Impressionist & Modern Art

7 Things you Need to Know about Japonisme

Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 27 February features a remarkable work by French painter Paul Ranson. A member of the artistic group known as the Nabis, Ranson's style was strongly influenced by Japonisme: the effect the sudden influx of Japanese art and crafts into the West in the late 19th century had upon Western art. Read on to discover more about this phenomenon and Ranson's work.

1. Closed for Centuries

The term Japonisme was coined to describe the powerful fascination with Japanese art that occurred in the West in the 19th century after Japanese ports reopened to Western trade in 1854, having been closed to the West for over 200 years.

2. A New Style from the East

Japan’s reopening saw an influx of Japanese art and crafts into Western society which had a huge impact on art and design. The striking characteristics of Japanese art, with its flat planes, bold colours and dramatic stylisation, proved an inspiration throughout a host of movements, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau and the Aesthetic Movement. Among the artists particularly affected were Paul Ranson, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas.

Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1899

3. 19th Century Fashion

It was at the World’s Fair of 1867 that Parisians got their first glimpse of Japanese art at a formal exhibition, but by this time, fans, kimonos, silks and all varieties of ‘Oriental’ objects were already flooding into Europe, where they became very fashionable. One artist upon whom Japanese art had a significant influence — Claude Monet — said he first came across Japanese prints used as wrapping paper at a spice shop in The Netherlands, while James McNeill Whistler, also strongly influenced by Japanese art, saw them for the first time in a Chinese tearoom near London Bridge.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa, ca. 1830–32 © Rogers Fund, 1922

4. The Spiritual Power of Simplicity

The work of Paul Ranson was influenced by Japanese art, but his often flat planed, brilliantly coloured depictions of female figures are also infused with a sense of mystery and esoterisicm. Expressing a greater degree of spirituality through art was one of the objectives of the Nabis, the group to which he belonged, and Ranson found many of the characteristics of Japanese art, particularly its simplicity and emphasis on line and colour over realism, to be the ideal tools to infuse his works with a spiritual depth.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), 1830-32

5. Japanese Nabi

Paul Ranson was referred to as "The Nabi who is more Japanese than the Japanese Nabi", by his artistic colleagues, a reference to fellow Nabi Pierre Bonnard, who was nicknamed “le Nabi tres Japonard”, and was originally considered to be the most Japanese-influenced among them.

6. Collection and Inspiration

Many artists of the time, Monet, Degas and Van Gogh among them, were keen collectors of Japanese art, but the nature of its influence upon their work varied. Some artists, like Tissot, were so enchanted by Japonisme that they depicted models in Japanese dress, and conspicuously displayed ‘Oriental’ props in their work. Others, like Degas, were influenced in subtler ways, adopting aspects of the Japanese approach to painting, from asymmetrical composition to aerial perspectives.

Claude Monet, Madame Monet en Costume Japonais, 1875

7. Hokusai and Monet

The influence of Hokusai’s numerous depictions of flowers without backgrounds can certainly be seen in Monet’s Water Lilies – although Monet himself also went all out and depicted his wife in Japanese costume against a background of falling fans in Madame Monet en costume Japonais — a painting he would later disregard as trash.

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