Artworks and Artists of Japonism

Progression of Art
Édouard Manet: Portrait of Émile Zola (1868)

Portrait of Émile Zola

Artist: Édouard Manet

What appears to be a casual portrait of the writer Émile Zola is really a carefully composed array of symbols and references. Zola is shown in Manet's studio, but the objects around him were chosen to suggest Zola's character and convey the friendship between the artist and the sitter. When Manet's Olympia had scandalized the 1865 Salon, Zola, a respected art critic, published a brochure (1866) to defend Manet's work; that essay is clearly visible on the desk. In it, Zola argued that Olympia was Manet's best work, and it was due to his ardent support that Manet offered to paint this portrait. The men are shown as comrades in the battle for modern art, hinted at by the juxtaposition of reproductions of Manet's Olympia with Utagawa Kunaiki II's print of a wrestler. Zola sits in profile, looking up from the open book with a thoughtful expression. The text is likely Charles Blanc's L'Histoire des peintres (1861), a book which Manet often consulted, further linking these two men.

Other objects in the room also point to their shared tastes and artistic influences. On the left, a Japanese screen depicting a landscape and a bird on a branch, is partially visible. Manet, however, doesn't simply import these exotic objects into the portrait, he incorporates elements of japoniste design into the composition. The lines of the gray screen and the white border of the Japanese print on the right transform the black background into a series of intersecting rectangles. This creates a flat pictorial plane that contrasts sharply with the writer's head and shoulders before merging with the almost solid form of his black jacket. This effect is strikingly similar to the figure of the wrestler in the Japanese print, who is also strongly outlined by his black long coat. Thus, the elements of Japonism are included not only to convey the shared interests of Manet and Zola, but as a means of flattening and simplifying the shapes and palette to create a new, modern style of Western portraiture.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris



Artist: Edward William Godwin

This sideboard, made of ebonized mahogany, exemplifies Godwin's Anglo-Japanese style. While it remains a functional piece of furniture, the form has been abstracted and ornamented to create a visually intricate series of rectangular shapes. Adopting elements of Japanese design, Godwin arranges the cubic cabinets on top of the table so that they call attention to the negative space surrounding them. The process of ebonizing the wood made it more uniform in color and texture, allowing the viewer to focus on its structure. It seems almost metallic in its perfection, the smooth lines interrupted only by selective decoration and the silver-plated handles. With its geometric forms and austere lines and material, the work prefigures the modernism of Dde Stijl and the Bauhaus.

Godwin began his career as an architect and designer working in the mid-century Victorian Gothic style. Through his association with Whistler, for whom he built The White House (1877-1878), Godwin began studying Japanese design and became a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese style. His luxurious furniture and architectural spaces were also closely allied with the Aesthetic Movement.

Mahogany, ebonized, with silver-plated handles and inset panels of embossed leather paper - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

James Whistler: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77)

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Artist: James Whistler

This multi-media installation was designed to display Frederick R. Leyland's prominent collection of Chinese porcelain. A wealthy shipping magnate, Leyland had commissioned Whistler to only paint a portrait of the renowned beauty, Christine Spartall, to decorate his dining room. When the architect in charge of the larger project, Thomas Jeckyll, became ill, Whistler took it upon himself to complete the decoration of the room. Although Leyland was pleased with the design, the unapproved and expensive project (some estimated $200,000 above budget) led to a falling-out between artist and patron. As an entire environment, however, the Peacock Room is a masterpiece; it was purchased by Charles Freer and is installed today at the Smithsonian Museum.

This view of The Peacock Room shows Whistler's Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-64), in a gold frame and framed by golden shelves. Nestled amongst the intricate geometry of this display, the painting is also japoniste in iconography and composition. In its subject, it directly reflects the influence of Kitagawa Utamaro, most known for his prints of beautiful women. Holding a Japanese fan in her right hand and dressed in a floral kimono, the beauty stands pensively on a blue and white patterned rug, in front of a byobu (Japanese screen).

In designing the room, Whistler took his painting as the central motif, for instance, adding a blue and white rug similar to the one in his portrait. At the same time, the portrait is enriched by its placement, as the rose of the kimono takes on a golden hue from its surroundings. The painting and its environment are built to be considered as one unity.

In the 20th century, Whistler's all-encompassing design would influence Abstract Expressionists such as Robert Motherwell and David Smith. A more contemporary interpretation of the room was Darren Waterston's installation Filthy Lucre (2013-2014), which recreated the opulent room in a state of decaying ruin, shelves overturned, vases broken, its gold oozing down the walls.

Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood - Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Edgar Degas: Dancers in the Rehearsal Room (1882-85)

Dancers in the Rehearsal Room

Artist: Edgar Degas

This unusually elongated, horizontal canvas is further made strange by its unconventional composition. The left half is dominated by a blank diagonal wall, while a series of dancers are crowded into the remaining space. The viewer is further disoriented by the strange pose of the central figure, a young dancer who bends in half. As she stretches in this awkward position, her tulle creates a lacy white circle around her. Behind her, another ballet dancer stands in profile, and a third dancer, her skirt and arm flaring out, is partially visible. In the upper right, a flurry of partially visible dancers can be seen.

Unlike other artists who included Japanese props or clothing in their paintings, Degas avoids all obvious reference to Japonism. Yet this painting, and many of his depictions of 19th-century Paris are deeply infused with what he considered to be Japanese principles of composition and perspective. The elongated canvas, the emphasis on the asymmetrical diagonals of the wall, the large color planes, and the use of aerial perspective, all reflect the influence of ukiyo-e prints. The pose of the ballet dancer bending over is directly borrowed from Hokusai who often depicted his figures caught in movement. Degas adopted this approach to figurative poses to create a greater sense of spontaneity and instantaneity, ideas that were central to his Impressionist style.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of Père Tanguy (Father Tanguy) (1887)

Portrait of Père Tanguy (Father Tanguy)

Artist: Vincent van Gogh

When van Gogh arrived in Paris, the self-taught artist set to studying both Impressionist painting and Japanese prints. Both sources quickly became incorporated in his personal style, as demonstrated by this portrait of Julien-François Tanguy, an art dealer and owner of an art supplies shop who was affectionately known as Père Tanguy. Painted with highly visible brushstrokes and brilliant colors, Tanguy appears before a background of Japanese woodblock prints. The pure and contrasting complementary colors and flat picture space of his Neo-Impressionism are indented to both Impressionism and Japanese art.

Not only does van Gogh's portrait reveal his own interest in these influences, but he uses Japonism to conveys the character of Tanguy who appears as an introspective sage. Indeed, the stability of this generous supporter (who often accepted paintings in exchange for supplies) is implied by van Gogh's blending of Tanguy's hat with the print of Mt. Fuji behind him. Flattening the body of his sitter with strong outlines and brushwork, Tanguy appears to merge into the center of these vivid, yet harmonious juxtapositions of colors and images. The Japanese prints do not convey a sense of the exotic or mere visual interest, they are used to convey the honor and respect van Gogh felt for his friend. One of a series of three portraits, Tanguy kept this work in his personal collection until his death (when it was purchased by Auguste Rodin).

Van Gogh preferred to use the term "Japonaiserie" to describe the inclusion of Japanese art and methods into his work. He had first encountered ukiyo-e when he was still living in Antwerp; when he moved to Paris in 1886, he began collecting the prints along with his brother, Theo. The prints in the background are some of the Japanese prints that both brothers had collected (and van Gogh's La courtisane (The Courtesan) (1887) copied Keisai Eisen's print seen on the lower right of the canvas).

Prone to mythologizing Japanese culture, van Gogh idealized Japanese life and artists. He imagined them working as monks in a communal setting, hoping to recreate this atmosphere in the Yellow House, where he briefly lived with Paul Gauguin in 1888. Quite tellingly, van Gogh wrote to Theo, "Look, we love Japanese painting, we've experienced its influence - all the Impressionists have that in common - [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all."

Oil on canvas - Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Paul Gauguin: Still Life with Japanese Woodcut (1889)

Still Life with Japanese Woodcut

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Gauguin's interest in non-Western cultures included elements of Japonism, both in the iconography of his paintings and their structure. This still life of two floral arrangements includes Utagawa Toskiiu's print, depicting Ichikawa Kodajki, a famous actor, in his role as the white-haired, spear bearing hunter, Nagohe. But Gauguin has also adopted the simplified color palette, absence of depth and shadow, and the division of the pictorial plane into several broad areas found in Japanese prints, creating a pictorial minimalism and flatness that pushes his still life away from the illusionistic tradition of the genre. The leaves along the border further suggest that the work is not trying to create an illusionistic depth but signals that it is in fact only a flat painted surface, vibrant with color.

In selecting these objects, the work exemplifies how Japonism informed Gauguin's development of Symbolism and Synthecism, two movements where he played a major role. The jug is Gauguin's own sculpture, Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-portrait (1889). It seems to gaze at the other vase of flowers, as does Nagohe, creating a humorous portrait effect. Gauguin sets himself as an equal to the Japanese artist. He chooses elements that become symbols, here, juxtaposing nature with his self-portrait, exotic culture, and art.

Oil on canvas - Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran, Iran

Mary Cassatt: Maternal Caress (1890-91)

Maternal Caress

Artist: Mary Cassatt

In 1890, after seeing the ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Cassatt began work on a series of ten color etchings, including this one, inspired by Kitagawa Utamaro's prints of ordinary moments in women's lives, such as Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child (1790). Finding an analogue to her own paintings of domestic spaces, Cassatt explored the composition and flatness of the print medium. This work, with its empty foreground and simple background rendered in broad planes of color, emphasizes the figure of a young mother. The pattern of her white patterned and floral chair (a pattern continued in the wallpaper) contrast with the nude child she embraces, creating a play between two- and three-dimensional forms.

This compression of space is further emphasized by the cropping of the image, which limits the view to a series of repeating patterns. As a result, line and color become a focal point, underscoring the intimate relationship of mother and child. The curving outlines of the two figures in the chair, coupled with the variations of the limited color palette create a sense of harmony. Cassatt's subsequent masterpiece, The Child's Bath (1893) echoed this flattened pictorial space, limited palette, and emphasis on pattern to become nearly abstract in its geometry, demonstrating the importance of Japonism to her style.

Drypoint, aquatint and soft ground etching, printed in color from three plates - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Divan Japonais (1892-93)

Divan Japonais

Artist: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Commissioned by the owner of the popular Montmartre dance hall, Le Divan Japonais, this lithographic poster celebrated the club's 1893 renovation in the Japanese style. In his advertisement, however, Toulouse-Lautrec focuses not on the trendy new décor of the hall, but rather the fashionability of its identifiable clientele. Jane Avril, a famous cancan dancer, appears at the center, watching a performance by Toulouse-Lautrec's favorite singer, Yvette Guilbert (the performer is recognizable by her characteristic long black gloves). The art critic Édouard Dujardin lingers in the background, his cane mirroring the delicate curve of a golden chair back.

Except for the title, which repeats the name of the hall, the work makes no obvious references to Japanese art, but rather draws upon its principles to invent modern graphic design. The Japonism of the new club is expressed through the style of the poster itself. This recreates the atmosphere by simulating aspects of Japanese prints, including the strong silhouettes, pictorial flatness, limited color palette, and asymmetrical diagonals of the composition. Like many popular Japanese prints, the subjects are famous courtesans, actors, and other celebrities, depicted with exaggerated expressions and body language. Toulouse-Lautrec sharply conveys the character of the place and the attitudes of its denizens, and at the same time elevates advertising to a fine art.

Toulouse-Lautrec's work is an enduring influence in graphic design, but it was also important to the avant-garde in its contemporary subject matter that erased boundaries between high and low art. Pablo Picasso was particularly influenced by his work, drawn to its raw energy, its louche subjects, and its bold composition. It also prefigures Pop Art with its emphasis on celebrity.

Lithograph printed in four colors, woven paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


Design for the Frederick C. Robie Residence

Artist: Frank Lloyd Wright

This private residence famously exemplifies Wright's influential Prairie School style with its bands of windows, strong horizontal lines, hipped pyramidal roofs, and a large rectangular fireplace. Although the horizontals do suggest the broad expanse of prairie marked by the horizon, the design was deeply influenced by Wright's study of Japanese design, a lifelong preoccupation.

First encountering Japanese architecture in Chicago at the Phoenix Pavilion of the1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Wright became enamored of Japanese art and design. Travelling to Japan in 1905, he bought hundreds of Japanese prints (even becoming a noted dealer in ukiyo-e) and he often included elements of Japanese print design in his architectural sketches. More fundamental, however, was his research into the philosophy of Japanese architecture, particularly in the relationships between exterior and interior spaces and the simplification of forms. As he said, "At last I had found one country on earth where simplicity, as nature, is supreme."

Pencil and ink on paper - Collection of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust , Chicago, Illinois

Gustav Klimt: Lady with Fan (1917-18)

Lady with Fan

Artist: Gustav Klimt

In this example, Klimt's iconic portrayals of beautiful women makes explicit a Japanese influence in the woman's kimono and open fan.

Klimt was influenced by Japanese prints; his early graphic work, Fish Blood (1897-98), reflects their cropped composition, linear outline of form, and eroticism. The Rinpa school was also important to his creation of highly stylized and decorative portraits. For example, Klimt's work is not unlike Ogata Kōrin's Red and White Plum Blossoms (early-18th century) in its use of a gold foil-like background, arabesque lines, curvilinear patterns, and flower imagery. Yet, Klimt's Japonism is somewhat diluted, as we move into the 20th-century: the dragons are a borrowed Chinese motif, and Byzantine mosaics also inspired his use of gold backgrounds.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Childe Hassam: Tanagra (The Builders, New York) (1918)

Tanagra (The Builders, New York)

Artist: Childe Hassam

Childe Hassam's images of New York City life were popular among the American upper class who appreciated how his Impressionist approach softened and beautified the urban grid. This work, while predominantly an interior scene, juxtaposes this refined domestic space with the modern city, visible through the open curtains.

At the painting's center, an elegant woman holds a small sculpture, identified in the title as a Tanagra. This style of ancient Greek terracotta had been widely popular during the 19th century, admired for their delicate realism. This classical reference is amplified by the woman's flowing gown that evokes both a classical Greek garment and a Japanese silk. The room is richly appointed with the inclusion of an elaborately decorated Japanese folding screen and blue-and-white porcelain bowl on a highly polished table. The elegant apartment radiates with Impressionistic light and color; even the lace-curtained window shimmers with blue highlights.

Hassam's painting suggests a certain ambivalence. While the interior is warm and rich, it appears static when compared to the city outside. The woman herself echoes the statue, particularly as her pale complexion contrasts with the vivid palette of her surroundings. The Japonism in this work conveys the splendor of a distant and exotic world, but also a sense of a world that belongs to the past.

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington DC

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino

"Japonism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino
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First published on 14 Dec 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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