The Japanese Influence on Western Art
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 8/10/15

Before Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly opened Japan to Western trade in the 1850s, Europeans and Americans had little familiarity with Japanese art forms other than ceramics. Within a decade, however, Western artists and collectors had fallen under the spell of Japanese art, in a cultural love affair the French called Japonisme. The fascination persists today—in popular forms like manga and anime—and has been mirrored in Japanese artists’ enthusiastic emulation of Western creative expression.

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to  James McNeill Whistler  (1834–1903 | American artist)

American artist James McNeill Whistler, an expatriate who spent nearly his entire career in London and Paris, was an enthusiast of Japanese woodblock prints, collecting them as early as the 1850s. By the mid-1860s the influence of the ukiyo-e style, represented especially by master printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), was evident in Whistler’s work. Though his artistic training had been academic, Whistler took a detour from the critically accepted art of his day in paintings like Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (pictured; 1864), which depicts a kimono-clad model (Whistler’s mistress) languidly examining Hiroshige prints. In later, more daring works like Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge (1875), Hiroshige’s presence is more elemental: Whistler’s murky composition is dominated by the bridge’s calligraphic span and piling, looking very much like an image from Hiroshige’s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856–1859). Whistler wasn’t a copyist, but his work often incorporates the visual vocabulary, sensitive mood and flattened perspective of the Japanese art he so admired. Whistler’s grandest Asian-influenced project was an entire interior: the Peacock Room (detail pictured), designed for a British shipowner and now installed in Washington, D.C.’s Freer Gallery, which holds a large collection of Whistler’s work.

James McNeill Whistler  (1834–1903 | American artist)
to  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  (1864–1901 | French artist)

Many artists besides James McNeill Whistler were captivated by the Japanese art arriving on European shores during the second half of the 19th century. In fact, the list of those whose pictorial style borrowed at least occasionally from Japanese imagery—and from Whistler’s use of it—includes virtually all major artists of the impressionist, postimpressionist and art nouveau movements: Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt (especially her prints), Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt, among many others. Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887) provides striking proof of the hold exerted by Japanese images on some European artists’ imagination: Not only do the painting’s bold coloration and relatively depthless composition betray Japanese influence, but the portrait’s subject, art dealer Julien Tanguy, is shown surrounded by a selection of ukiyo-e woodblock prints from his shop. But of all those affected by the Japonisme trend, perhaps none was so indebted as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose many posters promoting Parisian entertainers and the nightspots they performed in—including one boîte called the Divan Japonais (pictured)—translate the ukiyo-e idiom into an exuberantly decadent Belle Époque argot.

Ukiyo-e Prints
to  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  (1864–1901 | French artist)

The Japanese term ukiyo-e means “picture of the floating world,” with floating world referring to the demimonde of artists, entertainers and courtesans (and their clientele) that flourished in the officially sanctioned red-light districts of Japan’s largest cities—Kyoto, Osaka and especially Edo (now Tokyo)—during the Tokugawa shogunate, from 1600 to 1868. The Tokugawa era (also called the Edo period) was one of nearly complete isolation for Japan, which, aside from allowing a Dutch East India Company outpost on an island near Nagasaki, had cut itself off from foreign contact. But it was also a time of internal political stability and prolific artistic innovation in poetry, kabuki theater, bunraku puppetry, ceramics, painting and printmaking—the last marked by the development of techniques for creating the polychrome woodblock prints called ukiyo-e. Although several ukiyo-e artists specialized in views of nature (Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, pictured, is the most famous example), many focused on the denizens of the floating world, and these portrayals of actors, musicians, fashionable ladies and prostitutes find many parallels in the work of French painter and poster designer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who similarly recorded the panoply of characters—high-life and low—who populated the demimonde of late-19th-century Paris.

Ukiyo-e Prints
to  Japonisme

Westerners had been collecting Japanese ceramics for several hundred years before the mid-19th century. Even during the period of Japan’s isolation during the Tokugawa shogunate, Japanese pottery—much produced specifically for export—continued to reach Western markets via the Dutch East India Company, which maintained a trading post at Nagasaki. But Japan’s “opening” in the 1850s and the establishment, in 1868, of the pro-Western Meiji monarchy dramatically increased the flow of Japanese products to the West. Cheap, lightweight and plentiful, the colorful prints known as ukiyo-e were the first non-ceramic Japanese artworks to become widely available elsewhere. One early enthusiast was French artist Félix Bracquemond (1833–1914), who purportedly discovered prints made by ukiyo-e master Hokusai used as wrapping material in a shipment of Japanese porcelain. A popular figure in Paris, Bracquemond shared his discovery with his wide circle of artist acquaintances—the reason he’s sometimes credited as the “father of Japonisme.” Western fervor for Japanese arts and crafts continued among not just artists but also collectors, with Americans like Charles Lang Freer, Edward Morse and Henry Walters amassing significant collections now displayed at Washington, D.C.’s Freer Gallery, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.

Ukiyo-e Prints
to  Manga and Anime

Manga and anime—the Japanese words mean “comics” and “animation,” respectively—are the products of a cultural fusion whose major sources are American comic books and animated films plus an age-old Japanese tradition of serial image making. Many ukiyo-e masters created their works in series; Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo is a well-known example, as is Hokusai Manga, a collection of thousands of Hokusai’s “fanciful sketches” (the premodern meaning of the word manga). The images in those series connect thematically; by contrast, modern manga, which arose during the post–World War II American military occupation of Japan, is a narrative genre—or, rather, a group of genres—aimed at many audiences. Everybody reads comics in Japan, where manga are a multibillion-dollar business. Modern manga’s first master was Osamu Tezuka, whose long-running Astro Boy series, begun in 1952, helped establish some of the genre’s iconographic conventions—those big, bright eyes!—and, through its internationally distributed animated TV adaptation, introduced the rest of the world to manga and anime. The wider world has since embraced these supercute (kawaii) forms of mass-market art: Many Western cartoonists now create manga-style comics and graphic novels, and anime’s influence is increasingly apparent in Western animation.

to  The Mikado  (W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan | opera | 1885)

Japonisme, the 19th-century European mania for Japanese art, was stoked by exhibits at world’s fairs, including the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1867, and by traveling shows like the Japanese Native Village, exhibited in London from 1885 to 1887. Legend had it that a visit to the latter gave librettist W.S. Gilbert the idea for The Mikado, an enduringly popular Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera; that’s the story told in Topsy-Turvy, director Mike Leigh’s 1999 movie about The Mikado’s making. Though the legend is false (Gilbert was already at work on the opera when the exhibit opened), Gilbert did engage several people from the Japanese Village to teach his cast how to comport themselves onstage in a Japanese manner. Aside from the actors’ gestures and the kimono costumes, however, The Mikado is about as Japanese as London Bridge—though Gilbert did steal a tune from an Imperial Japanese Army march for his song “Miya Sama,” with which the villagers of Titipu greet the Mikado in the opera’s second act. A few decades later Giacomo Puccini used the same tune in his opera Madama Butterfly, set in a somewhat more realistic version of Japan.

to  Isamu Noguchi  (1904–1988 | American artist and designer)

Japonisme was very much a trend within Western art, but as the art scene went international over the course of the 20th century, the influences of various far-flung traditions ricocheted in multiple directions. That interplay of influence is exemplified in the career of modernist Japanese American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi’s father was a Japanese poet, and his mother was a white American writer; he studied art in the U.S., as well as in Japan, China and France (where he apprenticed to Romanian French sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi); and he produced an extensive, diverse body of work—brush paintings, stage sets, monumental public sculpture, playground designs, murals, designs for furniture and household accessories—that collectively transcends any particular cultural style. The sleekly art deco Bakelite plastic case of Noguchi’s Radio Nurse baby monitor (1937) resembles a Japanese kendo swordfighter’s mask; the sets and props he designed for dancer-choreographer Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring (1944) meld the homespun elegance of American Shaker furniture with the totemic power of Japanese Shinto temple architecture; and his Akari “light sculptures” (first manufactured in 1951) epitomize the Japanese art of paper-lantern making while standing as masterpieces of mid-century American modernism.

Isamu Noguchi  (1904–1988 | American artist and designer)
to  Yoko Ono  (b. 1933 | Japanese artist and musician)

Isamu Noguchi isn’t the only modern artist of Japanese heritage to influence and be influenced by Western art. Although better known as the widow of John Lennon, Yoko Ono (who, like Noguchi, was raised and educated in both Japan and the U.S.) was a leading figure of the New York art underground before she met the Beatle. The works of conceptual and performance art she made while associated with the Fluxus group often strike dadaist poses: Her 1966 sculpture Apple, which consists of a single Granny Smith apple set atop a Plexiglas pedestal, owes much to the “ready-mades” of French artist Marcel Duchamp. Just as often, her pieces possess the deceptive simplicity of Zen koans. (That quality also appears in Ono’s writing: “Listen to the sound of the earth turning” is the entire text of her 1963 poem “Earth Piece.”) Ono’s music is similarly transcultural. She received training in Western classical music as a child, but American avant-garde composer John Cage, with whom she sometimes collaborated, exerted a more profound influence on her early compositions. Her unique—to say the least—brand of art rock is sometimes Asian-inflected, as in the lilting rhythms of her 1981 song “Toyboat.”

The Mikado  (W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan | opera | 1885)
to  Yoko Ono  (b. 1933 | Japanese artist and musician)

Aside from the Japanese melody he borrowed for the song “Miya Sama,” Arthur Sullivan’s music for The Mikado lies squarely within the British light-classical vein, and Giacomo Puccini’s music for his Japanese-themed opera Madama Butterfly is effusively, gorgeously Italian. Neither composer gave a fig for Japanese music—and neither would have had much opportunity to experience it. Later Western composers, however, have created works based on Japanese musical forms, especially the elegant classical court music called gagaku. Notable among these are Olivier Messiaen’s Sept Haïkaï (“Seven Haikus,” 1962), inspired by a visit the French composer made to Japan, and Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), an opera-like “parable for church performance” that, although thematically Christian and set in medieval England, is based on a Japanese noh play.

In popular music, especially since World War II, the influence has flowed largely in the opposite direction, with Japanese singers and bands emulating trends in American and British pop from rockabilly to hip-hop. The Beatles were especially important to the development of what’s now called J-pop. But as every Beatles fan knows, the group was not immune to Japanese influence—in the person of John Lennon’s second wife, Japanese artist and musician Yoko Ono.