The Influence Of Japanese Art On Western Art

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My project work has led me to consider how Japanese art has influenced Western art, in particular the influence that it had on the Impressionist movement. Although the focus of my project has been on the feminist message in art, I also enjoyed being able to consider the multi-cultural aspects to this. Looking at the works of artists with multi-cultural influences has been fascinating as it has allowed me to feel a shared sense of identity. I feel Japonism is a powerful early example of how Eastern art influenced the art of the West. Indeed, as we will see later, this influence continues today.

In this essay, I will consider the considerable impact that Japanese art had on the Impressionist movement in the late 1800s and how it allowed key Impressionist artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and John Singer Sargent to take a more abstract approach, experimenting with colour and brush mark technique. A key area to consider is also the subject matter and I will look at motifs as well as pattern and texture.

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I will visit Tate Britain to study Sargent’s painting, as well as spend time at the Victoria and Albert Museum exploring Japanese influence on fashion over the decades and, in particular, on John Galliano’s designs.


In 1853 after trade reopened between Japan and Europe, after more than 200 years, foreign merchant ships of various nationalities again began to visit Japan. Many Japanese ceramics, fans, ukiyo-e prints, bronzes, cloisonné enamels and other arts, came to Europe and the USA and soon gained popularity. Particularly, Paris was one of the central transaction cities at that time.

Japonism was a new term that appeared in the art world in the late 1800s. It came from the French “Japonisme”, which means the influence of Japanese art, culture, and aesthetics. The term is generally said to have been coined by the French critic Philippe Burty in the early 1870s. Japonism started with a craze for collecting Japanese art in society, and particularly ukiyo-e (Japanese woodcut print). Some of the first samples were to be seen in Paris exhibitions or Far Eastern curio shops. In 1867, at the Paris Exposition Universelle, Japan organized the first formal arts and crafts exhibition. The exhibition attracted many French collectors, artists, art critics and even raised the interest of the more affluent public. All the things about Japanese culture or art became stylish and fashionable. Many Far Eastern curio shops began to sell woodblock prints, fabrics, ceramics, and furniture so on.

At the same time, in the art circle, many famous artists also collected Japanese woodcut prints, for example, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and other artists. Japonism had a major influence on Impressionism. One of the reasons why I have chosen this topic is Impressionism is one of my favourite art movements; many influential and famous artists are Impressionists. Also as an international student, I personally like to combine eastern and western cultures. Therefore, I have found a special link between Japanese art and Impressionism paintings.

I have chosen Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh as two of my artists to study. The reason for my choices is their works were influenced by ukiyo-e the most. Also they had the same interest, which was collecting woodcut prints from Japan. John Singer Sargent is the other artist I have selected, because of the Oriental subject matter in his painting. Therefore, the subject matter in many impressionists’ works was the key change. Japanese patterned fabrics, screens and artifacts appear in many Impressionist works.

Not only had the subject matter in the same Impressionist paintings changed, but many characteristics of Japanese art influenced these artists. Around the 1860s, ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, became very popular and were a source of inspiration.

Monet’s use of Japanese visual elements and aesthetics:

The first artist I have decided to discuss is Claude Monet. He was a leading member and initiator of French Impressionist during the 1870s and 1880s. I have chosen him as my first artist because some of Monet’s work showed a deep level of Japanese aesthetic practice. He was born in Paris in 1840. As the elder son of a grocer; he spent most of his childhood in Le Havre, a seaside town in northern France. Because he lived there, because of this location, the beaches and ocean had a profound impact on Monet at a very young age.

When Monet was 15, he started to practice his pencil sketches of sailing ships and drew caricatures. Monet’s aunt Marie-Jeanne Lecadre was an amateur painter. This may also have had some impact on encouraging Monet to be an artist. He received instruction at the College du Havre from a former pupil of the famous Neo-Classical artist Jacques-Louis David.

As a youth, he sold his caricatures and earned 2000 francs from his art sales. But Monet did not become a painter until he made friends with a local artist called Eugène Boudin, he was the person who encouraged Monet to become a landscape painter. In 1859, Monet moved to Paris to study after he rejected the offer to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts. Instead, unlike the other artists, Monet did not choose to be a career Salon painte. At the same time, he met most of the major artists of the era including Renoir, Cézanne, Whistler and Manet. After receiving commissions throughout the 1870s, Monet enjoyed the pleasures of a middle-class lifestyle. During this period, Monet’s subject matter often involved domestic scenes featuring his wife, son, and various gardens.

Monet had many interests at that time, including gardening, travelling and collecting Japanese Art. He collected more than 200 Japanese woodblock prints at home. Some of Monet’s works were influenced by the art and culture of Japan, especially the visual element. La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) 1876 was one of the most representative and obvious proofs of Monet being influenced by the art and culture of Japan, and it really catches my eye.

This is oil on canvas which was the common medium at that time. The model in this painting is Monet’s wife, Camille. She wears a red kimono with colourful patterns. And she also holds a Japanese fan in her hand, smiling look straight at the viewer’s eyes. The greenish-blue wallpaper and the bright red kimono make a strong contrast. Monet painted the patterns on his wife’s kimono using his own very detailed technique. The wallpaper on the background is covered with Japanese fans in random order, and some of them are also on the floor. We can see almost each figure on each fan clearly. It suggests that Monet has a deep knowledge of Japanese visual elements and aesthetics.

Japonism as a key influence in Van Gogh’s work:

The second artist I have decided to study is Vincent Van Gogh. As one of the world-famous post-impressionist artists, he played an important role in the influence of Japanese Art on Impressionism. He was born in 1853 in Zundert in the southern Netherlands as the eldest son of a pastor. Young Van Gogh lived in a religious, traditional and cultured family, probably because of that, he was quiet and lacked self-confidence, and spent most of his free time in the countryside. Unlike some artists, Van Gogh took some time to discover himself as a painter.

In 1880, he finally decided to become an artist, after an unsuccessful professional life, but his artistic career was extremely short, only during the period from 1880 to 1890. However, Van Gogh worked really hard and improved his drawing and painting skills by teaching himself, also having the financial support of his brother Theo. Moreover, he met many artists and became friends with them, including Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro and Degas. His style changed and improved significantly under the influence of different artists and he produced a large number of paintings in this period.

During the time when he was staying with his brother Theo in Paris, Van Gogh began to collected Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and became interested in Japanese art. Paris was one of the cities where Japonism had become influential on western artworks. He even made a good deal with the local gallery, so he spent a lot of time admiring and studying the characteristics of Japonaiserie and he became a collector of ukiyo-e. Van Gogh, like so many other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, was one of the admirers of Japanese art. In a letter (1888) to Theo he wrote:

“About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — and we wouldn’t go to Japan, in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.”

“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art, and if I’ve said nothing about this to Bing it’s because I think that after my journey in the south I’ll be able to take the subject up again perhaps more seriously. Japanese art, in decline in its own country, is taking new roots among French Impressionist artists. It’s this practical side for artists that necessarily interests me — more than the trade-in japonaiseries. However, this trade is all the more interesting because of the direction that French art is tending to take”

These two letters are strong evidence that Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese art. He himself said that all his works are based to some extent on Japanese art. Van Gogh knew that he was not the only one who was influenced by Japonism and that it would go on to influence other artists in the future.

Many of Van Gogh’s works reflect Japanese culture and traditional painting. The Courtesan (after Eisen) was one of these works.

The Courtesan (after Eisen) was one of representative

works which are based on Japanese ukiyo-e. In 1886, the cover of the magazine Paris Illustré was a reproduction of a print by Keisai Eisen; this cover inspired Van Gogh. He traced the figure and really studied the composition; then, enlarged it to produce his painting. However, Van Gogh did not copy the figure from woodcut print, but actually used it as a staring point to develop his own style.

The Courtesan (after Eisen) is oil on canvas. The dress of the woman in this painting can tell us that she is a courtesan, for example, the hairstyle, hairpieces and the way she wears the kimono are typical features of a courtesan. The re-copy of the courtesan is placed in the centre of the yellow background block. The colour Van Gogh used on the courtesan’s headdress and kimono are mainly red, blue and green. It showed the contrast and makes the courtesan stand out. On the background, he painted a Japanese garden based on the landscapes of other prints he owned. The water lilies, frogs, cranes and bamboo are all typical subject matter appears in many Japanese art works. The ukiyo-e’s stylistic features, such as bold outlines, simplified figures, the lack of perspective and shadow, Van Gogh combated these with his own style to create this piece.

Comparing The Courtesan (after Eisen) with La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), we can see that all these two paintings were influenced by the art and culture of Japan. The main figures in the paintings are in common, a woman wearing a kimono with colourful patterns. One is a traditional Japanese courtesan, the other one is Monet’s wife who is from Europe. Looking at these two paintings in more details, the woman standing positions are quite similar. In The Courtesan (after Eisen), the courtesan does not stand directly facing the audience, but has her head turned, it seems like she is looking back. The main difference of these two paintings is the composition. The Courtesan (after Eisen) has quite extraordinary composition for oil paintings at that time, his re-copy of the courtesan and the Japanese garden background are in separate blocks. Unlike Van Gogh’s this painting, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) is large-scale figure portrait, which is one of Monet’s significant challenges as a previously traditional Impressionist artist. Van Gogh used a re-copy image of a colour woodblock by Keisai Eisen and Monet used his own wife as a model. The important common areas with these two paintings are the visual elements. These show that both paintings have strong influence and references to Japanese art. For example, bold use of colour, Japanese subject matters and unique impressionism brushwork are employed.

Unusual subject matter suggests an Eastern influence in Singer Sargent’s work:

The last artist I have chosen is John Singer Sargent. He is a-American impressionist artist. Because of the loss of Sargent’s older sister, both his parents decided to move to Europe. So Sargent ended up being born in Italy. His parents decided not to go back and live in America, so it was not until at the age of 20 that Sargent first saw the United States, when he gained citizenship.

He was heavily influenced by the Impressionist movement and educated as a French artist. In 1874, he went to Paris and studied and drew with Carolus Duran, who was one of the most celebrated portrait painters in the 1870s. As the teacher of John Singer Sargent, he trained and improved Sargent’s painting technique. Because of Sargent’s love of nature from the considerable amount of time he spent outdoors during his childhood, he preferred landscapes rather than portraits. Nevertheless, Carolus-Duran was convinced that the best career for Sargent’s future was as a painter.

The landscape was not considered as prestigious in society as portrait and narrative paintings. In fact, he did paint many portraits during his career and was commissioned to do so.

In 1885, Sargent went on a boating expedition on the Thames near Pangbourne with the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey. During that period, he saw Chinese lanterns and Japanese lilies amongst the trees, which gave him inspiration. During that period, he began to create the picture at the home of the painter F.D. Millet in Broadway, Worcestershire. He first used Millet’s daughter as his model, but then replaced her with the illustrator Frederick Barnard’s two daughters, Dolly and Polly. Sargent chose them because their hair colour was exactly what he was looking for. When Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was first revealed to the public, he received high praise and won over the whole art world in 1887.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-1886) was one of Sargent’s masterpieces. I have selected this painting because of the subject matter. Indeed, even for Sargent himself, it was an unusual style and far away from formal portraits. The relaxed portrayal of two young girls has a dream-like quality.

Richard Ormond, Sargent’s nephew, who has written several books on the paintings of Sargent and other famous painters and is the curator of the Sargent exhibition, wrote:

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was painted entirely out of doors at this magical twilight time of day and it’s wonderfully complicated. It’s a kind of Garden of Eden, an invented garden dense with flowers and foliage. It combines the en plein air technique with pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic impulses. With the two little girls lighting the lanterns, it’s an image of childhood innocence.”

The technique Sargent used was called en plein air, it is style of painting developed chiefly in France in the mid-19th century, characterized by the representation of the effects of natural light and atmosphere as compared to the artificial light and atmosphere associated with paintings produced in the studio. He learned from his friend Monet in Paris because Sargent didn’t have much experience of painting outdoors in the Impressionist manner. As Richard Ormond said, Sargent only had a few minutes to catch the twilight glow before the light disappeared every night, so he spent almost the entire summer of 1885 and 1886 producing this painting.

Looking at the painting, you can see the colour of the lighting plays a very important role. Sargent used a soft orangey pink as the colour of the glow of the lanterns. The whole painting has a pastel purple or pink tone, even the white lilies and white dresses the two girls wear. It proved that Sargent did spend a lot of time working to “catch the magical twilight time of day” by using colour. Also, Sargent clearly uses different pastel colours to create that same kind of dream-like painting. Frederick Barnard’s two daughters, Dolly and Polly, are the focal point, then the viewers’ eye move to the surrounding vegetation and lanterns. The lilies, roses and carnations are scattered over half the canvas. In addition, the name of this painting actually comes from the popular song in the 1880s called The Wreath composer by the operas, Joseph Mazzinghi. The refrain of the song asks the question: ‘Have you seen my Flora pass this way?’ to which the answer is ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’.

Influences continue today:

Of course, these influences are not limited to the Impressionist period. In fact, Eastern influences still play an important role in the art world and also in fashion. This is particularly evident in the designs of John Galliano for Christian Dior. In the spring/summer 2007 Couture collection, strong Japanese influences pervade though out the collection.

In the design shown the silhouette of the two-piece combines an elongated and sleek empire-line evening dress in a western style, with a striking kimono-style jacket. This increases the silhouette impressively. The citrus colours are fresh and spring-like and are more vivid versions of the colours used in Impressionist art. In addition, we can see similar motifs such as flowers. A striking feature in common is the visible brush marking. The origami design on the bodies and the style of hat leave no doubt that there is strong Japanese influence.


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