In the first article in this series of two, I showed how European painting came to influence art in Japan before 1600. After that, Westernisation continued more gradually thanks to limited supplies of prints, and Japanese woodcuts started to make their way back to Europe.
Isolationism continued for over two centuries until a fleet of American ships, under the command of Commodore Matthew C Perry, arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853. There followed a rapid opening up of trade and cultural exchange, accelerated when the Tokugawa dynasty was overthrown in the brief Boshin War. This marked the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868, with its dramatic reforms and accelerating Westernisation.
No one knows when Hokusai’s Great Wave first appeared in Europe. Although it’s sometimes claimed that this didn’t happen until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, there are records of the first ukiyo-e prints reaching the hands of artists in France more than a decade earlier.
They appear to have first arrived as protective wrapping for porcelain, and in about 1856 the French artist Félix Bracquemond, also an accomplished print-maker, first came across Hokusai’s prints at the workshop of his printer. Japonism(e) spread rapidly through artistic circles in Paris and other European cities. Among those who collected these prints were Bracquemond, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Gustav Klimt, Édouard Manet, and Paul Gauguin.
This is a curious historical twist: European prints taken by the Dutch to Japan inspired Japanese woodblock prints, which were a key influence on most of the Impressionists, who in turn were the inspiration for Japanese painters who went to Europe to train in Western techniques at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although the Meiji marked great change, traditional painting didn’t disappear: more conservative painters such as Hidaka Tetsuō (1791-1871) retained much older style in works such as Snowy Landscape (Meiji, 1869).
Hagura Katei’s (1799-1887) Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden (Meji, 1882) is another example of this late flowering of what remains in essence the Kanō school dating back to the late 1400s. At this time in Europe, of course, the Renaissance had long since given way to a succession of movements, and Impressionism was at its height.
Trained first in the Nanga style, Yamamoto Hōsui (山本芳翠) was taught in Japan by Europeans Charles Wirgman and Fontanesi, then travelled to Paris to study under Jean-Léon Gérôme. Altogether he lived in Paris for over a decade, where he painted several female nudes, such as Rafu (裸婦) (1880) above, and Nude Woman under the Moon (月下の裸婦) (1882-6) below.
In Europe in the 1880s, Japonisme was all the rage, and influenced many important painters.
The young Anders Zorn painted some Japoniste works, including this parasol portrait, Castles in the Air, from 1885.
Japonisme soon came to dominate Pierre Bonnard’s early paintings too. He came to admire panelled screens which were widely shown at the time, and which he adopted for several of his first significant works. Probably the earliest of these is this exquisite three-panelled screen of The Stork and Four Frogs completed around 1889. To mimic the appearance of east Asian lacquerware, Bonnard painted this in distemper on red-dyed cotton fabric. Its story is, though, thoroughly European, based on the fable retold by Jean de la Fontaine of The Frogs who Demand a King.
As Europeans were enthralled by Japanese woodcuts, so more Japanese artists travelled to Europe to learn painting styles and techniques. The son of a samurai in Kagoshima (in the far south-west of Japan), Viscount Kuroda Seiki (黒田 清輝) (Kuroda Kiyoteru) moved to Tokyo, where he first learned English, then switched to French. He went to Paris in 1884 to study law, being supported by his brother-in-law, a member of the Japanese diplomatic mission in France. However after two years there, he changed to study painting in the atelier of Raphael Collin, where he met Kume Keiichirō, also a student of Collin’s; together they explored plein air painting. In 1890 he moved to the international artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, south of Paris, which had been made popular by masters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage.
Kuroda Seiki returned from France, and used oil paints on canvas supports to create distinctive Western-style paintings such as this, his outstanding Maiko Girl (舞妓) (1893). Ultimately by the early twentieth century, many Japanese painters had adopted Western techniques and styles, although there remained a strong school of traditional painting too.
His triptych of nudes Wisdom Impression Sentiment (before 1898) won a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900, and in 1910 he was appointed an Imperial Court painter in Japan.
As Japanese artists studied in Europe, Westerners like Helen Hyde went to Japan. She made friends with an unrelated namesake, Josephine Hyde, and in 1899 the two travelled to Japan to learn Japanese print and painting techniques. Helen Hyde was soon making woodblock prints, which she learned from the Austrian Emil Orlik who was living in Tokyo at the time.
Interior Decoration from 1900 shows how quickly she learned the technique, and her fascination for Japanese art in everyday settings.
Fujishima Takeji (藤島 武二) (1867-1943) was a protege of Kuroda Seiki, a member of his Hakubakai art group, and from 1905 studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, under Fernand Cormon. He went on to study portraiture under Carolus-Duran (who taught John Singer Sargent) at the French Academy in Rome. His Distant View of Awajishima (淡路島遠望) (Shōwa, 1929) is a good example of the ultimate Westernisation of painting in Japan, with its international style.
Sadly, although Japanese connoisseurs and galleries have amassed fine collections of European paintings, few European galleries have collections of Japanese paintings, either from the traditional canon, or those influenced by Europeans. Even in Japan, the story of this long relationship remains largely unknown.
Minoru Harada (1974) Meiji Western Painting, Arts of Japan vol 6, Weatherhill/Shibundo. ISBN 0 8348 2708 5.
Johnson H (2005) Western Influences on Japanese Art. The Akita Ranga Art School and Foreign Books, Hotei Publishing. ISBN 978 9 074 82264 0.
Kang Duk-Hee (2008) Western-Style Painting in Japan. Adaptation and Assimilation, Sophia University Press. ISBN 978 4 324 08032 0.
Screech T (2002) The Lens within the Heart. The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan, University of Hawai’i Press. ISBN 978 0 824 82594 2.
Screech T (2012) Obtaining Images. Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 86189 814 2.