La Vague Du Japonisme: the Effects of Japanese Art on French Art in the Late 19th Century

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“It is in general the unexplored that attracts us…” – Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji. (Lambourne 2005, 10).

A preoccupation with “the other” has always been of interest to the French. In Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes, written in the early 18th century, the French nearly fall over one another in order to gaze upon an Arab traveler in their country. One observer even exclaims, “ Ah! Ah! Monsieur est Persan! C’est une chose bien extraordinaire! Comment peut-on être Persan!” (Hirch and Thompson 2006, 97). In the second half of the 19th century after the ports of Japan opened, this is exactly what the primary French artists were exclaiming to themselves about the Japanese, “How can one be Japanese!” and in this quandary, they manifested Japonisme, an interest for things Japanese. Various Japanese artists’ works found their way into the hands and minds of French artists to forever change the course of art history and made a heavy impact upon their art from subject to form. Through the pictures of kimonos, illustrations of stereotypical samurai, or artistic styles derived from Japan’s art, Japanese inspiration had seeped into the brains of French artists, from Degas to Manet, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, just after Commodore Perry opened up the ports of Japan to the West in 1854 and impacted their artistic movements and compositions. From the 1630’s to the 1850’s the ports of Japan were shut off from any Western invader, with the exception of the Dutch, until American Commodore Perry untied those binds. Between the years of 1633 and 1639 Iemitsu, the second shogun of the Tokugawa Era, launched an expulsion of Western people, ideas and products from Japan - an embrace of sakoku (Lambourne 2005, 7). He prohibited his Japanese citizens from traveling West of Korea or south of the Ryukyu Islands, restricted the export of weapons, and banned the spread of Christianity and travel of Catholics to Japan. Then, Iemitsu forbade Portuguese traders on Japanese soil, and the last of their ships sailed away from Nagasaki in 1639. The gates of Japan remained closed for just over 200 years (Gordon 2003, 17). However, in 1852 the United States Government challenged Commodore Matthew Perry to negotiate and sign commercial treaties with Japan. On November 24, 1852 the commodore and his naval crew sailed onward to Japan and arrived on the shores of the Bay of Edo in July 1853 to make his proposals and give his ultimatum of trade peacefully or suffer violently in war. One year later Perry returned to a granted proposal and the relationship of the West and Japan began to rapidly change from that point on (ibid, 49).

As international trade was opened in 1858 to the great maritime nations, a love for things Japanese began to erupt. La Porte Chinoise, a tearoom dedicated to Japanese art on 36 rue Vivienne in Paris (Wichmann 1999, 9), opened in 1862 by Madame Desoye and attracted consumers like Manet, Monet, and Degas, who would be heavily influenced by Japanese art. Edmond de Goncourt, a French art critic and connoisseur of Japonisme, wrote on 31 March 1875,

“enthroned in her jewels like a Japanese idol, sits the fat Madame Desoye; almost a historic figure in our own time, for this shop has been the place, the school as it were, from which this great Japanese movement has evolved which today extends from painting to fashion” (Lambourne 2005, 37). One could purchase Japanese woodblock prints, traditional kimonos, and blue china at La Porte Chinois. In other comparable shops, other Japanese items began flowing into Paris such as fans, lacquers, bronzes, and silks (Ives 2004). At the first Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, the Japanese Government exhibited objets d’art and sold one hundred prints to the public (Yoko et al. 1998). One of the more important works to be shown at the Exposition was the woodblock print collection of The Manga, fifteen volumes of flower, plant, and animal motifs in woodblock prints, by...
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