The Influence of Japonisme in the West: from its Inception to Today

by: Caroline Moore

Japanese culture including fine art, food, fashion, and customs has been adopted and popularized by the Western world now for over a century. Today, Japanese culture influences our daily lives as a result of globalization and its rapid integration in the West over time. A rise in the collection of Japanese art, specifically ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) and sōsaku-hanga (“creative”) prints, mirrors the growing interest in traditional Japanese art as the inspiration that laid the groundwork for Japonisme, which shaped the West’s contemporary society.

In 1872, the term Japonisme was created by French art critic Philippe Burty to describe the dissemination and incorporation of Japanese art, culture, and study in the West. It is difficult to imagine that the country of Japan, also previously known as the Empire of the Sun, was closed off to the West for centuries. The most significant cultural breakthrough of Japan occurred in 1853 when a small American fleet led by Mathew C. Perry entered the Tokyo Bay. Little had been known about Japan except for the few works of Japanese art that were acquired by Dutch colonists who traded a few decades before Perry’s fleet. Perry and his fleet negotiated a treaty that set agreements to trade. Within 20 years, Japanese prints, screens, ceramics, fans, texts, and garments were sold and exchanged all over Western Europe and North America. The World’s Fair of 1867 in Paris, France introduced Japanese arts and crafts to Parisian high society. Art and fashion critics immediately took interest in the new materials and designs. Japanese influence was further popularized when French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet took artistic cues like vivid colors, asymmetrical and minimal compositions, aerial perspective, and foreign subject matter from Japanese paintings and prints. Members of the Art Nouveau Aesthetic movements also took inspiration from the deep and bright, jewel-tone colors used frequently in Japanese design and applied them to their decorative work.

Over time as trade continued to increase between the Eastern and Western worlds, the Japonisme craze led to an expanse of new arts and crafts methods and materials integrated into the cultural and industrial fabric of the West. New methods included the advancement of woodblock and lithography printmaking, furniture design, metalworking, lacquering, and ceramic techniques. With the modernization of American and European , the understanding and blending of material from Japan furthered the inclusion of and appreciation for Japanese knowledge and insight. Recent studies of the Japonisme influence underscore the notion that Japanese culture made Western advancements in design and art what it is today. Since its diffusion in the West, aspects of traditional Japanese design are apparent in the work of popular and revolutionary movements like the De Stijl and the Bauhaus. Both were important schools of thought that molded the Western world’s way of visualizing society, such as “form follows function,” a phrase coined by American architect Louis Sullivan, but condenses the traditional Japanese design and thought into a short and accurate expression. During the mid-century, architects and designers looked to Japanese design for aesthetic and technical advancements. After World War I and II, Japanese born and descendant artists like Isamu Noguchi, Tadao Ando, Gyo Obata, George Nakashima, and Sadamitsu Neil Fujita became leaders by weaving Japanese and Western ideals in architecture, art, and design.

The current structure of most advanced technologies, design, and art is a result of the hybridity between the humanities of the Western world and Japan. Intellectual leaders in the related fields support and credit the fact that Japonisme was a critical movement for the changes in Western society, especially with art and design. By the 1970s, exhibitions in America and Europe, like the 1975 show Japanese Influence on French Art, 1854-1910 at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the 1988 show Le Japonisme at the Musée d’Orsay were the first to highlight the impact of the Japonisme movement and its further continuation and importance in postmodern times. Publications and symposiums also brought Japonisme to light for intellectual discourse. Texts like Siegfried Wichmann’s Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Art since 1858, published in 1980, and Japonisme: An Annotated Bibliography, published in 1990, provide a vast compilation of history, examples, and recognition of Japan’s influence in the West. Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement, The Arts of the Meiji Period, edited by Gregory Irvine and published in 2013, is the most recent in-depth analysis of the topic.

Japanese art and limited edition prints are highly regarded as symbolic mementos of the first Japanese artifacts that circulated the West and spawned ardent creativity and advancement in postmodern times. Ukiyo-e prints made by Japanese print masters like Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi sparked the Japonisme craze that changed and shaped the course of Western intellectualism and thought. Prints like these have become in demand and are in the constant forefront of auctions, institutional acquisitions, exhibitions, and publications. Academic and public interest in Japonisme and Japanese culture has persisted over time with organizations and fields of research dedicated to recognizing Japan’s importance in history, culture, art, and design, and will continue on for future insight and understanding.

Further Reading:

  • Breuer, Karin. Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism (Prestel. 2010).
  • Capua, Rebecca. “Material Japonisme in American Art, 1876-1925,” The Book and Paper Group Annual, 28 (2009) pp. 11-19.
  • Hosley, William. The Japan Idea, Art and Life in Victorian America (Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1990).
  • Irvine, Gregory. Japonisme and The Rise of the Modern Art Movement. The Arts of the Meiji Period. The Khalili Collection (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013).
  • Ives, Colta. The Great Wave: The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974).
  • Lambourne, Lionel. Japonisme, Cultural Crossings between Japan and the West (New York: Phaidon Press, 2005).
  • Scheyer, Sheyer. “Far Eastern Art and French Impressionism,” The Art Quarterly 6 no. 2 (Spring, 1943): 116-143.
  • Weisberg, Gabriel P. and Yvonne M.L. Weisberg. Japonisme, An Annotated Bibliography (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990).
  • Weisberg, Gabriel P. "Reflecting on Japonisme: The State of the Discipline in the Visual Arts." Journal of Japonisme 1.1 (2016): 3-16.
  • Wichmann, Siegfried. Japonisme. The Japanese Influence on Western Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: Harmony Books, 1981).