”I leave my brush in the East and set forth on my journey. I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.” - Utagawa Hiroshige

Have you ever heard of the compelling anecdote about a world-celebrated French artist, who in 1871, walked into a shop of prints in Amsterdam, and immediately caught sight of a Japanese woodblock print used as wrapping paper? He was so captivated by the exquisite design that he bought it without hesitance. The artist was, none other than the unsurpassable Claude Monet. Then, in 1876, Monet completed his eye-catching La Japonaise that displayed his wife, Camille, as the model. The 231.8 cm x 142.3 cm oil on canvas had become the stage of curiosity and admiration at the Impressionist painters show in 1876, which eventually found its niche for extensive restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo revealed this breathtaking masterpiece as the highlight of its exhibition, Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that ran from June to September this year. A vast collection of about 150 works, comprising of paintings, photographs, prints, ceramics, and other decorative arts, were spread throughout the themes of Taste for Japan, Woman, City Life, Nature, and Landscape.

It is not surprising for such a phenomenal showcase on Japonisme to find its alcove of comfort in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Here, in the 1870’s, a notable group of four intellectuals—an art historian, collector, zoologist, and Japanese scholar, led the courageous mission of introducing the Japanese art to the Western eye. The Japanese scholar, Okakura Kakuzo, helped in building the Tokyo University of the Arts, and unceasingly promoted Japanese art to the world till his death in 1913, through the curation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Taste for Japan

Japonisme, the fashionable term first used by the French intellectual, Philippe Burty in 1872, traces back its roots from the time the Japanese ports opened their channels to the Western seas in 1853. Crate deliveries of Ukiyo-e prints, oriental fans, kimonos, lacquer ware, silk, ceramics, and other artifacts entered Europe and the Americas. The Paris Exposition of 1867 provided the pivotal vestige for Japanese art to penetrate the keen interests of Western artists.

Works of highly acclaimed printmakers Hiroshige and Hokusai were some of the most impressive art memorabilia that fascinated Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and other Western artists, many of whose works were displayed at the Looking East exhibition.


The Japanese female subject has long been a pinch of inquisitiveness and mystery for many artists and writers as well. Ukiyo-e prints exposed to the world during the 19th century included those of Keisai Eisen’s Standing Courtesan, and Kitagawa Utamaro’s Takigawa of the Ogiya, which triggered an introspective glimpse of the kimono’s intricate floral patterns, delicate hues and the silky flow of the fabric. Japanese women in that era became symbols of elegance, femininity and sophistication. Their silhouettes in domestic scenes were gracefully illustrated in American artist Mary Cassatt’s paintings, such as her Japonsime-inspired The Bath. This aquatint, drypoint, etching and hand-coloring application was Mary’s bold attempt to capture the subtle and simplistic contours of women in Japanese woodcuts. At the same time, a tinge of modernity also overshadowed the stereotype images of spouse and mother, pronouncing women in more intellectual settings—writing poetry, reading novels, or engaging in cultural activities, such as flower arranging, dance or music performances. Kikukawa Eizan’s Ishiyama, and Chokyosai Eiri’s Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Temple,” staging the female Japanese behind working desks graciously exemplified these tendencies.

On the Western front, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and James Jacques Tissot depicted similar scenes of the modern woman, such as in Cover for the First Year of L’Estampe Originale and The Newspaper, respectively.

Evidently, Claude Monet’s La Japonaise bravely stood as the epitome of the West Looking East, with the lustrously decorated theatrical robe (not kimono) voluptuously wrapped around Camille’s bent figure. Camille’s joyful facial expression contrasts the plain and flat visage of the Japanese female subject, exuding therefore, a distinct camouflage of the Parisienne and the Japonaise. More Japonesque features illuminated the background with the overdone layout of colorful Japanese fans, as though they twirled in a dance, complementing Camille’s Kabuki-like backward bend. Despite some sharp criticisms from conservatives that labeled the picture as a “pistol shot that wanted to fire and nothing more,” Monet’s audacious interpretation of West and East combined had become contemporary art’s appeal to better digest and appreciate Japanese aesthetics in deeper perspectives.

City Life

As Europe and the Americas were experiencing the fierce domination of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, Westerns became more and more fascinated with the gradual expansion of city life in Japan. Yoshu Chikanobu’s Opening Ceremony of the Union Horse Racing Club’s Racetrack Around Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park affirmed the glorious preoccupation of Japanese society toward pleasure and public activities. Lautrec interpreted this theme in The Jockey.


The oriental touch in nature—ornamental flowers, lilies, butterflies, shells, tiger, crane, bamboo trees, or ikebana flower arrangement—was most evident in Japanese porcelain, metalwork, swords, fans, vases and other decorative objects. The graceful motifs were favorite accents in Emile Gallé’s enchanting vases, Frank Benson’s and Édouard Vuillard’s still life paintings, and other crafts from Art Nouveau and the Aesthetic Movement.


The artistic discovery of light and modern colors arrived at the same time as the Western exploration of Japanese aesthetics. The Japanese unique approach to color contrast and indirect focus on detail were some of the beguiling features most alluring for Western artists. Utagawa Hiroshige’s Atagoshita and Yabu Lane exemplifies the use of a striking perspective viewed from the pure, white snow on the foreground, pushed against a symmetrical rendition of snow-covered trees in the background—a technique similarly adapted by Camille Pissarro in Morning Sunlight on the Snow, Éragny-sur-Epte.

What, then, has made Japanese art so enthralling for the Western soul, so irresistible enough to conjure a phenomenon, such as Japonisme? Can we feel this pulse in Claude Monet’s words to the Duc de Trévise in 1920?

“Look at that flower with its petals turned back in the wind, is that not truth itself? And here, next to this woman by Hokusai, look at this bathing scene: look at these bodies, can you not feel their firmness? They are made of flesh and bone, yet are described only by their outline. What we appreciated above all in the West was the bold fashion of defining their subjects. Those people have taught us to compose differently— there's no doubt about that.”

Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition is on view at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art until November 30, and at the Nagoya Boston Museum of Fine Arts from January 2 to May 10, 2015. With special gratitude to Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo.