Looking East : Japan transcribed

The author of this blog is Nora Aubrey, a student in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow.

When Japan opened itself to the West in 1859, convinced by Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his American fleet to sign diplomatic agreements with the US, it had a major impact on the world – politically, economically and artistically.[1] As Japan and its art became readily accessible and intelligible to the West for the first time in almost 250 years,[2] a trend occurred : Japonisme. This was term coined by the French art critic Philippe Burty in 1872 that defines the taste for Japanese things, and which strongly influenced various artists, particularly James McNeill Whistler.

The fascination for exotic objects, coming from this distant land and culture, quickly took over Europe. Asian screens, fans and blue and white porcelain could be found in domestic interiors, and women’s fashion was strongly influenced by the Japanese kimono. “Even the way the fashionable Parisienne stood and moved between 1860 and 1900 was, so to speak, imported from Japan.” [3]

Monet fanClaude Monet, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876. Oil on canvas, 231.8 x 142.3 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Many artworks produced during the second half of the nineteenth century illustrate the exotic appeal of the Orient. Looking at Whistler’s Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, a young woman ‘à la mode’ (French for fashionable) is fascinated by Japanese prints. This picture is part of a series in which European models find themselves surrounded by Japanese props and wearing kimono-like garments, a practice that can be questioned.



James McNeill Whistler, Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864. Oil on wood panel, 50.2 x 68.7 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

This blog’s aim is to explore the appropriation of Japan’s art and its material culture and how this Japanese influence was used and translated into a Western context in Whistler’s work. I wish to open up a reflection upon this phenomenon, which brings up issues around cultural appropriation and plagiarism, but remains a form of homage to Japanese art.

As Wichmann stated : “the study of Japonisme has led to some highly varied and surprising conclusions, and it continues to be a fruitful subject to the present day”[4] and I believe it is still relevant to explore this trend and its different instances, especially in Whistler’s work.

Japonisme can indeed be looked at not just as one phenomenon, but several.[5] If it had an impact on material culture in people’s occidental lives and in the work of many artists, who experimented with Asian props in order to stage exotic settings, Japonisme also revolutionised European visual arts in the nineteenth century.

In the midst of the cultural crisis that Western modern society was facing, Japonisme acted as “the engine of evolution.”[6] The admiration for details in Japanese art confronted machine production, which had become a threat to quality.[7] As a by-product of this reaction against industrialization and Victorian eclecticism,[8] European art found in Japanese art what it was longing for : a reorientation at a moment of stylistic crisis.[9]

This shift in attitude is similar to previous rediscoveries of the past, the Renaissance and Neoclassicism coming to mind, which sustained innovation and originality.[10] However, this rebirth was fuelled by inspiration coming from an unfamiliar place, rather than a lost time. This encounter with a new place and its foreign culture inspired imagination and fantasy, a filter through which the Japanese nation, this remote ‘other,’ was certainly looked at, but more importantly : was admired.

GLAHA 18630.750x750 kiyonaga

Torii KIiyonaga, Winter scene with ladies on a balcony and in the garden, 1784-95, colour wood cut, Whistler collection, The Hunterian, GLAHA 18630 

Japonisme was not only about borrowing exotic objects and playing with costumes, but more significantly about engaging with the artistic work and skills of respected Japanese masters, who introduced a softer and simpler use of colour as well as what appeared to a curious Western eye as disruptive compositions. Looking at Whistler’s work, alongside Japanese prints, one can notice the strong influence they had on his imagination and in what manner they renewed his perception of subject matter and style.

Freer Gallery of Art, F1892.23a-b

‘Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony’

James McNeill Whistler, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony, 1864-1870; additions 1870-1879. Oil on wood panel, 61.4 × 48.5 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC.


Torii Kiyonaga, The Twelve Months in the Southern Quarter (Minami jûni kô): The Sixth Month-Enjoying the Cool in a Teahouse, c. 1785. Color woodblock print, 39.1 x 52 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

We can for instance notice the striking similarity between one of Kiyonaga’s prints from the late eighteenth century and Whistler’s Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony, which could almost be considered an imitation of the former. However, one should see it rather as a free reinterpretation of Kyonaga’s composition and figures.[12]


Sketch for 'The Balcony

The Hunterian


J. McN. Whistler, Sketch for ‘The Balcony’, c. 1867-70. Oil on wood, 61.0 x 48.2 cm.The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Whistler developed a personal ingenuity in borrowing elements of Japanese traditional art and integrating them within his own artistic practice; he cultivated a conscious appropriation of Japanese pictorial arrangements and principles in his work, as his selective approach to those prints suggests[13]. In Variations in Flesh Colour and Green, and especially in the related sketch, Whistler puts particular emphasis on posture and gesture, as well as the use of specific garments, which were crucial in Japan.[14]

Japonisme, as Whistler recognised its decorative potential, was not mere inspiration, but it also revealed one of the most recognisable aspects of his work : his love for harmony. Disregarding the traditional division between fine arts and crafts – which was never tolerated in Japanese culture where craftsmen, artists and public lived in the unitary space of a truly artistic culture[15] – Whistler stood at the beginning of a movement that gradually “brought the arts back together.”[16]

This harmony, emphasized by his musical titles, is based on careful arrangements of colours, inviting the audience to contemplate his thoughtful permutations. In a letter to Fantin-Latour, Whistler celebrates the Japanese people’s understanding of harmony, not seeking contrast but on the contrary, repetition.[17]

What defines Whistler’s work as we know it is in fact Japanese.


James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Red Lamplight, 1886. Oil on canvas, 89.7 x 190.5 cm. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

If Japonisme has led to the production of beautiful artworks, it is important to remain critical and explore the phenomenon’s limits.

We have witnessed a successful attempt to engage with it aesthetically, but to what extent have people, and especially artists, attempted to understand this culture?

While the extensive use of fans as props in Whistler’s artworks was representative of the accessory’s popularity, was he aware of the meaning of the fan in Japanese culture? In the Far East, the fan was not just an ornament but an attribute of metamorphosis[18] and the importance of fan painting was deeply appreciated as it offered a ‘glimpse into the everyday’ (according to a Japanese proverb).[19] Although, in nineteenth century Europe, numerous literary sources reflecting the life and thought of the East were available, it has been stated that they had little influence outside an academic circle.[20] And, for instance, the ways in which Asian fans have been used and represented in Western society, as isolated ornamental pieces, seem to overlook how such objects in Japan had a place and purpose of their own.[21]

With the power of interpretation comes the potential for misinterpretation, which is a risk that many artists – such as Whistler – have taken, to rightfully express their enthusiasm for Japanese art.

The significance of Japonisme, although controversial, should be acclaimed : as Goncourt claimed, “Japonisme brought to Europe a new sense of colour, a new decorative system, and, if you like, a poetic imagination in the invention of the object d’art, which never existed even in the most perfect medieval or Renaissance pieces.”[22] Admiring artists have learned a variety of artistic methods from Japanese art which they have translated and incorporated in their work to develop a modern style.  The changed representation of space, introduced by Japanese art, reflects a “changed world-view.”[23] Instead of imitation, Japonisme was a source for inspiration and transposition in Europe and this valuable interaction between cultures contributed to a visual revolution whose impact was remarkable.

And it is all the more important to consider the importance of Whistler’s response to and engagement with Japanese art, which had a significant impact on British art, as the American painter not only contributed to the expansion of this Japanese influence in Britain but also demonstrated how such unique motifs could be used and adapted. [24]


[1] Julia Meech and Gabriel P. Weisberg (eds), Japonisme comes to America: the Japanese impact on the graphic arts, 1876-1925, New York : H. N. Abrams in association with the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 1990 New York, H. N. Abrams in association with the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 1990, 7.

[2] ibid.

[3] Siegfried Wichmann, Japonisme: The Japanese influence of Western art since 1858, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), 19.

[4] Wichmann, Japonisme: The Japanese influence of Western art since 1858, 6

[5] Klaus Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 4

[6]  Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, 337.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Meech, Japonisme comes to America, 163.

[9] Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, 6.

[10] Ibid., 1.

[12] Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, 40.

[13] Toshio Watanabe, ‘Eishi Prints in Whistler’s Studio? Eighteenth-Century Japanese Prints in the West before 1870’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 128 (December, 1986), 880.

[14] Wichmann, Japonisme: The Japanese influence of Western art since 1858, 16.

[15] Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, 36.

[16] Ibid., 35.

[17] 30 September – 22 November 1868: The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. University of Glasgow. http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence (GUW 11983).

[18] Wichmann, Japonisme: The Japanese influence of Western art since 1858, 165.

[19] Ibid., 166.

[20] Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, 4.

[21] Ibid., 66.

[22] Edmond de Goncourt, Mémoires de la vie littéraire, Paris 1956, vol.3, 334.

[23] Berger, Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse, 63.

[24] Meech, Japonisme comes to America, 36.


About mfmmacdonald

I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.
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