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Exhibition

Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists

Oct 30, 2015 – Feb 7, 2016

Looking East explores the craze for all things Japanese that changed the course of Western art.

When Japan opened its port to international trade in the 1850s and emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japanese prints, albums and objects arrived in Europe and North America in unprecedented quantities. In the frenzy of collecting and admiration that followed, Japanese art caught the eye of designers and artists seeking fresh solutions to artistic problems.

Looking East explores the many movements and artists affected by Japanese art, including the great impressionist and post-impressionist painters Vincent van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet. Juxtaposing masterpieces of Western art and design with rare works by prominent Japanese artists, the exhibition reveals the interplay of new styles and themes inspired by Japan.

Drawn from and organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — world renowned for their Japanese, American and European collections — Looking East consists of more than 170 objects, including decorative arts, paintings, prints, drawings and textiles. The Asian Art Museum is the final stop on this exhibition’s international tour and your last chance to witness the iconic results of an invigorating cross-cultural moment.

Techniques and Inspiration

This video explores the shared artistic devices in the Japanese and Western artworks on view in Looking East.

Western Artists Encounter Japan

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of “Black Ships” sailed into Edo Bay and irrevocably altered Japan’s history. The Tokugawa government was forced to abandon the isolationist policy that had kept most foreigners out for more than two centuries. By the end of the decade, treaties between the United States and several European countries opened Japanese ports, allowing access to culture, art and goods that had been, until then, largely unknown to the West.

This new exchange created a hunger for all things Japanese, transforming imports from the country into trendy, must-have items. Woodblock prints, bronzes, lacquer ware and other goods from Japan were available in shops, galleries and also a series of hugely popular World’s Fairs. These items quickly came to fascinate Western artists who sought alternatives to the conservative styles of the day.

Through Looking East, you’ll discover the aspects of Japanese art that awakened interest in the West, asymmetric designs, unusual high or low viewpoints, brightly colored shapes and dark outlines among them. “My whole work,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in an 1888 letter, “is founded on the Japanese.”

Japonisme and Orientalism

In 1872, French intellectual Philippe Burty became one of the first writers to use the term japonisme to describe the cultural phenomena considered in Looking East: the West’s growing interest in Japan and its exports, and artists’ exploration of Japanese subject matter and styles. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co., went as far as declaring that his company’s products would be “even more Japanese than the Japanese themselves.”

In art and literature, japonisme is related to Orientalism, the depiction of themes set in a mythic “Orient” (a term derived from the Latin word for “east”). Within the past 40 years, scholars have criticized Orientalism, asserting that exoticized representations of Asian cultures produced stereotypes that supported the colonial ambitions of Western powers. While Japan was never colonized by the West — unlike other parts of Asia — misrepresentation and stereotyping exist in japonisme alongside more nuanced understandings of the country.

For example, as interest in Japan grew, its culture was imagined to be feminine, as symbolized by courtesans and geishas. The frequency with which attractive women, or male actors dressed as women, appear in the Japanese prints and paintings available in the West reinforced this stereotype for some Western observers. A vogue for wearing imported kimono and similarly styled robes flourished in part because of the exotic and sensual associations attached to such clothing in the West.

Women as Subject and Artists

Early on, the passion for Japanese goods and aesthetics took hold among women, who were, in the mid-to-late 1800s, increasingly active in society and gaining financial power. Keeping up with the latest trends, women bought Japanese silks and decorated their homes with “curiosities” such as fans and folding screens.

Beginning in the 1860s, paintings and prints of European women in imported kimonos were among the first Japan-inspired works of art in the West. Some works of this type depict their female subjects as inhabitants of an imagined, exotic land. Pictures of women dressed in the kimono-style “dressing gowns” and “tea gowns” worn to entertain intimate friends and admirers conveyed that these subjects were chic and fashionable, perhaps suggesting that they were sensual creatures as well.

Looking East explores how Japanese artists’ frank portrayal of the everyday activities of their female subjects, from combing their hair to cuddling their children, impacted Western artists, including a number of women. Mary Cassatt, who collected prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai and others, was a huge fan of Japanese art, and her excitement about it changed her trajectory as an artist. “You must see the Japanese,” she urged a fellow painter in 1890, “come as soon as you can.” In Cassatt’s Maternal Caress (about 1902), she appears to draw on both the formal devices and subject matter of Japanese woodblock prints such as Otome (1818-1823).

Capturing City Life

At the same time the West was encountering Japanese art, cities across Europe and the United States were becoming electrifying urban centers. Some artists began to break from tradition to embrace new subjects and styles that matched the vibrant pulse of their modern lives.

In Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Western artists found an exciting source of inspiration for depictions of city life. Many were thrilled to discover that the Japanese had engaged seriously with subject matter that some Western critics had dismissed as frivolous and superficial. “These Japanese artists confirm my belief in our vision,” wrote the Impressionist Camille Pissarro after seeing an exhibition of ukiyo-e in 1893. Japanese depictions of entertainment districts, popular actors and the “floating world” offered encouragement to European artists, who had begun to find subject matter in public spectacles (horse racing and parties) and denizens of seedy nightlife (prostitutes and dancers).

Japanese art also offered a range of formal possibilities, including bursts of color, a sharply up-tilted ground plane and bold outlines. Through Looking East, you’ll see how Western artists drew on these techniques to evoke the energy and spectacle of the modern urban experience.

Motifs from Nature

Images of the natural world — butterflies, turtles, flowers and birds of all kinds — featured prominently in the Japanese prints, lacquer ware, textiles, bronzes and ceramics that saturated Western markets in the late 1800s. Western artists found inspiration in these nature-based motifs, and they became hallmarks of several major artistic movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as Art Nouveau.

Main image: The water lily pond (detail), 1900, by Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Given in memory of Governor Alvan T. Fuller by the Fuller Foundation, 61.959. Photograph © 2015, MFA, Boston.

Organizers & Sponsors

Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Mr. and Mrs. William K. Bowes Jr., The Bernard Osher Foundation, Diane B. Wilsey, The Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, United, Estate of Kazuko Imagawa Zolinsky, The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, Robert Lehman Foundation, and Union Bank. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Art and the Humanities.