The Japanese Fan, by Gustave de Jonghe (1829-1893).
When Japan opened its doors to the West in 1858, after two centuries of isolation, the appearance of Japanese prints, ceramics, metalwork and paintings had as dramatic an effect upon European artists as the influx of Western ideas had upon Japanese life.
Paris became the centre for all things Japanese and, as the frenzy for collecting grew, shops selling Japanese prints, fans, screens and so on sprang up like mushrooms all over the city. Samuel Bing, in his shop at 22 rue de Provence, was known to always have several thousand Japanese prints in stock. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo (Arles, Sunday, 15th July 1888): ‘There’s an attic at Bing’s, and in it there’s a heap of 10 thousand Japanese prints, landscapes, figures, old Japanese prints too.’
Japanese woodblock prints, with their lack of perspective and shadow, their bold designs and flat areas of strong color, had a great impact upon artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Gauguin, who were quick to incorporate Japanese compositional techniques which, contrasting so strongly with those taught by the traditional academies of Europe, were seen as artistically liberating.
Interiors became filled with Japanese (and imitation Japanese) pictures and objets d'art, from screens and woodblock prints, to decorative vases and figures, cabinets and chests, and sumptuous fabrics. In Britain, designers were inspired by the vast array of Japanese items put on show at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, which included the largest display of Japanese art ever seen in Europe at the time. Liberty’s of Regent Street, London, opened in 1875 as a specialist supplier of Japanese goods, to satisfy the huge demand for Japanese objects amongst those with expensive taste and the money to satisfy it. It became de rigeur to have a Japanese department in every fashionable Parisian store, and the establishment of tea shops around the city meant that its residents could shop for Japanese arts for their home, or kimono to wear whilst sitting amongst those objects, and then add to the experience by filling themselves up with Japanese tea.
This passion for all things Japanese impacted not just upon the decorative arts, but also upon music and literature, inspiring works such as Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème of 1886, the opera of the same name that was first performed in 1893 and Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly of 1904, both of which derived their story from Loti's book.
There was a genuine interest not just to collect the Japanese arts, but also to understand them. A number of books appeared on the market that were devoted to the subject - books that are still immensely important to students of the subject today. Edmond de Goncourt's Outamaro, published in 1891 with an original print run of 2,000 books, had sold more than 25,000 copies by 1901.
Collectors who could afford to go beyond relying upon European dealers in order to add to their collections travelled to Japan to explore the country itself, such as Émile Guimet, the French industrialist, who founded the Musée Guimet in Lyon in 1879, which was handed over to the state and transferred to Paris in 1885.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the influence of Japanese art upon the arts of the West. Samuel Bing, one of the most important individuals in the history of Japonisme, sums it up best in his introductory article to the first issue of Le Japon artistique, dated May 1888:
'This art is permanently bound together with ours. It is like a drop of blood that has been mingled with our blood, and now no power on earth is able to separate it again.'
Guimet in his museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini 1898.