Japonisme

Artists often seek to expand beyond their ‘comfort zones’, not just stylistically but culturally. There have been many examples of painters from the west traveling to other locales in search of new and different subject matter, and it’s understandable. I mean, how many times can one paint the Place de la Concorde? The foreign sojourns of famous artists have, in many cases, produced some of their most compelling works; Matisse in Morocco, Gauguin in Tahiti, Sargent in Venice, just to name a few.

With the Tokugawa period starting in 1600, Japan was ruled by a feudal military dictatorship and largely isolated from the west due to its ‘closed country’ policy, or sakoku, which lasted for over two centuries. I had to look all this up because my knowledge of Japanese history is abysmal! Around 1854, the campaign of Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan’s commercial trade routes. As a result, demand for Japanese decorative arts, fashions, woodblock prints, screens, porcelains and the like, became quite the craze among well-to-do Europeans. Artists took note and drew inspiration from the Japanese aesthetic. It became known as Japonism, or the French ‘Japonisme’, and you can see these influences in many works from the mid to late 19th century.

Some painters opted to integrate eastern themes and techniques in their work from the comfort their studios, posing an evidently Western model in a kimono, while holding a fan, etc. Monet’s La Japonaise is a famous example, in which the artist’s wife Camille poses in Japanese dress. American expatriate James Abbot McNeill Whistler enthusiastically embraced the Japonisme fad. This work of his from 1865, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, is a beautifully rendered studio creation despite the bogus title. The model is British-born Christina Spartali:

The Dutch also jumped on the Japonisme bandwagon. Between 1893 and 1896, George Hendrik Breitner painted a series of works depicting a young girl, sixteen year old Geesje Kwak, in variously colored kimonos. This one, Girl in a White Kimono, is a strong piece. The kimono is lovely, but I find Geesje’s facial expression and arm gestures more interesting:

I’ve posed in a kimono several times myself, and held fans. But I’d like to return to this post’s introduction about travel and highlight the works of two artist friends who actually packed up their supplies and made the trip to Japan, where they were able to observe its culture, its people, and its elegant gardens firsthand. They are two guys from Scotland, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, prominent members of the “Glasgow Boys” collective of Scottish painters during the late 1800s. They spent a year and half in Japan on a study tour and produced really colorful, striking, energetic works. Note how markedly different they are from the ‘staged’ Japanese-themed paintings.

First, three from George Henry.  Japanese Lady with a Fan, 1894:

A Japanese Pottery Seller:

Japanese Beauty, watercolor:

And three from Hornel. Dancing Geisha:

Street Scene in Tokyo:

Two Geisha Girls: