Art Japonism Defined: The Influence of Japanese Art on Western Art History

Mayumi Folio
Mayumi Folio

Japonism is an important part of Western art history.

Japonism was born in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a turbulent time when the world was moving into a new era.

The influence of Impressionist painters such as Van Gogh, Monet, Lautrec, and Degas is immeasurable, as well as Louis Vuitton’s Damier pattern, Debussy’s “Sea,” and Emile Gallé’s glass art.

Why were Western artistic geniuses so inspired by the Japanese aesthetic?

In this article,

-About the Basics of Japonism

-Basic knowledge of Japanese art that influenced Western art

– List of 15 people who were heavily involved in Japonism and 17 works that represent Japonism

and other aspects of Japanese aesthetics and Japonism that have greatly influenced the history of Western art.

Please read this article to learn more about Western Japonism and Japanese aesthetics.

How did Japonism spread to the West?

Japonisme van gogh echantillon Source:Wikimedia Commons

What is Japonism?

Japonism refers to the phenomenon of Japanese arts and crafts influencing Western art (in a wide range of fields including fine arts, crafts, and decoration) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many works of art from Japan, which had opened its doors to the West, were brought to the West, and a movement emerged among artists who were inspired by the methods of expression and aesthetics of these works.

It is also the general term for the attitude of Western artists who draw inspiration from the qualities of Japanese art and try to apply them creatively in their own works.

It also had a profound influence on the world of design crafts, as it was expressed with an awareness of beauty that had not previously existed in the West, such as a reverence for nature and a sense of the seasons, which are characteristic of the Japanese sense of beauty.

Thus, Japonism is a general term for aesthetic sensibilities and modes of expression influenced by Japanese arts and crafts.

What is the difference between Japonism and Japonaiserie?

Utagawa Kunisada Three Women Viewing Cherry Blossoms Source:Wikimedia Commons

Japonaisserie, on the other hand, is an expression of exoticism that sensitively incorporates a Japanese atmosphere, based on an interest in Japanese art that emanates from a curious eye.

There is a fundamental difference between these two.

The difference between Japonism and Japonaiserie is that the former is inspired by Japanese aesthetics and creates “new creations,” whereas the latter is inspired by “Japanese taste.

Although in the earlier period of Impressionist Japonism, these works were harshly evaluated and called “just a taste for Japonaiserie,

Gradually, it came to be known as Japonism, a new way of expression that incorporated a Japanese perspective on aesthetics.

When did Japonaiserie become popular?

In the 17th century, when Europe was still a monarchy, it was mainly royalty and aristocrats who collected Asian decorative arts.

Among the aristocracy, Asian tastes, known as “Orientalism,” were in vogue as they yearned for a non-Western society.

In particular, they competed to collect ceramics and lacquerware, the Chinese taste known as chinoiserie.

However, the fall of the Ming dynasty temporarily halted the export of porcelain by China.

Instead, Japanese porcelain such as Ko-Imari and lacquerware began to be exported.

Japanese art has a different aesthetic than that of Chinese culture, and collectors who particularly love “Japonaisserie” have already begun to appear.

During this period, however, Japan was in the midst of implementing the Tokugawa Shogunate’s system of seclusion, which was unprecedented in the world.

In order to learn about Japan, some Dutch merchants and others who were allowed to trade brought back information they had obtained by staying only at Dejima.

Japan is this far eastern country that contains many mysteries, and golden Zipangu will be filled with mystery.

This background, plus the beautiful Japanese crafts that gradually made their way to the West, made it an enchanting dreamland shrouded in a veil of mystery for Westerners.

Western Historical Background and Japan’s Opening to the West

Japan, a country of mystery, also opened its borders to the world with the arrival of Perry in 1854.

Japan, the land of hazy dreams,” which the West wanted to know, appeared before them.

It is said that the Japan that finally appeared was the most culturally advanced [non-Western] for Western countries.

Moreover, the Japanese people were very polite, eager to learn and curious about all things Western.

In addition, the quality and technology of Japanese products, which have developed in their own unique way, and a gentle sense of beauty toward all things in the forest.

At the same time, Japanese arts and crafts were exported to the West in large quantities after the opening of Japan to the West in the 19th century.

Thus, the passionate interest in Japan among Westerners was ignited at an ever-increasing pace.

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism” refers to an artistic movement that took place in Paris, France in the late 19th century.

In simple terms, it would be the activities of artists who expressed their “impressions”.

Western art, which until then had been based on realistic depictions indoors, was embraced by the winds of a new era, and various attempts were made to break with tradition.

At the same time, until the middle of the 18th century, paints did not come in tubes.

So it will be portable and will allow for outdoor production activities.

This led to an increase in the number of artists who sought to incorporate the atmosphere and mood of the outside world into their work, and at the same time created a challenge to the use of color.

Impressionism is characterized by bright colors and creative expression of outdoor scenes and figures as “impressions”.

Monet and Renoir, in particular, did not mix their paints, but instead used short strokes to place bright colors from a tube on the screen to achieve the expression of bright light.

Japanese sense of beauty

The Beginning of Japonism

In the mainstream of Western painting, religious paintings, war paintings, and portraits were required to be rendered realistically indoors anyway.

In 19th-century France, painters were night and day in pursuit of new methods of expression that transcended conventional aesthetics.

The Impressionists, born in Paris, the center of the stormy new era, included Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and countless others.

They competed with each other to produce works on the subject of Japonism.

Artists who sought to express the beauty found in nature and life in new and striking ways must have been searching for new ways to express themselves.

In the meantime, Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which had been enveloping ceramics, appeared in Paris.

What is the Japanese sense of beauty that has influenced Western artists?

View of Nihonbashi-bridge from Edobashi-bridgeSource:Wikimedia Commons

A considerable number of ukiyo-e prints were exhibited at the Paris Expo, a celebration of the dawn of the new world.

There, the novel use of color, never-before-seen compositions, and representations of people that could not have been seen in the West are found in the Japanese ukiyo-e that have been published.

Everything must have been new and fresh for them as they saw Japanese aesthetics for the first time.

For example, the novel color scheme used in Ukiyo-e overturned the concept of color held by painters at that time, since Western paintings at that time did not have the idea of “separating backgrounds and figures with lines,” a method of expression that used outlines.

In addition, the unique Japanese perspective and composition of the paintings must have had a sense of competing head-on with Western art, which is dominated by the use of perspective from a single point of view.

In this way, the expressions of popular painters in Edo, such as Hokusai and Utamaro, helped to open the mind’s eye of the impressionist painters who were then rolling in France.

Reuse Customs in the Edo Period

During the Edo period, ukiyoe was an important pastime for the common people.

In the late Edo period, when the culture of the townspeople blossomed, people loved them in the same way they love magazines and photographs today.

In those days, Japanese people used paper with great care until the very end, reusing any kind of paper again and again.

Ceramics and porcelain, which were fragile items, were exported to the West wrapped in paper with Ukiyoe printed on it, just as we wrap them in newspaper when we move house today.

This is how Ukiyo-e naturally found its way to the West.

Recommended reading: What is Japanese Traditional Culture? | A List of 105 Genres and Characteristics of Performing Arts, Crafts, Events, Clothing, Food, and Housing, etc.

15 important figures related to Japonism

Now, let us quickly introduce some of the people who are said to have deeply influenced Japonism.

Van Gogh

Self-portrait by 1889 Source:Wikimedia Commons

Known for his frank expression of emotion and bold use of color, he is one of the leading post-impressionist painters.

He was also an artist greatly influenced by Ukiyo-e, and owned a huge collection of Ukiyo-e himself, along with his brother Theo. He produced many representative works of Japonism.

Reference site: Van Gogh Museum

Pierre Bonnard

1889 Portrait Source:Wikimedia Commons

A central figure of the anti-photorealist Nabi school.

He is said to have been particularly devoted to Japonism, and was even known by the nickname “Nabi Japonale” (Japanese-obsessed Nabi).

He produced a number of large works in a series, such as folding screens, and many works that show great influence from the composition of ukiyo-e prints.

Reference site: Bonnard Museum

Claude Monet

Portrait of Claude Monet Source:Wikimedia Commons

An Impressionist painter, many of his works show the influence of the Japanese aesthetic.

Giverny’s home has a garden designed with a Japanese garden in mind, and the Water Lilies series of works based on that garden remains one of the best-known works of his later years and is still loved by people around the world.

Katsushika Hokusai

Triumphant and clear – Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mt. Fugaku) Source:Wikimedia Commons

Ukiyoe artist of the mid-Edo period. He took in Japanese, Chinese, and Western painting styles, including the Kano school, the Tosa school, the Rim school, and Western-style painting, and opened up new areas of work in illustrations for reading books, picture books, and landscape painting.

A man who had a particular influence on Western Japonism. He is best known for his “Hokusai Manga” and “Fugaku Sanjurokkei” (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji).

Reference site: Sumida Hokusai Museum

Utamaro Kitagawa

“Beauty and Flower Party” by Utamaro Kitagawa, “Hyogo Yauchi: Hanazuma-zu” (Wife with flowers at Hyogo House)Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukiyoe artist of the late Edo period. Founder of the Kitagawa school. Invented his own style of painting of beautiful women, especially ookubo-e, depicting the sensual beauty of women.

He also produces Kyoka picture books and paintings.

Reference site: Bijutsu Techo

Eisen Keisai

Portrait of Hokusai Katsushika by Eisen Keisai Source:Wikimedia Commons

Japanese ukiyoe artist active in the late Edo period. He excelled at painting beautiful, decadent, and lustrous beauties in the style of prostitutes and geigi (geisha).

In May 1886, “Paris Illustre,” a magazine of the time, published a special issue on Japan, in which Eisen Keisai’s “Oiran (courtesan) with a dragon and clouds” appeared, influencing many artists. However, the left and right sides were reversed.

Provides inspiration for Van Gogh’s The Courtesan.

Samuel Bing

Samuel Bing (left) and friends Source:Wikimedia Commons

He was a leading antique dealer who vigorously introduced Japanese art to Paris throughout the 1880s and 1890s.

Secured a direct import route for Japanese antiques through the Port of Yokohama.

He had a gallery in Montmartre, Paris, where many impressionist artists lived at the time, and exhibited and sold Japanese ukiyo-e prints and crafts.

Tadamasa Hayashi

Portrait of Tadamasa Hayashi Source:Wikimedia Commons

A Japanese art dealer active in the Meiji era, he was the first Japanese to sell Japanese art overseas.

Based in Paris at the end of the 19th century, he was one of the most important figures involved in Japonism.

Philippe Bourti

Portrait of Philippe Burti by Etienne Calleja Exhibit :Wikimedia Commons

French art critic, writer, poet, illustrator, printmaker, and art collector. He was an advocate of Impressionism.

He was also a collector of oriental art and was the first to use the term “Japonisme” in a French magazine.

Genjiro Eto

Portrait of Ganjiro Eto, Greenwich Historical Society Source:Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century, he traveled to the United States to teach Japanese painting techniques to American Impressionist painters.

Japanese who popularized Japonisme in America.

Emile Gallé

Portrait of Emile Gallé by Victor Prouvé Source:Wikimedia Commons

Deeply associated with Takashima Hokkai, he was a representative of the Ecole de Nancy and one of the leading representatives of Art Nouveau.

Incorporating natural forms into his craft, he has created a unique style that has remained popular to this day.

Nancy Faction (of the LDP)

1902 Vase Encolies by Emile Gallé Source:Wikimedia Commons

Nancy, the center of the Lorraine region in northeastern France, continues to attract people from all over the world to this artistic style, and Emile Gallé was a central figure in this movement. The artists who agreed with him are known as the Nancy School.

Many of his fantastic works are based on insect and plant motifs, and his representative works such as furniture and glass crafts are still loved by many people.

Reference site: Nancy School Museum

Takashima’s northern sea lion (Pterois volitans)

Portrait of Takashima Hokkai Source:Wikimedia Commons

Japanese painter. Moved to Nancy, France, and had a deep exchange with Emile Gallé, a master of Art Nouveau.

He was the person who introduced Japanese art to Galle. Without Hokkai, the Nancy School and Art Nouveau would not have been born.

Claude Debussy

Portrait of Claude Debussy Source:Wikimedia Commons

Impressionist musician. Said to be the first to introduce Japonism into the world of music.

[Sea”, “The Maiden with Flaxen Hair”, and “The Golden Fish” were composed with inspiration from Japanese art.

Maurice Ravel

Portrait of Maurice Ravel Source:Wikimedia Commons

Impressionist French composer.

Influenced by “Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fugaku), Kanagawa Okinamiura,” he composed the piano piece “Yohage no kobune (Little Boat on the Ocean).

Another work that is said to have been influenced by Japanese painting is [Water Play].

James McNeil Whistler

Portrait of Whistler by Walter Greaves Source:Wikimedia Commons

Painter and printmaker of the late 19th century, representative of the transmission of Japanese art to England. He worked mainly in London.

Although of the same generation as the Impressionist painters, the influence of Japanese art, including ukiyoe, can be seen in the color tones and composition of the paintings.

Christofle Christofle

1902 Coffee and tea server Design by Paul Follot Source:Wikimedia Commons

A long-established French calatry brand established in 1830.

At the Paris Exposition of 1925, he presented works influenced by Art Nouveau and Art Deco Japonism.

It is said that many of the designs of the time were inspired by Japanese lacquer crafts.

Representative works of Japonism Paintings

Van Gogh, “Old Tanguy”

1899 Old Tanguy Source:Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh modeled his work after Old Man Tanguy, who ran an art supply shop in Montmartre, Paris, where many Impressionist painters lived at the time. A masterpiece of Japonism.

Ukiyo-e prints are displayed in the background, indicating Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art, to which he was quite devoted.

The vivid colors are also said to be influenced by Ukiyoe.

Claude Monet, La Japonaise

1877 Madame Monet en costume japonais Source:Wikimedia Commons

Monet’s La Japonaise is a masterpiece of Japonisme.

Characteristic of early Japonism works is that while the techniques can be seen in the form of earlier Western paintings, the subjects of the works are characterized by the incorporation of “Japaneseness”.

At the same time, the influence of a uniquely Japanese sense of color, composition, and picture composition can be seen.

Pierre Bonnard, The Seated Daughter and the Rabbit

1876 Seated girl and rabbit Source:Wikimedia Commons

Among Bonnard’s works, which are devoted to Japonism, one can see a strong Japanese influence.

The vertical lines of the painting are reminiscent of hanging scrolls, and the curvaceous lines of the woman and the decorative subject matter are well composed in a two-dimensional space, showing the influence of Japanese pictorial expression.

Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola

1868 Portrait of Emile Zola Source:Wikimedia Commons

Many of the early works of Japonism are characterized by the appearance of Japanese ukiyoe, fans, and kimonos as motifs in the work.

This portrait of Manet’s novelist Emile Zola also features Japanese ukiyo-e prints on the background wall.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec “La Grue de Moulin Rouge

1892-1895 La Grue at the Moulin Rouge Source:Wikimedia Commons

Lautrec’s ” La Grue at the Moulin Rouge” was created as a poster for the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris.

The figures are highlighted with solid paint like ukiyoe, the deformation is exaggerated, and the outlines are emphasized.

Mary Cassatt, “The Girl in the Blue Armchair.”

1878 Girl sitting in a blue armchair Source:Wikimedia Commons

Many Western painters were influenced by the vivacious Edo commoners in Hokusai’s manga, and Mary Cassatt’s “Girl Sitting in a Blue Armchair” can be seen as a representative of these artists.

Edgar Degas, “The Woman Who Wipes Your Back”

1888-1892 Woman wiping her back Source:Wikimedia Commons

Degas’s “Woman Wiping Her Back” is also said to have been influenced by Mary Cassatt’s “Girl Sitting in a Blue Armchair” Hokusai manga.

The influence of Hokusai’s manga can be seen throughout Degas’s Dancer series.

James McNeill Whistler, “Rose and Silver: Princess of the Ceramic Land”

1863-1865Rose and Silver: Princess of the Ceramic KingdomSource: Wikimedia Commons

Paintings created by American artist James Whistler between 1863 and 1865.

A white woman standing in a room with Japanese-style furnishings is depicted in an Impressionist manner, wearing a Western-style kimono and looking wistful.

He has been criticized as being strongly influenced by Ukiyo-e, especially by Utamaro Kitagawa.

Representative works of Japonism Music

Giacomo Puccini

[Madame Butterfly.]

Claude Debussy

[The sea, the maiden with the flaxen hair, the golden fish.

label (music)

The Little Boat on the Ocean” [Water Play].

William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

Opera “The Mikado

Camille Saint-Saens.

The Yellow Princess (La Princesse jaune), an opera with a libretto by Louis Galle


Japonism was born out of the Japanese sense of beauty, which spread to the West at a miraculous time during the stormy waves of turbulent history.

The path of evolution from Japonaiserie, which is uniquely Japanese, to Japonism, which is one artistic reform, is still connected to the depth of Japan’s unique aesthetic sense and thought.

In every age, universal and everyday things in Japan have caused a great sensation the moment they crossed over to foreign countries, where their meaning and value were discovered.

The Japanese people have a sense of respect for everyday activities, for nature, and for treating things with respect and care.

Perhaps everything about Japan that the artists of the Edo period cherished and wanted to express shone through from a Western perspective.

As Japanese, our understanding of Japonism over time reaffirms our fascination with Japan.