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Japonism Art & Fashion: Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever been inspired by a new style? Where did that style come from? In late 19th-century Europe, some artists were inspired by Japanese art. In this lesson, explore Japonism in art and fashion.

What Is Japonism?

Sometimes, artists and designers see a style new to them that sparks imagination.

That's what happened when Japanese fine art, decorative arts and fashions became more available in Europe, inspiring a wide range of art and design that became known as Japonism.

Japonism was a term created in France (originally it was 'Japonisme') to refer to the craze for Japanese art and design in late 19th-century Europe. The interest was sparked when Japan opened its ports to trade with the West in 1853. The term 'Japonism' also sometimes referred to works created by European artists and designers inspired by Japanese goods and design sense.

Japanese art and style weren't completely unknown in Europe. For centuries, there'd been interest in Japanese and Oriental art among a select group of people. But such goods were valuable, rare and not available to wider audiences. This is why the opening of trade made a difference. After 1853, Japanese goods like silks, fans, and porcelains came pouring into European markets.

Especially popular were Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo - e. Also known as 'pictures of the floating world,' Ukiyo - e prints depicted mundane pleasures for the prosperous Japanese middle class. The mass-produced, colorful prints included subjects like courtesans and sumo wrestlers, erotic adventures, kabuki actors, folktales, and landscapes. They were shipped to Europe in great numbers. Europeans eagerly bought them.

A Japanese Ukiyo - e woodblock print
Ukiyo e print

Suddenly, Japanese art and culture were everywhere. In 1862, many Londoners saw it at the important International Exhibition. In 1867 in Paris, the public saw examples of Japanese art and design in the first-ever Japanese pavilion at the Exposition Universelle, the equivalent of a World's Fair. Shops sprang up selling a whole range of goods.

Characteristics of Japonism

Artists and designers were among those influenced by Japanese art, which was very different from Western art. Artists saw, especially in the Ukiyo - e prints, a different way of rendering images. The prints featured asymmetrical compositions with strong diagonal lines, giving them a sense of dynamism. Shapes were elongated and cropped at unusual angles. Perspective was flattened, unlike that found in Western art. Perspective is the means of rending images to create an illusion of three-dimensional space.

The Japanese images contained large areas of decorative color, giving them a stylized appearance. They also displayed an emphasis on curving, sinuous line. Many European artists, tired of staid European academic art, adapted Japanese style elements in their art.

Japonism in Art

Japanese style as displayed in the Ukiyo - e prints became very influential in art movements like Impressionism, which rose in the 1870s and 1880s, and Art Nouveau, which developed around 1890.

Artists inspired by Japanese art and design included James A. M. Whistler (1834 - 1903). His painting Princess From The Land of Porcelain, created between 1863 - 1865, displayed strong Japanese influence in the rendering of the woman's costume and setting, including decorative arts like a screen, fan and rug. The image was part of a whole room design heavily based on Japonism.

Princess From The Land of Porcelain by Whistler, circa 1864
Princess from the Land of Porcelain

French painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) was also influenced by Japanese art. He collected Ukiyo - e prints and created images with flattened space and wide areas of color. In 1887, he was inspired by the work of Kesai Eisen and painted The Courtesan .

The Courtesan by Van Gogh, 1887
The Courtesan by Van Gogh

Japonism in Fashion

Japonism also impacted late 19th-century European fashions. In places like Paris and London, fashion houses began importing silks and clothing like kimonos, one piece loosely draped silk garment with wide arms. Worn by men and women, it could be gathered at the waist with a belt called an obi. For example, an ad from around 1900 for the Babani fashion house in Paris clearly promoted the fact that they imported Japanese kimonos. They were one of the retailers that became very successful selling what they called 'robes japonnaises.'

Fashion advertisement for the Babani fashion house promoting Japanese kimonos for sale, circa 1900
Babani fashion advertisement

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