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In the beginning there was Japan: how American commodore and a box with prints influenced Impressionism

We could hardly find the same powerful and undeniable sources of Impressionism as the Japanese Art. Neither Turner with his foggy landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
nor Barbizon painters with their open air sketches and even marvelous landscapes of Paris suburbs impacted the way of seeing of future impressionists like wondrous multicolored woodblock prints on washi (Japanese rice paper) which were first used by Europeans for packing of exotic china ware.
Claude Monet's collection contained more than 250 artworks; he enframed them and hanged out in his house. He asked each guest visiting Giverny: "Do you like Japanese prints? Take any you like." Monet’s kitchen maiden Ann told about the first prints in his collection:"It happened in Holland. Once I noticed that a grocer, who sold us food, was wrapping up fish and cheese in the similar prints you see here. He appeared to have a box with the same paper prints in his store room. I bought that box from him. The price was very low for it was only packing paper for him".

A poor always hungry Van Gogh collected more than 200 prints for his personal collection and made paint copies of which (1,2), learning painting techniques; he wrote to his brother about natural effects in keeping with the spirit of Japanese artists:"I observed marvelous and very strange effects this night. I saw a very large boat on the Rhone loaded with coal and moored to a pier. When looking down everything seemed so bright and washed; the water was light-yellow with pearl-grey spots, a lilaceous sky and an orange band was in the west. Small figures of workers were seen on board, they were of blue and dirty blue colors coming to and fro carrying loads to the bank. It was pure Hokusai".

Who is Hokusai?

Japanese fans, screens, jewel-boxes, netsuke, kimonos and prints deluged in France and suddenly and at once they enjoyed pride of places in stores, fashionable drawing rooms and bedrooms hidden from views. However, in the beginning was America.

In 1854 Metthew Perry, an American commodore, discovered that unique and inscrutable treasury signing an agreement for diplomatic relations with Japan, the country which had been inaccessible for dealers, travelers, politicians, scholars, artists and poets for 250 years before. It had been closed for each foreigner. Five years later the same agreement was signed between Japan and France. Progressively beginning with small shops where Japanese goods and artworks were sold like rare exotic things they poured in torrents in Paris in the 70s of the XIX century; hunters for rareness dueled and fought; collectors ordered special wooden cases with glass doors for storage of jewel boxes and netsuke. Philip Sichel, an owner of a store, selling goods from Japan, told that in Japan he had an uncontrolled desire to buy everything he saw and leave nothing there. Sichel bought up everything and anything, shipped 45 containers with thousands of Japanese goods at a time and delivered them to France. The trade route went round the Cape of Good Hope and it took him four months to get to France.

When Sichel was in Japan for the first time he saw a craftsman in the street cutting a tiny netsuke. The merchant had been watching the work for a while and then asked to sell the piece to him after finishing. The old craftsman smiled and answered: "I would finish it in about a month or two".
"When it came to the art of Japan we felt with pleasure lack of connoisseurs' opinions and immediate reactions of admirers and their intuition was not impacted by entangled verdicts of art experts. We felt some new renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
opportunity for discoveries contacting directly with ancient and serious oriental art", —
wrote Edmund de Waal, an author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, a descendant of Charles Ephrussi, the famous Parisian art collector.

Exactly that way the future impressionists were the first who occasionally discovered woodblock prints by Japanese artists Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige. Free from the art scholar points of view they enthusiastically accepted the Japanese aesthetics with its formulas, open air perspectives, bright and pure color spots, figures cut with the edges of paper sheets and at the same time washing women dying their hair, growing trees, a lonely mountain, roads, flowers, birds, napes in front of artworks, legs and arms of oarsmen shadowing the view by chance.
Camille Pissaro wrote after his visit of the International Exhibition where at last its pavilion was dedicated to the Japanese art: — "Hiroshige is a marvelous impressionist painter. Monet, Rodin and I were captured by his prints. The Japanese traditions instill confidence in our way of seeing".

New way of seeing

Nothing of the kind had happened in the European art before. Young artists seeking new expression, new themes and yawning their life away at art academies needed that new waves. The Japanese prints bestowed future impressionists a grand of the peculiarities which brought them hatred for a long time and are so appreciated nowadays. According to Philip Hook, an author of the "Breakfast at Sotheby’s" book all the most attractive features of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
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were originated from Japan. At the times when no photos existed the Japanese artists cut a part of the composition making the impression of abruptness and fragility. Long before Edouard Manet birth they abridged perspective and drew the background nearer. At last, they looked into a far landscape
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from under the arm of an oarsman or a hind leg of a horse, looked at the moon from under bridges and painted a view overlooking the town long before the Caillebotte’s balconies.
The design concepts of Japanese paintings said for themselves that the essence could be found in the world around in a different way. Some small fragments of the real life like a vendor scratching his head, a woman with a crying child, a dog walking somewhere to the left — all of them seemed to be of the same importance as a large mountain towering above on the horizon. Like with netsuke, the everyday life passed once without any rehearsal. The impressionists learnt to cut life into pieces depicting it with glances and interjections. That was what Edmund de Waal wrote.
Possibility of the tradition as old as the European one or maybe even older but fundamentally different granted confidence to young artists that the only true art and taste could not exist. They progressively started adopting the Japanese art language and had a complete command of it.
Laconism. Winter landscapes, women prints and sea waves in the Japanese woodblock prints are seemed to be cleaned out of excessive details and particulars. Coloristic solutions include only some color spots, they are indiscreet and pure. The peculiarities initially related to the technique of color print (prints of 4−8 plates are made one by one, each for each color) were reproduced and transformed by the impressionists according to their own seeing and perception of the world.
Series. Neither Claude Monet with his series comprising 30−40 copies of the same object (haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Seine in the morning) nor Paul Cézanne with his years-long everyday open-air paintings at the root of Sainte-Victoire mountain and countless bathers were able to make the better of Hiroshige. The classical artist of the Japanese landscape
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Now it seems unbelievable but the Japanese did not regard the woodblock prints, which fascinated the fashionable European artists and inspired the Impressionists to adopt the new ways of expression. Read more
(pictures of the floating world) created several cycles often comprising up to a hundred of his artworks: they included views of Fuji, views of Edo and its provinces, Tokaido stations and even a cycle of the woodblock prints dedicated to the most popular restaurants. So if we collect all the pictures of water lilies by Monet, we could get a cycle by its number competing with his Japanese predecessors.
Vincent van Gogh. In memory of lilac
March 1890, 73×59 cm
Subject matters. Neither of French impressionists had never visited Japan though each of them discovered his own Japan in some blossoming tree in the South of France or in his own garden. Gustave Caillebotte grew chrysanthemums forgetting all his businesses and appointments when he was waiting for the time of short blossoming of his rare orchid. Claude Monet built his famous Japanese bridge, grew water lilies in his pond and planted flowers in his garden which he had been admiring in the Japanese prints for his hungry impecunious years. Vincent van Gogh moving to Arles wrote to his brother that he was going to move to Japan; he found it in Arles in blossoming trees there. Each of such personal Japans became inspiration and nature for the best artworks.


Commodore Metthew Perry discovered Japan that allowed travelers, merchants and diplomats visiting it and at the same time he opened the world for local people. Several dozens of years had passed and Japanese people became the most devoted admirers of the French impressionists. They came to France to visit exhibitions searching for their admired artists who had aged by the time to see how they were working. Takeko Kuroki, a granddaughter of the Japanese Prime Minister, spent in France several years collecting artworks, she visited Claude Manet in Giverny. Kuroda Seiki rated to be one of the best impressionists in Japan had lived in Paris for 10 years and after coming back home he taught art and made lectures on the Western Art.

Jean Renoir, the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, recollected the pilgrimages to his father’s home: " When Father knew about his visitors he invited them to his studio. They spent a lot of time together sitting in silence as they were speaking different languages… I can recall a Japanese man. He walked on his foot from the Italian border. He had an accurate layout in his pocket, which had been given to him by a former visitor. He showed it. The paths in Collettes were shown in it as well as the small studio, Renoir’s room, the oven for bread-making and the stable for a mule. One of such visitors spent a lot of time in Cagnes-sur-Mer and became a close friend of the artist. This man appeared to be the painter Umehara".

The monument was erected to the politician and diplomat Metthew Perry who forced Japan to communicate with the other world threatening it with military activities and severe ultimatum. The monument is right on target; the entire modern art from 1854 to nowadays would have been absolutely different if it were not for Commodore Metthew.
The central illustration: Paul Cézanne, The Montagne Sainte-Victoire and Utagawa Hiroshige, The View from Bridge in Itsumi no khasi (One Hundred Famous Views of Edo).

Author: Anna Sidelnikova