Japonisme Rediscovered

The Unique Influence of Japanese Meiji Art on European Modern & Contemporary Art

Self-Portrait (1887) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)The Art Institute of Chicago

"In a way, all my work is founded on Japanese art..."

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830/1832) by Katsushika HokusaiTokyo Fuji Art Museum

What is Japonisme?

Japonisme is a French term coined in the late nineteenth century to describe the craze for Japanese art and design in the West after trade with Japan resumed in the 1850s, the country having been closed to the West since about 1600.

Mt. Fuji from Lake Hakone by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

A New Approach to Exploring Japonisme

The influence of Japanese prints and paintings on the Impressionist and Modern Art movements is well documented. This exhibit, however, shows how lacquer, metalwork, enamels, textiles and other applied arts produced during the Meiji period (1868-1912) had an equal, if not greater influence on western artists. 

Four-fold Screen with Snow Scene (1900-1905)The Khalili Collections

A Spotlight on Meiji Themes and Methods

To fully appreciate the tremendous influence of Meiji art on the rise of the modern art movement, this exhibit will first explore the creative genius and master artisanship of Meiji metalworkers, enamelers and textile weavers. Ultimately, it will reveal specific examples of where such influence can be seen vividly by visual comparison. 

Pair of Samurai Figures Pair of Samurai Figures (circa 1890)The Khalili Collections

A Cultural Revolution

In the 50 years leading up to the dawn of the 20th century, Japan transformed itself from an isolated feudal nation to a world power. The traditional arts seemed doomed to extinction as the country raced to modernize its industries. However, after the young Meiji Emperor assumed the throne in 1868, Japan’s new leaders realised that the historic skills of the metalworker, lacquerer, enameller and ceramic artist could play a vital part in the struggle to compete in international markets. 

Lion and lioness in long grasses by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

The Majesty of Meiji Art

Before long, visitors to international exhibitions in Europe and America were confronted with astonishing displays of Japanese artistic creativity and technical virtuosity. The masterpieces of Meiji art, in a unique style blending the best of traditional design with prevailing international taste, are unrivalled in the quality of their craftsmanship and were avidly sought by Western collectors.

Treasures Of Imperial JapanThe Khalili Collections

Ornament of Fish in Waves (Okimono) (circa 1900)The Khalili Collections

Metalwork Sculpture

Meiji-period sculptural masterpieces in metal were decorated in an astonishing variety of virtuoso techniques. They drew on a vast store of subject matter derived from Chinese and Japanese history, legend, and religion.

Figure of an Eagle, 1880-1890, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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This piece is attributed to Suzuki Chokichi, one of the heroic figures of Meiji craft, who was appointed Teishitsu Gigeiin (Artist to the Imperial Household) in 1896.

Pair of Samurai Figures Pair of Samurai Figures, circa 1890, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Monumental in size (height 226cm), this pair of large bronze figures of samurai warriors, each dressed in richly brocaded clothes and wearing full armour, exemplify the grandeur of Meiji imperial art.

Incense Burner (Koro), circa 1890, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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The Buddhist symbolism projected through this incense burner (koro) gives an insight into a spiritual aspect of the Japanese character at the time of the Meiji Restoration, as well as exemplifying Japanese aspirations abroad.

Mythical Group, after 1881, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Ornament of Fish in Waves (Okimono), circa 1900, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Figure of a Woman Weighing Mushrooms, circa 1900, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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This Tokyo-school bronze figure of a women weighing mushrooms was produced by Kaniya Kuniharu, one of the foremost craftsmen in cast bronze of the Meiji period.

Cockerel Group, circa 1893, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Self-Portrait (1889)National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

"I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity of everything in their work. It is never dull and it never seems to be done in too much of a hurry."

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh

Extensive landscape by Signed by OkuboThe Khalili Collections

A New Level of Intricacy in Textiles

Meiji-period Japanese embroideries, resist-dyed silks and velvets, tapestries and appliquéd works captured the imagination of the West at the international fairs. Their iconography, meticulousness and nature-inspired composition mesmerised not only collectors, but also artists across Europe and the United States. 

National Treasures – The Art Of Collecting - Professor Nasser David KhaliliThe Khalili Collections

Professor Nasser D Khalili explains the realism of Japanese silk textiles from the Meiji period. From Sky Arts documentary "National Treasures: The Art of Collecting".

Panoramic view of Toshogo Mauseleum by Signed Koto with seal AokiThe Khalili Collections

Panoramic view of Toshogo Mauseleum

The iconic architecture of the Mausoleum is captured in unparalleled detail.

Togosho is a Shinto shrine built in 1617 as a mausoleum of the first Shogun.

The Mausoleum's harmony with the breathtaking nature that surrounds it is captured skilfully using various forms of layering and toning.

Signed Koto with seal Aoki

A silk imbroidery depicting turbulent waves by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

The seascape, particularly a close-up view of waves, seems to have become a popular subject during the Meiji era. This may have been symbolic of the country's opening up to the world beyond the Japanese sea coast.

Layers of long and short stitch in very fine flat silk thread are used to express the volume and movement of the waves and the seagulls flying overhead.

Many Japanese silk textiles achieve the effect of the realist oil painting.

A lion and lioness in a rocky cave by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

Is it an oil painting?

Only on zooming in considerably, we can see the silk needlework which reveals the medium.

Lions - a popular symbol of strength and grace in Meiji Japan - were depicted in astonishing realism in designs that was embroidered in multiple layers of long and short stitch and lines of staggered diagonals.

Set of four padded-silk panels - 1 by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

The Oshi-e was a special technique unique to Japan in which paper or silk wadding is covered  with dyed and painted silk and other fabrics and pasted onto a background of silk or paper to create padded relief designs. In the Meiji era, Oshi-e was regarded as feminine accomplishment alongside ikebana, teas ceremony and embroidery. 

Set of four padded-silk panels - 2 by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

Let us focus on this elderly man...

A much closer look reveals that this 'padded silk' textile was made using recycled Kimono silks as well as specially cut material which was stitched onto the textile to provide a unique three-dimensional affect.

Details such as hands and faces were applied in gofer shell powder and hand-painted on.

Self-portrait (March 1887 - June 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

"And one cannot study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming merrier and happier"

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh

Vase (circa 1905)The Khalili Collections

Perfection in Vase-making

Siegfried Bing’s shop, owned by a German who had settled in Paris, provided Japanese art and design for collectors and museums around Europe. Van Gogh visited Bing’s shop on many occasions and wrote of the marvels within in his letters to Theo. Seeing masterpieces of metalwork, porcelain, and enamel where the images reproduced in prints come alive in vivid colour and pulsating with life must have captured his imagination like nothing else which existed, fuelling his obsession. 

National Treasures – The Art Of Collecting - Professor Nasser David KhaliliThe Khalili Collections

Professor Khalili explains the inimitability of Japanese Meiji vases.

Vase, 1908, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Japanese cloisonné enamels were a technical triumph of the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taisho (1912–26) periods, during which three strands of stylistic evolution took place: the conservative, the pictorial and the exotic.

Vase, circa 1893, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Vase, circa 1910, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Pair of Vases Pair of Vases, 1880s, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Vase, circa 1900, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Pair of Tusk Vases Pair of Tusk Vases, circa 1885, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Vase and Cover, circa 1885, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Splendours of Imperial JapanThe Khalili Collections

A video showcasing some of the vases exhibited at the "BEYOND IMAGINATION: Treasures of Imperial Japan from the Khalili Collection 19th to early 20th century" exhibition at the Moscow Kremlin Museums in 2017.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888) by Vincent van GoghHarvard Art Museums

"So come, isn't what we are taught by these simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?"

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh

Flowering plum orchard: after Hiroshige (October 1887 - November 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Japonisme Rediscovered

It is not hard to see why Japanese art had such a firm grip on the imagination of European contemporary artists. With its ingenious use of colour and stylised approach to nature and the elements, Japanese artists provided rich inspiration for the intense and unconventional art of Van Gogh and his fellow Impressionists. 

Tray, circa 1900, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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This cloisonné enamel tray with a flowering prunus-stem growing from a gnarled tree-stump and a partially cloud-obscured moon in the background has a composition and mood which later influenced Van Gogh, Gaugin and other Impressionists.

The sower, Vincent van Gogh, June 1888 - 1888, From the collection of: Van Gogh Museum
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Self-portrait with pipe (September 1886 - November 1886) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Van Gogh's Early Influences 

The imagery, decorative themes and artistic styles to be found on Japanese Meiji objects are apparent in the work of many modern painters such as Van Gogh, who personally had strong links with Siegfried Bing, perhaps the most prominent and influential Paris-based dealer in Japanese art of the Meiji period. In fact, Theo Van Gogh is known to have owned a Japanese mask and have gifted their mother with a cloisonné vase which was immortalised by Vincent in a (missing) still-life painting. 

Vase, 1905-1910, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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This vase displays the traditional aesthetic values and deep appreciation of nature which influenced artists of Van Gogh’s generation.

Almond Blossom, Vincent van Gogh, February 1890 - 1890, From the collection of: Van Gogh Museum
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Whether it be sensitivity to abstraction, harmony, or even the chaos contained in a flower, echoes of Japanese art are to be found everywhere.

Vase (circa 1910)The Khalili Collections

In this charming earthenware piece from 1910 by Yabu Meizan, a procession of insects, lizards and frogs is joyfully taking place. This tradition of caricaturing various human activities has a long history in Japan.

Roses (April 1890 - May 1890) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Lifelike and whimsical depictions of insects, along with the subtle humour inherited in these depictions which inverts common negative associations in the west, certainly seemed to have been yet another part of the inspiration to painters of the period.

In a painting simply titled ‘Roses’ from 1890 by Van Gogh a charming little beetle can be seen, which feels almost as if it belongs in the parade.

The Water-Lily Pond, Claude Monet, 1899, From the collection of: The National Gallery, London
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Idyllic bridges were a frequent motif in both Meiji -era Japanese textiles and Western impressionist paintings.

Extensive landscape, Signed by Okubo, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Panoramic view of Toshogo Mauseleum, Signed Koto with seal Aoki, From the collection of: The Khalili Collections
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Museum Of Modern Art (1947-11) by Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

Van Gogh's swirly sky in Starry Night was a pioneering method of depicting celestial dynamics.

Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van GoghThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Irises with a bird flying overhead by UnknownThe Khalili Collections

The swirly background was also a common composition in Japanese silk textiles.

Vase (circa 1905)The Khalili Collections

"Nature plays a huge role in Japanese tradition and this is what brought Van Gogh to the Japanese, and the Japanese to admire Van Gogh in their shared love of nature."

Professor Nasser D. Khalili - Founder, The Khalili Collections at the opening of the exhibition 'Wonders of Imperial Japan: Meiji Art from the Khalili Collection' at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in 2006.

Credits: Story

Professor Nasser D. Khalili has assembled the world’s greatest collection of Meiji decorative art, comprising over 1,600 pieces of metalwork, enamels, lacquerwork, and ceramics, works by most of the known masters from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century. It is comparable in its extent only to that held by the Japanese Imperial family.

Video contributions:
Colonial Pictures (for Sky Arts)
Moscow Kremlin Museums
Collection Curator: Dror Elkvity

Digital Exhibit curated by Waqas Ahmed

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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