Japonisme, japonaiserie and chinoiserie

Victor Fontaine (1837-84), Guéridon fleuri

The collecting of oriental works of art is an activity with a relatively long history in Britain. Chinese and Japanese artefacts had been eagerly acquired by English connoisseurs from the 17th century onwards: see, for example, the porcelain, and the lacquered cabinets, screens, tables and tea services in the collections of the National Trust, including those of Ham House, Richmond; Saltram, Devon; and Petworth, West Sussex.

 17th century Japanese lacquered cabinet, Ham House, Richmond. Photo by John Hammond, ©National Trust

Most Japanese items only reached Britain via the Netherlands, since general trade between Japan and Europe was severely restricted for around 200 years from the mid-17th century. After c. 1641 only a few Dutch traders were admitted beyond the iron curtain which fell, and they were quarantined on a small island called Deshima, in Nagasaki Bay. In 1854 this period of isolation was ended by the Convention of Kanagawa, and merchant ships from the West were allowed into Japanese ports.

Chinese K’ang Xsi famille noire vase, late 17th – early 18th century, Polesden Lacey. ©National Trust

The English East India Company achieved trading terms with China from 1672, but from 1700 was restricted to trading through Canton. China, rather like Japan, only opened its ports to general European trade following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, a settlement which happily coincided with the exhibition, off Hyde Park Corner in London, of a collection of Chinese objects belonging to an American, Nathan Dunn, who had – unusually for the time – lived in China for twelve years.

‘The Chinese Collection, Hyde Park Corner’, from The Illustrated London News, 1842

 This exhibition was enthusiastically received, although Japanese works of art were not similarly displayed in London until twenty years later, in the World Fair of 1862 (the Great London Exposition). Here The Times noted that,

‘Japan will … be splendidly represented … from …rare lacker ware, straw basket, and bamboo work down to the massive quadrangular coins of the realm…. Their wonderful egg-shell porcelain – the astonishment and envy of all European manufacturers – will be amply represented…’ (The Times, 29 March 1862).

 The Japanese stand at the London World Fair, 1862

 However, these wonders were not an official display under the auspices of the Japanese shogunate, but had been collected together by Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British Consul in Japan; it was not until after the revolution of 1868 that the Japanese participated of their own volition in international exhibitions.  This long hiatus in relations between West and East, which finished a decade earlier for China, accounts for the presence of Chinese plates in Owen Jones’s influential The grammar of ornament, 1856, and the absence of any Japanese equivalent. It was during the 1850s, however, that oriental goods of all sorts began to enter the European markets, and an enthusiasm for Japanese and Chinese objects began to pervade society.

 Artists were affected in differing ways by these new currents of style. Many had attended the international exhibition of 1862, and many more haunted the shops specializing in oriental objets d’art and bric-a-brac which sprang up in Leiden, The Hague, London and Paris (e.g. La Porte Chinoise, Paris, established in 1862). But whilst some, like Whistler and Degas, studied the works of art they found, and were influenced by the compositional elements and asymmetry of Japanese prints and painted screens (japonisme), others made collections of objects which they imported wholesale into their work, with no attempt to adapt their painting conventions to such exotic and alien artefacts (japonaiserie).

 James Tissot, Young women looking at Japanese articles, 1869, Cincinnati Museum of Art

James Jacques Tissot (1836-1902), the friend of Manet, Degas and Whistler, was an early and dedicated collector of Japanese art, who by the late 1860s had amassed a sizable collection in his house in Paris. It forms the subject and background of works such as Young women looking at Japanese articles, where there is no attempt to interpret the objects in question, or to modulate his compositions by their exotic influence.  The young women remain resolutely Parisian, as does the interior in which they stand; the screens, cabinets, fabrics and bibelots themselves are arranged as if they were as western as their setting. 

 Claude Monet, Camille in Japanese costume (La japonaise), 1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Monet’s picture of his wife, posed in a red kimono against a background of fans, is equally a western painting with Japanese accessories, which makes no concessions to the latter, and in which his wife remains as wholly French as do Tissot’s models. A great many paintings of this type were produced in the second half of the 19th century; oriental objects in more or less greater numbers thronged the interiors of British Edwardian and French 2eme Empire houses, without being integrated with them and without affecting the traditional western compositions in which they were assembled. 

 Charles Bale (fl.1866-92), Still life of pears, apples, grapes and a Chinese jar

They appeared in still life paintings in much the same way; – sometimes the reference might be a single Chinese vase or a ginger jar, smuggled quietly into a still life, a stand-in for the traditional wine glass or pewter pot; sometimes, as with Monet’s painting of Camille, there was a plethora of accessories which could have been replaced by Spanish or Russian versions without inherently altering the composition. For a large number of artists, japonaiserie and chinoiserie were just fashionable gimmicks to enhance the appeal of their work to their clients.

 (left) Edgar Degas, Woman ironing, c.1882-86, Reading Public Museum & Art Gallery, Reading, Pennsylvania; (right) Utamaro, A woman in a summer kimono washing clothes, from Shiboruto Korekushon o chushin to shita Ukiyo-e ten [An Ukiyoe exhibition from the Siebold collection] Tokyo: Otsuka Kogeisha, 1976, plate 185.

Degas, on the other hand, was markedly influenced by the structure of the Japanese prints in which he was interested; many of his paintings of ballerinas, horse races and laundresses employ similar tricks of cut-off figures, asymmetric compositions, strong diagonal emphases and expanses of empty space. This is the true art of japonisme.

 JAM Whistler, Variations in pink & grey: Chelsea, 1871-72, Freer & Sackler Galleries

 Whistler’s work was also affected by these compositional elements; his earlier paintings – such as La princesse du pays de la porcelaine (1863-65) – use Japanese props and European models within Victorian settings, but as he studied the prints he collected more closely, he began to admit their influence to his own paintings in ways which reveal that he had digested aspects of Japanese vision which were at odds with post Renaissance conventions.

Fanny Fleury (1848-1905), Woman reading

Gradually this acceptance of unfamiliar rules became as intrinsic to artists of the Aesthetic and Post-Impressionist movements as the overt use of oriental objects in their pictures. Fanny Fleury had been taught by Carolus Duran, the friend of Manet, and she was touched by the radicalism of the Impressionist circle. Whilst much of her work can appear romanticized and conservative, paintings such as Woman reading reveal, in a softened form, many of Degas’s japoniste elements. Whilst it includes a kimono and an arrangement of chrysanthemums, it also features an asymmetric composition set on the diagonal and an ‘aesthetic’ harmony of tone and colour.

Olle Hjortzberg, Still life with Chinese porcelain, 1946

A work as late as this Swedish post-war still life (sold), whilst ostensibly a confection of oriental props and a work of outright japonaiserie, is in fact based on ideas which would have seemed extremely and disturbingly radical to artists in the mid-19th century. The raised viewpoint, tilted perspective, lack of an internal ‘horizon’, and composition arranged within the diagonal top of the canvas are all borrowings from the Japanese prints collected so avidly by Degas, Whistler and their peers.

 Joseph De Belder, Still life with arum lilies

This is equally true of a far more complex painting – De Belder’s intricate arrangement of nested spaces and cut-off objects, which may owe something to Whistler’s orchestration of looking-glasses and reflected space in his Harmony of green and rose (1860-61, Freer & Sackler Galleries), and also to Degas’s Place de la Concorde (below). The lilies in the front of the painting, rearing up in their truncated vase before the white stretches of damask tablecloth, occupy exactly the same position as the Viscount and his daughters before the open spaces of the Place de la Concorde.  Both are paintings which could not have been made before the resumption of trade with Japan; the extraordinarily radical composition of the De Belder, which wittily includes Japanese and Chinese porcelain, a doll, a print and a fan, manages to encompass japonaiserie, chinoiserie and japonisme with a striking and virtuoso flourish.

 Degas, Viscount Lepic & his daughters crossing the Place de la Concorde, 1875, State Hermitage Museum





About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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