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  • Writer's pictureDale Furutani

The Japan – Paris Connection

Impressionist painters in Paris would pay warehouse workers to tell them when a new shipment of Japanese porcelain arrived. Word would immediately spread, and there would be a gaggle of artists hurrying down to the warehouse with the new shipment so they could watch the merchandise being unwrapped.

Was this because they had a high interest in porcelain? Not really. They gathered because Japanese glassware was wrapped in the most astonishing woodblock prints. The artists couldn’t understand why the Japanese would use delightful prints as packing paper, but they’d flatten out each print and study the image.

The Impressionists were radicals. They rejected the conventions of academic painting and sought to paint realistic scenes of modern life using freely applied strokes of color. They often painted outdoors and they sought novelty in picture perspective and composition.

This desire for novelty was the source of their interest in Japanese woodblocks (ukiyo-e). In the Japanese woodblock, they found a variety of innovative artistic ideas that were not commonly exploited in Western painting.

Importance of empty space

In Japanese art, the open space on the paper is considered very important. The two brush paintings above illustrate this. For both pictures, the unpainted portion of the picture combines with the ink strokes to harmonize into a single composition. Lautrec was especially influenced by this.

Broad, flat color

Japanese woodblocks often feature big areas of flat color. You can see this influence in Van Gogh’s Yellow House and most of the Lautrec posters.

Diagonal composition

Japanese often favor diagonal composition, which adds a dynamic quality to a picture. Instead of rigid vertical and horizon lines, diagonal lines help bring a picture to life. In addition to the large, flat blocks of color, this Lautrec poster shows how diagonal composition can add interest.

Common subjects

The Academic Painters loved formal portraits or compositions featuring historical figures, Biblical themes, or ancient Gods and Goddesses. Ukiyo-e had historical legends and actors, but they also pictured everyday scenes, with common people traveling, working, or enjoying a moment of rest. This painting by Gustave Caillebotte shows that something as mundane as workmen refinishing the floor of the artist’s studio can capture dynamic action.

Pictures outside the edge

Japanese art often invites you to imagine what exists outside the borders of the picture. This Hokusai print (probably the most famous image in Japanese art) illustrates this. We get a peek of the action with the wave and the boatmen, but we also know that outside the edges of the picture the angry sea continues. To show that artistic knowledge can be a two-way street, this picture wouldn’t exist if the European color of Prussian blue wasn’t introduced to Japan.

Sensitivity to the seasons and harmony with nature

The paintings of Claude Monet’s Garden are obviously tied to nature, but Van Gogh’s copy of Hiroshige’s woodblock of a bridge in the rain also marks another season. A good haiku poem always has a clue to the season, but visual art can make the time of year more explicit.


The influence of Japanese art on European artists may not be familiar to many people. This influence was so pervasive that French critic Philippe Burty coined the term “Japonisme” in the 1870s to describe the impact that Japanese art had on the West (Google Japonisme and look at the images to see the range of artists that tried Japanese-like compositions and subjects). Everyone from Whistler to Mary Cassatt to Alfred Stevens to Klimt to Degas was influenced. Monet, Lautrec, and Van Gogh were especially involved.

If you visit Monet’s house, studio, and garden in Giverny, France, you’ll notice the dining room wall is covered with Japanese ukiyo-e. The prints were not protected from the sunlight, so unfortunately most have faded to black and white outlines. Most of the color is gone. But this large display does show the interest Monet had in Japanese prints.

Look at almost any Lautrec poster and you can easily see the impact of ukiyo-e on him. His pastels and paintings follow a more Western tradition, but he realized that the elements of ukiyo-e were perfect for posters.

Van Gogh once wrote his brother, “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…”, and he was a true student of ukiyo-e. As art students sometimes do, he even copied some examples of ukiyo-e, translating the print’s vegetable ink on mulberry paper into an oil painting on wood or canvas.

Hiroshige’s original woodblock of a bridge in the rain. The copy by Van Gogh was shown above (with Monet’s garden). Note the same people on the bridge and the difference in the background foliage.

Again, a Hiroshige woodblock and Van Gogh’s copy. Van Gogh (as you might expect) had an excellent eye for art and Hiroshige was one of the giants of ukiyo-e, so he copied from the best.

Cover of the May 1886 issue of Paris Illustré magazine (right). Van Gogh supposedly copied this cover that shows a courtesan by the artist Eisen. I attended an exhibit where I could see the cover, the original Eisen print, and the Van Gogh painting, all hung next to each other. On the Van Gogh, the courtesan is framed by strips of bamboo and there is a larger pond and bamboo landscape painting “behind” it. I’m not sure why Van Gogh felt the need to do this, although he does like to embellish his paintings with painted framing when he is copying a woodblock.

So, the next time you see Impressionist art in a book or at a visit to a gallery, look for any signs of Japonisme in the works presented!

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