian art in general, Sigfried Bing a German art dealer was one of them as well. Bing maintained a shop of Asian artworks in Paris from which all the impressionists of the time would buy japanese woodblock prints from his collection imported directly from Japan. Deeply knowledgeable about Japanese Art and heavily involved into its promotion, he became a source from which artists could have a peak into the minds of their counterparts in the far East.

In 1888 he started publishing "Artistic Japan". A monthly magazine printed in English, German and French which featured reproductions of ukiyo-e. Post impressionists Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Gauguin were a few among the many who got inspired by the magazine. This of course was not only intended toward artists. A widely circulated magazine translated in three languages made Japonism even more popular resulting in the consequent rise in demand in Asian art which meant more profit.

Floating brushtrokes

Edouard Manet (1832-1883): Portrait of Emile Zola

Edouard Manet created a Japanese decorated portrait of Emile Zola. James Abbott McNeil whistler avid collector and ukiyo-e enthusiast, painted his girlfriend in a kimono looking at woodblock prints in front of a Japanese screen. Paul Gauguins' "Still Life with Head-Shaped Vase and Japanese Woodcut" features a woodcut print of a kabuki actor in the background. Alfred Stevens another avid collector would use Japanese props too in his paintings.

But eventually it became much more than the use of props from an exotic country on the other side of the planet. The impressionists were looking for a change of route from conventional art, that would eventually cover everything from painting techniques, all the way to how they perceive art overall. Every day moments of every day people was the common denominator between impressionism and Japanese woodblock printing. Being exposed to ukiyo-e prints was the source of a different perspective in pictorial space and subject.

Left: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Paris, le quai Malaquais

Right: Utagawa Kunisada II (1823-1880) - Nihonbashi

Pictorial space, the birds eye view, the balance between background and a subject that is no longer necessarily the protagonist of the artwork, are all incorporated into what defines western art. Even realism to this day has embraced those rules as the standards of conventional art. Because, after all, can any two people know reality as the other? Isn't it all but our personal impression, seen by our own eyes, perceived by our own mind?

Maybe what impressionism and the floating world had in common was just that, they were a window to the world depicted as real as it is, despite not being realistic.


*All pictures used belong to the public domain and were taken from Wikimedia Commons.


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