Influence of Japanese Woodblock Printing on Impressionists

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  • 0:01 Japonisme
  • 0:27 Japanese Woodblock Prints
  • 1:29 Woodblocks and Impressionism
  • 3:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the French artistic style of impressionism and discover how Japanese woodblock prints inspired French artists. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Japan is very far away from France. Yet, in the 19th century, Japanese art came to have a tremendous impact on French art. So much so, in fact, that the French invented a word to describe the Japanese artistic aesthetic and style, called Japonisme. In English we might call this 'Japanification', 'Japonism' or 'Japonesque'.

Japanese Woodblock Prints

The French fascination with all things Japanese really comes down to a certain product: woodblock prints. These were cheap images, quickly produced and printed using a woodblock, or a carved piece of wood painted with ink that was pressed onto paper. For prints of multiple colors, different blocks had to be used - each one only pressed a single color onto the page. However, this meant that woodblock prints were reproducible, and printers could make several copies of a single image. This, in turn, made them cheap, and French markets were flooded with these affordable images.

Stylistically, Japanese woodblock prints had a unique look. Since it was difficult to create much depth, and since too many patterns or colors would be very time consuming, these prints featured large areas of flat space, broken up by sharp lines. There was also a trend to create scenes viewed from above, looking down at the subjects from an angle.

Woodblocks and Impressionism

The French really liked Japanese prints, and French artists found them simply fascinating. The impressionists especially found inspiration in these affordable images. For one, they already shared a few traits. Both artistic styles focused on scenes of daily life and focused on the physical surface of the art as much as the subject. The impressionists encouraged people to focus on the canvas through blurred lines and brushstrokes that only revealed an image when seen from a distance. Woodblock prints did this with the flat surfaces and printed layers of color. It wasn't long before artists began to draw inspiration from these prints.

Impressionists found inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints
Painting by Edward Degas and Woodblock print

Look at these two images, notice anything similar? For one, the subject, a woman bathing, is a scene of everyday life. The image on the left is called The Tub, painted by Edgar Degas in 1886. Besides the subject, Degas took a few other ideas from Japanese prints. Look at the large, flat surface that dominates the right half of the image and breaks up the piece or the perspective of looking down on the scene at an angle. Even the almost outlined look of the woman; all inspired by Japanese prints and used to help capture the feeling of a single moment in art.

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