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How Japanese Art Influenced and Inspired European Impressionist Artists

Influences

Subject Matter

Impressionist artists are known for their distinctive subject matter, including everyday iconography like scenes of nature and candid portraits. While this approach is quintessentially characteristic of the movement, it actually has roots in Japanese prints.

Tell-tale title aside, Monet’s iconic collection of Japanese Bridge depictions clearly references Ukiyo-e scenes of everyday life, while Edgar Degas’ signature series of women at la toilette is undoubtedly inspired by the voyeuristic depictions of bathing women frequently found in Japanese prints.

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Claude Monet, Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge (1899)
Photo: Princeton University Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Hokusai, Under Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa (1823)
Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Edgar Degas, Woman Combing her Hair (1885) (Photo: Hermitage via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Hashiguchi Goyo, Combing Hair (1920) (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

Perspective

In addition to sharing similar subject matter, Impressionist paintings and Japanese woodblock prints also showcase a unique approach to perspective. Often, the viewer’s vantage point is from above and positioned at a slight angle.

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre (1897) (Photo: Hermitage via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Hiroshige, Sugura street (1836) (Photo: Visipix via Wikimedia Commons)

This allows us to see scenes in their entirety, almost as if they are set on a theatrical stage and we are observing from the audience.

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal Onstage (1874) (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Suzuki Harunobu, Woman Admiring Plum Blossoms at Night (18th century) (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

Flat Compositions

While it seems like employing such a fascinating perspective would result in dimensionality, typically, woodblock prints’ compositions are quite flat, with solid planes of color and bold lines taking precedence over realism. Though some Impressionist artists did not follow suit and instead opted for a sense of depth, some, like Mary Cassatt, embraced this aesthetic.

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Mary Cassatt, Woman Bathing (1890-1891) (Photo: National Gallery of Canada via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Mary Cassatt, The Letter (1890-1891) (Photo: Kathleen via Wikimedia Commons)

Japanese Art Japonism Impressionism Monet Japanese Bridge

Toshikata Mizuno, After the Bath: Woman of the Kansei Era (1893) (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

When combined with the similarities in subject matter and likeminded approach to perspective, this fascinating flat aesthetic perfectly captures the distinctive look and feel of Japanese woodblock prints.

Related Articles:

Library of Congress Makes Over 2,500 Japanese Woodblock Prints Digitally Accessible

220,000+ Japanese Woodblock Prints Available Online in Growing Database

Origami: How the Ancient Art of Paper Folding Evolved Over Time and Continues to Inspire

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.

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