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:

10 thoughts on “Japonisme

  1. artmodelandrew says:

    “Note how markedly different they are from the ‘staged’ Japanese-themed paintings.” Indeed. The authenticity shines.

  2. Bill says:

    The whole kimono issue can be fraught with controversy. A couple of years ago, the model for the Drawing in the Galleries program at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was told to model in a kimono and had to endure the presence of protestors standing next to her holding signs alleging “racism” and “imperialism”. During the breaks, museum-goers were allowed to wear the kimono for photos.

    It was probably the first time on record that a life session was protested because the model wore clothing 🙂 But I admit that it wasn’t funny at the time — I know that model to be a good and decent person (ironically, she herself is an immigrant) and she should not have been subject to that treatment. If there was going to be an apology, it should have been made to her.

    • artmodel says:


      “It was probably the first time on record that a life session was protested because the model wore clothing” <— funny! I like that. But yes, I remember this whole ugly controversy and I'm glad you shared it here in the comments, since you are Museworthy's 'Boston correspondent' 🙂
      The protestors' behavior was rude and indecorous. Like you said, the model should not have had to endure that abuse and she is absolutely owed an apology. So much 'activist' culture has gotten out of hand and become misguided, hitting the wrong targets, humiliating innocent people, and sowing outrage. Why did the MFA not put a stop to this?

      Thanks for your comments, Bill, and thanks especially for sticking up for the model in this incident. Her dignity matters.


  3. Dave says:

    Thank you for this terrific lesson. I knew absolutely nothing about western depictions of Japanese life, and I certainly hadn’t seen any of those paintings before. Once again, you are a gifted writer and teacher.

    I hope you’re having a nice weekend. I have a two-model open session tomorrow, so thanks again for the very helpful advice you gave me a few years back before the first time I had a session with another model.

    • artmodel says:


      You are very kind! Thanks for your generous comments. One of the nice things about composing posts like this is that I, too, get to learn in the process.

      I hope your double model session went well! It’s been a couple of months since I did one of those. Hard work and quite different from posing solo, as you know.

      Always good to hear from you!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Elegant, bright work! Thanks for an interesting post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.