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Japonisme: A Fascination With Japanese Artwork

Learn all about Japonisme, the 19th-century design trend that was based on Europeans' love affair with all things Japanese.

Marc Schenker April 29, 2021 · 14 min read

Japonisme is an 1872 term coined by the French to indicate the sudden popularity of Japanese decorative art and design in Western Europe in the 19th century. This occurred after Japan’s Bakumatsu—or the end of the country’s Edo feudal military government—when Japan resumed trade with the rest of the world in 1858.
After more than 200 years of an isolationist foreign policy, Japan’s artworks were barely seen in most of Europe until the late 19th century. When they started being imported into various European countries at this time, their exotic illustrations and bold designs captured the imagination of many Westerners. Not only were they popular among consumers, but they also influenced many Western artists with their unique techniques.
This surge of eastern style left a lasting impression on the French and the West in general.

The History of Japonisme

This phenomenon was the result of Japan being closed off to the West for centuries. When the political situation in the country was finally reformed, and trade with the outside world wasn’t shunned anymore, Japan began exporting more and more of its decorative arts. Consequently, people in the West started to realize what their eyes and design sensibilities had been missing for hundreds of years.
After all, as the old saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
In the case of Western Europe, the dearth of eastern products and influences only increased their value when they were finally reintroduced by the late 19th century.

To understand the cultural impact and context of Japonisme, we have to look at its underlying cause: the Edo period, which lasted from 1639 to 1858. The Edo period was governed by the Tokugawa shogunate, which imposed severe isolationist policies. As a result, Japan was in seclusion, with only one of its international ports actually open to trade. During this time, it was the Dutch, also the originators of the Delft Blue pottery design trend, who were lucky enough to trade with Japan. Technically, this still allowed for a very small number of Asian artworks to be imported back to Europe, but the effects of the Japanese style were minimal.
Another interesting aspect of this period of seclusion in Japanese history was the acute awareness the Japanese had about how popular their designs were, at least among wealthy Europeans like the monarchy. In the 17th century, the Japanese started manufacturing their own porcelain, particularly for export in trade with the Dutch.
By the time of Japan’s reopening, the demand for their eastern aesthetic was at a fever pitch in continental Europe, from the steady—though rare—drip of Japanese exports reaching the Netherlands. Therefore, the stage had now been set for Japonisme—an excited fascination with and imitation of everything eastern—to take root in Europe.
After 1868, the Meiji Restoration, which returned imperial governance to the country under Emperor Meiji, ensured that the Land of the Rising Sun was now fully open for trade with the West.
In the late 19th century, more and more Asian artworks began appearing in curiosity shops in big European cities like Paris and London, much to the delight of everyday Europeans.
As a parallel to this early excitement 19th-century Europeans felt back in the day, have a look at some Japanese-inspired digital assets:

This design trend first began in earnest as Westerners developed a fondness for collecting Japanese designs, like those found in ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e is itself a design movement that centered on paintings and woodblock prints depicting staples of Japanese life, such as:

  • Sumo wrestlers
  • Kabuki actors
  • Folklore
  • Landscapes
  • Flora and fauna

Europeans were intrigued by the style’s use of composition and color. For example, in ukiyo-e, it’s not uncommon to see many asymmetrical compositions, as well as the use of foreshortening. Foreshortening is a form of perspective characterized by the illusion or effect that an object or a distance seems to be shorter than it really is. The reason for this lies in the fact that the object or distance is angled at the audience.
Eventually, there would be French shops that catered exclusively to Japonisme and all its derivatives, such as ukiyo-e. Establishments like La Porte Chinoise were specialist merchants that sold Japanese and Chinese imports to European customers. Because of these establishments’ growing importance in this then-nascent design movement, they would soon attract the curiosity of influential French artists like Edouard Manet, a luminary in the Impressionism movement, and Edgar Degas, one of Impressionism’s actual founders.
As the 20th century approached, this design movement continued to pick up steam.
Other disciplines that could be considered art in a broader sense fell under the spell of this eastern influence. For instance, when it came to the decorative arts, like ceramics and even metalwork, Japanese imports made their mark known in the West.
Not only was Japanese pottery exported all over the world after the aforementioned Meiji Restoration, but the fruits of labor from centuries of producing weapons for Samurai were becoming apparent, too. Japanese metalworkers had built up a wide array of vibrant colors through their craft of mixing and then finishing metal alloys. As a result, by the first decade of the 20th century, Japanese cloisonne enamel was considered the best in the world. Cloisonne is a decorative approach to adorning metalwork products. These colorful Japanese imports were already widely available in Europe by the end of the 19th century, further cementing the West’s fascination and love of Japanese design during this time.
Japonisme even reached into the world of garden design. The one-of-a-kind aesthetics behind Japanese gardens—these topiary masterpieces based on Asian sensibilities and philosophical ideas—were “imported” into the West by Josiah Conder’s classic 1893 book, Landscape Gardening in Japan (with a second edition printed in 1912). His book’s publication unsurprisingly led to the very first Japanese gardens being created in the West.
Overall, there was a multitude of Western artists who ended up being influenced by this eastern import. Some prominent ones include:

  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Edgar Degas
  • Edouard Manet
  • Claude Monet
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Mary Cassatt
  • Paul Gauguin
  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler

With so many Westerners swooning at this design trend, check out more Japanese-inspired design assets, and see if you’ll fall under its spell as well:

Finally, by 1872, the famous French art collector and critic by the name of Philippe Burty helped to forever enshrine this design movement in the public conscience by giving it its name. He coined the term “Japonisme” to capture the zeitgeist of popularity among Europeans of Japanese art.

The Design Characteristics of Japonisme

More so than some of the other cultural traditions and design trends we’ve so far covered on the blog, it’s a bit trickier to put your finger on what makes this style specifically stand out. That’s in part because this movement is based on the French and European admiration of true Japanese style, so they have put their own twists on it. That said, though, in general, here’s how to tell if you’re beholding a true masterpiece created in this cultural tradition.
Japanese decorative arts (and the attempts to imitate it, by the French of the time) are characterized by:

  • Unique application of color and composition
  • Use of imbalance
  • Presence of foreshortening (objects and distances)
  • Flair for the exotic
  • Mundane themes (though transformed into the extraordinary with technique)
  • Elongated pictorial arrangements
  • Aerial viewpoints
  • Negative space filled with only abstract colors and lines
  • Singularly decorative elements
  • Flatness
  • Rich and splendid color schemes
  • Realist subject matter
  • Heavy stylization

In terms of design qualities, it needs to also be stressed that a huge Western design trend, Art Nouveau, incorporated a fair number of these characteristics of Japonisme into its own compositions. This makes all the sense in the world when you think about it because Art Nouveau, which itself saw a lot of support in France and started out in England, attained popularity in the decades immediately following the rise of Japanese artwork imports into Europe.
This goes to show how the initial admiration and imitation of this Japanese design style became so much more. What initially started as a fascination with all things eastern developed into a European art mentality that intentionally began to use Japanese design elements, here and there, in subsequent design movements that originated in Europe. After all, when you’re a designer or artist, you’re happy to use inspiration from whatever culture you can, as long as it furthers your own creativity.

Examples of Japonisme

This design movement was well-represented in many creative works of the time, due to the great enthusiasm from the European citizenry. Here are some of our favorite examples from various categories.

In Graphic Design

Westerners who caught sight of Asian decorative arts were eager to record their fascination. When it came to graphic design, this manifested itself in everything from books and book covers to paintings. Here are some outstanding examples that have stood the test of time.

Book Cover for Landscape Gardening in Japan

Josiah Conder’s 1893 book is credited with bringing the art of Japanese gardens and topiary to Europe. It was popular enough to receive a second printing in 1912.
The book cover for Conder’s book almost looks like a painting straight out of medieval Japan. Not only is it bursting with brilliant colors that seem to jump right off the cover, but it also the fine aesthetic side of eastern illustrations. Simple-yet-elegant, the art on the cover tells the story of how plant and outdoor-space cultivation in Japan is a significant part of the country’s heritage and cultural tradition.

Image Credit: Amazon

Also of note is the use of color contrast and negative or white space. The sea (blue area) is essentially the white space, contrasting with the land areas that feature more detail and where the viewer is directed to look.

The Portrait of Pere Tanguy

Vincent van Gogh was known for many things, including being a tortured artist, creating masterpieces that were only recognized after his death, and, of course, cutting off part of his own left ear. His Portrait of Pere Tanguy serves as an example of both how he failed to find fame during his lifetime and the influence of Japonisme on his ever-developing creativity.
The painting is of a man by the name of Julien Tanguy, a paint grinder whom van Gogh knew.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What’s striking about this piece is the use of brilliant colors, which pop off the canvas at the viewer. This represented a marked shift in his work at the time, as the use of vivid colors created opportunities for harmony, balance, and depth. If you look closely, behind the subject sit van Gogh’s own collection of Japanese prints that Tanguy sold in his shop. The background is full of Japanese influences, such as:

  • Mount Fuji
  • Kabuki actors
  • Cherry trees in bloom

Girl in a White Kimono

This artwork is an oil painting finished in 1894 by the Dutch photographer and painter named George Hendrik Breitner. Inspired by the very unique stylings of Japanese prints, Girl in a White Kimono depicts the 16-year-old Geesje Kwak, who also posed for Breitner wearing a red kimono.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The composition itself shows a lot of Asian touches, such as the fine illustrations on her kimono, the floral patterns in the background, and the lack of symmetry in the entire frame.

In Interior Design

The European love of Japonisme reached into interior design as well. Here’s one of the best examples of how this style can achieve near immortality.

The Peacock Room

Alternately known as Harmony in Blue and Gold, The Peacock Room has done well in posterity. It’s today praised as one of the best examples of the fusion of the Japanese style of design mixed with European sensibilities. Designed by the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler and the English architect Thomas Jeckyll, the room is characterized by vivid blue and green colors that are over-glazed and feature metallic gold leaf, to boot.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The room’s focal point is the painting by Whistler titled, “Rose and Silver: The Princess From the Land of Porcelain.” The composition epitomizes the Western obsession with Asian design, as it depicts a European woman wearing a kimono while she is surrounded by various eastern artefacts, such as a porcelain vase, a Japanese folding screen, and a rug.
Today, this entire masterpiece of interior design has been translocated to Washington, D.C., where it is displayed at the Freer Gallery of Art, itself a part of the Smithsonian Institute.

La Pagode

Built in 1896, La Pagode sits in Paris’ trendy 7th arrondissement. Its Japonisme influences are extremely noticeable to anyone passing by. It was constructed by the architect Alexandre Marcel, at the behest of one Francois Emil Morin, a director at Le Bon Marche department stores.
La Pagode features frescoes, statues, paints, and paneling straight from the Land of the Rising Sun. On the inside of this pagoda, you’ll find a plethora of baroque, gold-leaf, eastern ornamentation, along with a few design touches that symbolize the melting pot of east meets west. For instance, you’ll find some Art Nouveau elements, such as its elegant, stained-glass windows.

Image Credit: Flickr

Overall, it’s a very eclectic presentation that speaks to the captivation the French had for eastern influence.

In Pottery

Ceramics was another area in which Europeans were able to actualize their love affair with Japonisme. Here are some prominent examples of pottery that celebrate Eastern design sensibilities.

The Carp Vase

From the late 19th century, the carp vase is a study in how taking a simple, everyday object (read: fish) can look very refined on pottery, when the right artist is at the helm. This piece is attributed to Eugene Rousseau. Of course, the carp is another object closely associated with Japanese cultural tradition.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the vase itself, notice how the details like the scales of the fish are very realistic and carefully applied. Looking almost like relief sculpted into a wall, the design on the vase features asymmetry that’s typical of this design movement. The choice of simple colors is also deceptively striking, as the vivid background color makes the carp stand out all the more noticeably.

Chantilly Porcelain Pot

When it comes to the delicate quality of porcelain, Chantilly porcelain is uniquely French. Originating from the commune by the same name in the Oise department of France, Chantilly porcelain is known as a soft paste of porcelain, which is a type of porcelain.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This particular ceramic is a study in minimalism, with its generous, white background and negative space framing the colorful elements in the foreground. When you look closer, you’ll see typical Japonisme design elements like:

  • Prunus (the East Asian cherry)
  • Bamboo
  • Birds

Artworks like this were popular in Europe during the time of Japan’s seclusion, when the West was starved for true imports from the East and so had to make their own imitations.

When East Meets West

This design movement is literally the epitome of East meets West. It’s also a timeless testament to how the Europeans fell head over heels in love with the aesthetic sensibilities of Asia. Whereas there was always fascination with imported decorative arts from the East during Japan’s seclusion, this fascination became an all-out obsession when Japan’s trade with the West resumed in earnest (instead of just a few imports here and there through the Dutch).
The result is a design trend that not only celebrates the Asian approach to composition, but also tries to replicate it from the standpoint of European sensibilities. In some cases, such as the aforementioned Peacock Room, the ensuing creation is something that’s more stunning than just either part of its influence.
In the end, this design movement is a fantastic example of what happens when two, disparate cultures trade design influences from one to the other.

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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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