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What is Japonism? - Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In 1854, Japan started trading with the West. This fundamentally changed European art. In this lesson, we'll look at Japonism in Europe and see how some popular prints shook Western aesthetics.

Japonism

Today, if we want to learn about other cultures, we can just go to the internet. It's easy. But what would you have done back in the 19th century? Suddenly, learning about the art, philosophy, and culture of a foreign land becomes more challenging.

This was the predicament of mid-19th-century European artists, who were starting to question some of the centuries-old conventions of Western art. However, this would prove to be difficult. How do you begin breaking from Western art when Western art is all you know?

As luck would have it, a movement from the East was about to descend onto Europe. In 1854, the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan unexpectedly opened the islands to outsiders. Japanese products such as fans, prints, and other ornate objects came flooding into Europe, sparking a cultural obsession with all things Japanese. We call the late 19th-century fascination with Japanese culture, and in particular its impact on Western art, Japonism.

History of Japonism

Although the craze of Japonism struck suddenly, Europeans had been interested in East Asian arts for a long time. Japanese and Chinese porcelains were being collected by the 1700s, as were Japanese paintings. In essence, it was mainly the so-called high arts of Japan that had made their way to the West, where they were imported and displayed with care.

The Tokugawa government's shift in its policy towards outsiders changed this. It was no longer simply the high arts being imported from Japan. Popular arts flooded the market in the forms of kimonos, fans, and cheap woodblock prints. These more affordable products made their ways into the homes of Europeans across the continent. The cultural obsession really began, however, with two major events of the mid-century.

In 1862, the first major public show of Japanese art was hosted in London, called the International Exhibition. People flocked to the show and eagerly marveled at the exotic arts. This fascination compounded at the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in Paris in 1867. This was the first time that Japan had its own pavilion in a European-based world fair, and it was incredibly popular. By 1872, a French art critic had developed a term for the ever-increasing obsession with Japanese popular arts: Japonisme.

Influence on the Arts

Art tends to reflect society, so cultural obsessions often find their way into the fine arts. It didn't take long at all for the influence of Japonism to start appearing in Western art. Sometimes, the link was obvious.

James Tissot was a respected genre painter of the 19th century, whose works depicted scenes of daily life. In the 1860s, those scenes started including more and more Japanese objects. For example, his 1864 La Japonaise au bain depicts a female nude (a very respectable subject in Western fine art), draped in a Japanese kimono. In 1869, he painted a scene of daily life entitled Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects. Japonism was becoming part of European life, and artists like Tissot captured it.

La Japonaise au bain, by James Tissot
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Of the many products to enter Europe from Japan, none had a greater impact on the arts than ukiyo-e prints. Ukiyo-e is a Japanese popular art of woodblock printing, focusing largely on scenes of daily life. The printing techniques of Ukiyo-e resulted in images composed of flat colors. Artists used strong, thick lines to delineate figures and objects. To most Westerners, this was the definitive Japanese aesthetic, and the prints became exceedingly popular. In fact, art dealer Tadamasa Hayashi sold 150,000 of these prints between 1890 and 1901 in Paris alone.

Ukiyo-e print by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige
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Of course, the influence of Japonism went beyond the appearance of Japanese objects as subjects of art. Japonism began to reshape European art itself. Remember, there was a growing movement of artists who wanted to break free from the conventions of Western fine art. Now, their culture was being flooded not only with Japanese arts, but popular arts specifically. This was the ultimate rejection of Western academic art, and avant-garde artists ate it up. The representational yet abstract aesthetics of Japanese art began working their way into Western paintings.

To avant-garde artists, this was the key to rejecting Western convention. Western painters tended to focus on extremely representational art, striving to make the viewer forget they were looking at a canvas. With their flat colors and strong lines, ukiyo-e prints never pretended to be anything other than images.

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