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What is Japonism? How did it influence European art and culture?

European interest in Japanese aesthetics

Japonism was a Japanese cultural fad in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It had a major influence on artists and the widespread appreciation of arts and crafts.

Japonism is said to have been triggered by the Opium War that broke out in China in 1840. Around that time, the West became increasingly aware of Japanese goods and information. Soon after the arrival of Matthew C. Perry in Uraga, Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world and imported arts and crafts to Europe, which led to a rapid increase in the number of people, especially in urban areas, who were interested in them.

Portrait of Matthew Perry (Copied by Mary Craven Johnson)
ColBase[https://colbase.nich.go.jp/]

The European interest in Japan at that time was not limited to arts and crafts but expanded to include Japanese aesthetics, views of nature, and mystical elements. This enthusiasm for Japanese culture influenced philosophy and designs of European artists.

Hiroshige and Gauguin

While perspective, light and dark, and realism had been the basic norms in Western painting until then, in the latter half of the 19th century, the power of expression through color increased. Impressionist painters, who were strongly influenced by Japonism, sought a new style of painting that incorporated the unique composition and colors of Ukiyo-e. Manet, Monet, Gauguin, and Van Gogh are representative of these artists.

In Gauguin’s “Vision After the Sermon”(1888), each motif is depicted in monotonous and flat colors. Furthermore, they are strongly contrasted by being framed by contour lines. This use of vivid colors next to each other is influenced by Ukiyo-e prints made using woodblock printing. In the case of woodblock prints, the number of colors is limited, so Ukiyo-e artists focused on and are conscious of the contrast of colors.

1925.3752 - Plum Garden at Kameido (Kameido Umeyashiki), from...

Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Meisho Edo Hyakkei”(名所江戸百景「亀戸梅屋舗」/Plum Garden at Kameido, from the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo / Art Institute Chicago)

In terms of spatial expression, a tree trunk is drawn diagonally in the center of the canvas. This representation of a tree without showing the base or tip of the trunk is reminiscent of Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Meisho Edo Hyakkei”(名所江戸百景「亀戸梅屋舗」/Plum Garden at Kameido, from the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo).

See episode2: Japonism and European Art: Ogata Korin and Gustav Klimt

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Nakanishi Kazuharu

Editor, Writer / Graduated from the Faculty of Literature and Arts at Kinki University. After working for a publishing company, became a freelance writer.

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