When everything began. Japonism as a model of coexistence.

The first concrete contact between Japanese and Westerners dates back to the Momoyama period (1568-1615), when the Nanban (lit. “southern barbarians”, used to identify European people from the 1543) started to influence Japanese art and culture. Japan, in fact, is known for its historic isolation and, talking about the pre-globalization era, we can generally observe just two different periods in which Japanese culture came into contact with the Occidental one: during the so-called “Christian century” (1549-1622), when Jesuits started to import western artworks and texts; and after the Edo period (1603-1868), during which the Tokugawa dynasty (Fig. 1), through the bakufu (military government) and the sakoku (isolationist foreign policy), limited the exchanges between Japan and other countries.


Fig.1 Kanō Tan'yū, Portrait of Ieyasu Tokugawa, early Edo period (1603-1868).

A significant change occurred during the Meiji Restoration (1912-1926) and, thanks to the great business development, Japan started to promote its culture by participating in the European and American world fairs. The result was productive and, while Japanese became interested in Art Nouveau, Europeans were fascinated by ukiyo-e (lit. “pictures of the floating world”). Born during the Edo period, after the end of the civil war, the ukiyo-e movement has been the creative consequence of the Tokugawa government. The origin of the name dates back to Buddhist philosophy, in which ukiyo means to avoid material goods. In this respect, it is interesting to notice how Japanese artists chose to use this term to celebrate earthly goods and habits. The Tokugawa period, in fact, brought 250 years of stability to Japan but the dictatorship caused many discontents and a lot of samurai families found themselves without a work, and ideals. That’s why most of them started to spend their time in the so-called “green houses”: meeting places where men used to dedicate themselves to earthly pleasures.


Fig. 2 Kitagawa Utamaro, Courtesan with a Doll, from the series "Twelve Physiognomies of Beautiful Women Representing Scenes of Famous Places", 1803


Initially influenced by classical Chinese painting, Japanese artists elaborated a personal artistic language. The will to celebrate ephemeral diversions circumscribed the themes of ukiyo-e art. Generally, we can count six different macro-themes: Bijin-ga, pictures of beautiful women (Fig. 2); Yakusha-e, pictures of famous actors; Kachô-ga, portraits of flowers, birds and insects; Landscapes, theme known worldwide thanks to Hokusai’s Great Wave; Tradition, in which we can find many references to Japanese literature and legends; Shunga, erotic art. Determined to push away the melancholy caused by the political situation, Japanese masters decided to “float” through pleasures.



Ukiyo-e art is the fruit of a changing situation, a provocative answer to dictatorial restrictions. This artistic approach has found great success in Europe thanks to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The birth of the Japanism is usually traced back to a fortuitus discovery. In 1856, in fact, the artist Félix Braquemond found, in the studio of his printer Auguste Delâtre, many papers of the Hokusai Manga (“sketches”) used to wrap porcelain. The French etcher, who took part in the first Impressionist exhibition (1974), was immediately enthusiastic and started to promote Japanese art among his colleagues. It was the beginning of a new attitude, called Japonisme by the French critic Philippe Burty (1830-1890).



Claude Monet, La Japonaise, 1876.

Motivated by the desire to propose a new kind of art, free from academic impositions, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were seduced by exotic culture. In particular, masters like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh were inspired by the harmonious landscapes created by Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. In a few years, Japanism winned over Europe and became a common trend. La Japonaise (Fig. 3), painted by Monet in 1876, shows the atmosphere of the period and the success achieved by the kimono among Parisian women. The artwork, moreover, is important to understand how Japanese masters were appreciated by the father of the Impressionism. On the fans in the background, in fact, Monet reproduced images typical of ukiyo-e. At this point, Japanism had contaminated Europe and various artists found in its aesthetics the way to take position against Occidental academicism.


To be continued.