AUDIO TOUR: Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan

Stop 1:

Director’s Introduction

Hello. I’m Susan Edwards, Director of the Frist Art Museum. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to Looking East:  Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, an exhibition organized by The Museum of Fine Arts Boston.  Following the reopening of Japan to the west after visits by Commodore Perry in the mid-nineteenth century, there was an international craze for all things Japanese. In 1872, the French intellectual Phillipe Burty coined the term japonisme to describe the profound influence of the art and culture of Japan on Western artists, most notably on the impressionists and post-impressionists. Curators from The Museum of Fine Arts Boston selected works of art from their encyclopedic collections that illustrate how European and American artists were inspired by various Japanese objects and specifically by woodblock prints called ukiyo-e. You will see stunning examples of ukiyo-e prints as well as art by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Edvard Munch and many others.

Our education exhibition, Frank Lloyd Wright: Building the Imperial Hotel, examines the American architect’s deep engagement with Japanese art and architecture through his design of a Tokyo hotel that was completed in 1923.  In this gallery, you can explore the Imperial Hotel through architectural drawings, photographs, ephemera and a digital video rendering of the hotel.

While at the Frist Art Museum, please visit the exhibition Lain York: Selections from the National Gallery, on view in our Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery. The “selections” that the exhibition title refers to are not from the collection of the National Gallery, but rather interpretations of the subject matter by Nashville-based artist Lain York. York renders scenes from the political career of founding father and United States President John Adams in colorful, cut-vinyl silhouettes. The off-hand quality of York’s medium and his choice of scenes culled from eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century political cartoons and broadsheets make Selections from the National Gallery an irreverent yet provocative update of the art historical genre of history painting. 

Thank you for visiting the Frist Art Museum. I hope you enjoy our exhibitions.

Stop 2: 

Narrator’s Introduction

In 1853 the American naval officer Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Japan’s Edo Bay with a fleet of battle ships and used the threat of military force to coerce Japan into ending over 250 years of self-imposed economic and cultural isolation. Since 1639 Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shoguns had pursued a strict policy of seclusion to limit foreign influence and shut its ports to all Western traders except the Dutch. Prior to Perry’s arrival in Japan, only a trickle of Japanese goods had made it to the West. By the 1860s, the influx of lacquer boxes, colorful lanterns, acres of patterned silk, and, best of all, thousands of woodblock prints from Japan into Europe and the United States sparked a Western mania for all things Japanese. French connoisseurs and artists led the way with an enthusiasm that bordered on religious fervor. Western artists and critics were thrilled to discover a new aesthetic language in the art of Japan that offered a compelling alternative to the officially sanctioned styles of the Western art establishment. They believed that a close study of Japanese art could reinvigorate the fine and decorative arts of the West.  In 1872 this irresistible influence of Japanese aesthetics on Western artists was dubbed japonisme.

On this audio tour, we will explore the flowering of japonisme in Europe and the United States during the seventy years that followed Perry’s arrival in Japan, a period that gave birth to revolutionary developments in modern art. We will also examine beautiful examples of the types of Japanese works of art that inspired Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright and many other artists in the West.

This gallery contains the types of objects that Westerners might have first encountered in the shops of importers and tastemakers such as the art dealer Siegfried Bing in Paris. Imagine stepping into a shop full of beautiful, but alien, things. Here are the trappings of daily life in Japan, a place you imagine as impossibly romantic and mysterious, a place to be discovered through its arts.


Stop 3:

Louis Dumoulin (French, 1860–1924), Carp Banners in Kyoto, Oil on canvas, 1888, Fanny P. Mason Fund in memory of Alice Thevin, 1986, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1986.582

Intense interest in Japanese art and culture compelled some Westerners to travel to Japan to see for themselves the sights depicted in ukiyo-e. They came looking for a Japan untouched by contact with the outside world, one that conformed to notions of timeless grace and beauty. Often, these early travelers saw only what they expected to see, their vision clouded by fantasy and framed by popular tourist photographs.

The French artist Louis Dumoulin was a case in point. Though he visited Japan himself in the year in which this work was created, he based his painting on a photograph taken by the Italian photographer Adolfo Farsari. Farsari made a living selling photographs of famous sites in Japan to Western tourists to add to their scrapbooks and share with friends back home.
Dumoulin adds a pair of brilliant carp banners to the scene. Traditionally flown from the roofs of homes blessed with sons, these festive windsocks were never seen in this particular location in Kyoto. The carp, blowing in the wind appear to swim across a darkening sky. Dumoulin’s composition also borrows familiar devices seen in Utagawa Hirsohige’s series of prints One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Both the seemingly outsized carp pressed into the foreground at the top of the canvas and the geometric division of the scene by the pole on which the banner is affixed reveal the artist’s familiarity with Japanese prints.

Stop 4:

Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797–1858), Sudden Shower over Shin Ôhashi Bridge and Atake from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Japanese, Edo period, 1857, Published by Uoya Eikichi, Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.45664

Utagawa Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake was one of the most popular Japanese prints with Western artists and connoisseurs.  The image of townspeople hurrying across a bridge in the driving rain demonstrates Hiroshige’s mastery of creative compositions and atmospheric effects. The truncated bridge, stylized torrents of rain and hazy bands of water and land had no counterpart in Western art – in 1857.  But that would change.  James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, a series of paintings of bridges and banks obscured by fog that he began in 1871, owe a debt to Hiroshige. Vincent Van Gogh would make a close copy of this print in oils in 1887 and the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright would buy an impression of his own.

Hiroshige’s print was also a huge success in Japan, especially with the merchant class, the primary patrons of ukiyo-e. The series to which this print belongs, One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo, was published in many editions.
Merchants of the major Japanese cities of Kyoto and Edo, modern day Tokyo, developed a highly sophisticated popular culture. They devoted themselves to the sphere of ephemeral pleasures known as the floating world. Elegant fashions and decor, patronage of the arts, and visits to famous landmarks, kabuki theaters and the geisha houses of Edo’s Yoshiwara Pleasure district became the focus of the large urban population. Artists created images of this realm of pleasant diversions on colorful, mass-produced woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world.”

Ukiyo-e were made in a printing process in which separate blocks of hardwood were carved by skilled craftsmen for each color in a composition that was created by a print designer. The blocks were inked with the appropriate colors and then printed successively on a single sheet of paper. The prints could be produced quickly and in great quantities, making them as affordable and as ubiquitous as a bowl of rice.

Stop 5:

Attributed to Ogawa Haritsu (Japanese, 1663–1747), Box for writing paper with palmetto design, Edo period, seventeenth to eighteenth century, Paulownia wood with lacquer and inlaid decoration; aogai, awabi shell, ceramic, suzu, and gold, Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 08.170a b

Look closely at the lid of this charming wooden box for writing paper. The creator of this object chose wood with a rough, visible grain and has finished it to achieve an appearance of wear—and yet this box is as finely crafted as the most elaborately gilded and smoothly finished luxury items available in eighteenth-century Japan or to Japanophiles in nineteenth-century Paris.

The deceptive shabbiness of the box veils the sophisticated taste of the eighteenth-century intellectual or poet who originally owned it and used it to store paper that he covered with graceful lines of calligraphy. The design reflects the reverence for the processes of nature and time that distinguish Japanese aesthetics and is particularly important in haiku poetry. The box was likely made by the renowned lacquer craftsman Ogawa Haritsu, who was himself a poet.

Haritsu was an innovative artist who was among the first lacquerers to incorporate the type of inlaid decoration seen on the lid and sides of this box. Meticulously carved and seamlessly integrated pieces of exotic shell, ceramic, and gold create a design of palmetto fronds, fanning across the wooden box.

The American artist John La Farge once owned this box. La Farge and the box’s twentieth-century purchaser, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston curator Okakura Kakuzo, admired Haritsu’s creation for its embodiment of the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi, a cultivated appreciation of the simple and unaffected that obscures the quality of materials and skill required to produce such objects.

Stop 6:

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849), Hokusai’s Sketchbooks, Volume Three, Japan, Edo period, 1815, Originals copied for printing by Hokutei Bokusen and Katsushika Hoku’un (Japanese, active 19th century), Author of text: Ôta Nanpo (Japanese, 1749–1823), Published by Eirakuya Tôshirô, Woodblock printed book; ink and limited color on paper, Gift of Mrs. Jared K. Morse in memory of Charles J. Morse, 1997, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1997.839

The Japanese print design Katsushika Hokusai was one of the most revered artists of the Edo period. This book of sketches, known as manga in Japanese, was compiled by Hokusai’s apprentices for publication.  It was intended to provide instruction for other artists and to be enjoyed for its own merits. 

Though Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji became far more popular, his Manga was one of the first works to be seen by the Parisian avant-garde and was part of the crest of the first wave of japonisme.

Quickly recognizing the aesthetic value of the art of Japan became a point of pride amongst the artists and collectors of Paris. Who was the first to discover the prints of Hokusai and Hirsohige? Who was the first to utilize Japanese motifs or decorate their studio with fine porcelain? These became important questions in the competitive field of connoisseurship and artistic innovation. Though the writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt professed to have seen prints even before Commodore Perry landed in Japan, the printmaker and designer Felix Braquemond has a good claim as one of the first Parisians on the scene.

Braquemond had seen Hokusai’s Manga by 1856 and purchased his own impression the following year. This he enthusiastically shared with fellow French artists Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. The American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler also visited Braquemond’s studio. The flow of influence would continue unabated throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.


Stop 7:

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), Jane Avril, from the portfolio Le Café Concert, 1893, Lithograph, Bequest of W. G. Russell Allen, 1960, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 60.750

Artist Toulouse-Lautrec’s friend Paul Leclercq described the scene at the famous Paris nightclub the Moulin Rouge in 1889:
“In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly. Pale, skinny.., she twirled and reversed, weightless, as if fed on flowers. Lautrec was shouting his admiration.”

In this lithograph, Lautrec portrays his friend Jane Avril as a swirl of billowing skirts composed of sinuous, calligraphic lines. The barest intimation of a frothy crinoline and Avril’s thin, stocking-clad legs indicate the sensual appeal of her performance. Viewed from a steeply pitched angle, this dancing butterfly seems to rush forward, a device Lautrec absorbed from Japanese prints, just as he learned to communicate the essence of his subject in just a few bold lines. 
Like the actors in prints by the Japanese artist Toyokuni, Lautrec’s mass-produced prints and posters captured the public’s imagination by presenting performers such as Avril, instantly recognizable to her contemporaries by her pinched facial features and outlandish hat, as larger-than-life celebrities.

Avril and her fellow performers at the Moulin Rouge drew scores of fans to the Paris neighborhood of Montmartre. Montmartre was once a rural suburb of Paris, but by 1895 it had blossomed into the entertainment center of the sprawling city. Artist studios, cafes, and cabarets were packed into its network of narrow streets and steep hills.  Bohemians and social misfits, including performers such as Avril who were simultaneously adored and viewed as slightly indecent by their fans, made Montmartre a thrilling place to visit for bourgeois Parisians, much as kabuki theaters and the geisha houses of the Yoshiwara Pleasure district enticed the residents of Edo.
In his short career Toulouse-Lautrec made iconic images of” floating world” Paris. He evokes the chaos of a busy nightclub, the hilarity of dance and drink, and often its aftermath with sharp eyes and sensitivity to the humanity of his socially marginal subjects. The lessons he learned from Japanese prints helped him to develop his own means of translating fleeting glimpses of modern life into graphic images and paintings that continue to telegraph the excitement of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Montmartre to us today.

Stop 8:

Utagawa Toyokuni (Japanese, 1769–1825), Actor Sakata Hangorō III as Omi no Kotōta, Edo period, 1795, Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.13594

Japanese kabuki actors employed exaggerated expressions and gestures to communicate emotions on stage. Actor prints, known as yakusha-e,were the most popular type of ukiyo-e in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this example, the Edo print designer Utagawa Toyokuni depicts the famous actor Sakata Hangoro III in the role of a charismatic villain.

Toyokuni, born in 1769, was a print designer from the pre-eminent Utagawa School. Young artists would be apprenticed to master print designers, and after proving their mastery of the medium, the young artist would be permitted to use the Utagawa surname, followed by an artist’s name that combined elements of their given name with that of their master. Toyokuni and Hiroshige were both of the distinguished Utagawa school, though the older Toyokuni was associated with the genre of actor prints, instead of the landscape prints for which Hiroshige was famous.
Because colorful woodblock prints could be mass produced quickly and inexpensively, they were ideal for depicting current fashions and the most celebrated actors of Edo’s kabuki theaters. In the social hierarchy of Japan during the Edo period, which lasted from 1615 to 1868, actors and courtesans were considered non-persons, yet they could exert enormous social influence over the population of the city. Unlike the more dignified and exclusively aristocratic Noh theater, kabuki dramas were exciting and easily understood. The celebrity status of kabuki actors was indicative of a shared mass culture that united citizens of Edo across class lines. The series of restrictions on actor subjects beginning in 1792 and an outright ban of actor prints in 1842 indicates the suspicion with which the government regarded the flourishing celebrity culture and print artists’ ability to influence public opinion.

Stop 9:

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, active in France, 1853–1890), Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888, Oil on canvas, Gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd, 1935, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 35.1982

The Postman Joseph Roulin is not depicted as he appeared in life, but rather as Vincent van Gogh’s unique version of his friend.

Van Gogh wrote to his sister that he wanted “to make portraits that will be revelations, as it were, in a century’s time for the people living then. So I am not trying to paint using a photographic likeness, but by expressing our passions, using our knowledge and modern taste in color as a way to express and emphasize the character.”

Van Gogh has used bold black outlines to enclose Roulin’s vivid blue form in a way that recalls European medieval stained glass as much as Japanese prints. But the mask-like quality of Roulin’s face and his fingers, contorted into a gesture as stylized as those of actors in a kabuki drama, affirm the influence of actor prints on van Gogh’s portraiture.

Vincent van Gogh was too young to be among the first generation of artists to be inspired by Japanese prints, but  he absorbed their lessons with great enthusiasm. He explained in a letter in 1888, “My whole work is founded on the Japanese.” Van Gogh copied the landscapes of Hiroshige and organized ukiyo-e exhibitions with his brother Theo. But the Post-Impressionist artist went well beyond simple imitation, his portrait, Postman Joseph Roulin, reveals the extent to which van Gogh synthesized Japanese influences with other sources to create his own highly personal style.

In his paintings van Gogh meshed Japanese elements with other qualities that he considered “primitive” a term that had specific connotations for his contemporaries. It was used to describe Western pre-Renaissance art as well as art from non-Western cultures ranging from African to Australian. Though often derogatory and rooted in racism, the notion of the primitive could also be used to suggest pure, powerful and mystical traits. This melding of influences would spur stylistic developments throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and give rise to other avant-garde movements including symbolism and expressionism.

Stop 10:

Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797–1858), Kinryōzan Temple, Asakusa from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Edo period, 1856, Published by Uoya Eikichi, Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.16695

The dramatic use of cropping and placement of a large lantern in the immediate foreground of Hiroshige’s view of Edo’s Kinryuzan Temple give the illusion of vast depth of field. This sensation is underscored by the diminishing size of Edo residents as they make their way toward the center of the picture, an intuitive handling of space borrowed from the West.

It was no coincidence that Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai were the most widely collected Japanese artists among Western collectors. Both artists incorporated a version of linear perspective, learned through contact with Dutch prints, into their way of organizing space. This conceit was appreciated for its novelty by their Japanese customers and made their images particularly palatable to Western audiences.

The geography of the mid-nineteenth century city captured in Hiroshige’s One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo reflected the rise of the thriving popular culture of the period. The public meeting places, such as parks, markets, and temple grounds, that Hiroshige depicted had become major attractions for the city’s inhabitants. These developments echoed changes to the city of Paris a continent away.  From 1853 to 1870 Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann spearheaded a  monumental building program that transformed Paris into a modern city.  Haussmann’s  network of wide boulevards punctuated by public parks and landmarks created a city designed with places to see and be seen.


Stop 11:

Alfred Stevens (Belgian, active in France, 1823–1906), Meditation, ca. 1872, Oil on canvas, Bequest of David P. Kimball in memory of his wife Clara Bertram Kimball, 1923, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 23.528

This is not a portrait of a particular individual but of a type. The subject is a fashionable woman and more specifically, a Parisienne. The painter Alfred Stevens specialized in conventional paintings of women in the latest fashions, often admiring a Japanese porcelain vase or screen with as much interest as the viewer might admire the painting.

In her beautiful kimono-inspired dressing gown, this Parisienne might be the fictional courtesan Odette in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, enticing the protagonist Swann in her fetching state of undress. Or she could be Emile Zola’s Nana, another famous literary coquette who decorated her love nest with a Japanese screen. Both in novels and on the canvases of Stevens and other salon regulars such as James Tissot, Western women swathed in Japanese silks became symbols of chic femininity and eroticism.

Though Stevens was friends with Parisian intellectuals and avant-garde artists, his own work was relatively conservative. He successfully exhibited his paintings of beautiful women in beautiful clothes at the official Salon and his popularity is a testament to bourgeois taste during the craze for all things Japanese that swept through Europe following the Paris Universal Exposition in 1867.

The 1867 Exposition, an enormous world’s fair that featured lavish displays of decorative arts from across the globe, brought the art of Japan to the attention of the masses. In America the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and World’s Columbian Exposition held  in Chicago in 1893 would similarly ignite public interest in Japan. Japonisme would no longer be the purview of a few connoisseurs but a global fashion trend.

Stop 12:

Retailed by Takashimaya (Japanese), Woman’s dressing gown, Japanese, for Western market, ca. 1900, Silk plain weave (taffeta) embroidered with silk; silk plain weave lining; cord and tassel trim, Gift of Elizabeth Ann Coleman, 2001, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2001.933.1–2

It may be tempting to call this pink silk taffeta garment a kimono, but that designation would be incorrect. It is actually a Western dressing gown masquerading as a traditional Japanese garment. Its looser construction and shorter hemline and sleeves made it a comfortable and practical garment for an American or European woman to wear while she prepared for an evening out.  This dressing gown could also incorporate an element of fantasy into its wearer’s daily routine as she might imagine herself in Japan or upon the canvases of salon painters who often featured beautiful and fashionable western women in kimono. The dressing gown is embroidered with chrysanthemums, a Japanese blossom that achieved cult status in the West thanks to the Pierre Loti’s tale of a tragic Japanese heroine, Madame Chrysanthemum; this association was sure to increase the exotic appeal of the gown.

This dressing gown was designed by the Japanese firm Iida Takashimaya specifically for the Western market. Japanese manufacturers and merchants created export products that capitalized on the West’s fascination with their country. In 1858, Japan began trading with Western treaty nations, including France, Great Britain and the United States. Smart exporters like Takashimaya realized that while a Western consumer might wish to channel a glamorous Japanese geisha in her private abode, a true kimono might not suit her tastes.

Stop 13:

Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820), Courtesan in the Snow at the New Year, Edo period, 1804–18, Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, Fenollosa Weld Collection, 1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.4628

A glamorous courtesan of Edo’sYoshiwara pleasure district, assisted by her maid, carefully picks her way through the snow in this painting in ink on silk by artist Kubo Shunman. She will not allow the weather to prevent her from participating in a New Year’s Day tradition, an annual parade of Edo’s courtesans dressed in their most fashionable attire. For this auspicious day, the courtesan has chosen an ostentatious red kimono and, despite the cold weather, she displays her bare feet in high, black-lacquered clogs.

Westerners often assumed that all women portrayed in bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful women, were courtesans. Though the woman featured in this example is indeed a high-status prostitute, identifiable by her elaborate coiffure with many hairpins and her kimono that is carefully draped to expose the nape of her neck, Japanese artists often portrayed noble and middle class women of excellent reputation. Images of courtesans in the latest fashions were eagerly collected by both men and women in nineteenth-century Edo. Japanese women valued bijin-ga as contemporary fashion plates much as western women looked to fashion magazines to see the latest styles.

The long, vertical format of the silk kakemono, a painting mounted on a hanging scroll, lends itself to displaying the human figure. The bodies of the courtesan and her maid are gracefully elongated, the vibrant silks of their kimono and obi belts forming a pleasing contrast of color and pattern. Unlike the majority of ukiyo-e in this exhibition, this scroll is not a mass-produced wood block print. It is a one-of- a-kind painting in ink on silk. This is a particularly luxurious and older art form, commissioned from the artist by a wealthy patron instead of being sold in print shops. Print artists often copied the format of kakemono, lending distinction to their more affordable wares.

Stop 14:

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), Under the Horse Chestnut Tree, ca. 1895, Drypoint and color aquatint, Bequest of W. G. Russell Allen, 1963, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 63.313

A mother lifts her infant above her, the child wriggling with delight at seeing the world from an unfamiliar height. The artist Mary Cassatt strikes a delicate balance here. She presents a tender scene without being sentimental. The sense that this is an un-guarded and un-posed moment, a slice of ordinary life seen through perceptive eyes, was a hallmark of the Impressionists. Cassatt’s vision was sharpened by contact with Japanese prints that featured mothers and children in informal, intimate scenes and this dry-point etching owes much to their example.

Mary Cassatt, an American living in Paris, was one of only a few women to exhibit her work in the Impressionist salons of the 1870s and 80s. Cassatt had to tread carefully in order to become a member of this avant-garde circle. As a respectable lady, she could not prowl the dance halls of Montmartre with her close friend Edgar Degas in search of modern subjects. Instead, she depicts subjects that were considered safe and appropriate for a gentlewoman. Nonetheless, Cassatt’s style is itself daring, especially in her prints. Along with borrowing subjects from ukiyo-e, Cassatt absorbed their formal lessons. Bands of blue and green, without a trace of shadow, form the abstracted landscape setting. The pattern of the mother’s skirt and delicate outline of the figures are also derived from the prints Cassatt studied closely at a large exhibition of woodblock prints at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in 1890. This print successfully translates her Japanese sources into a strikingly original scene of a woman’s private moment with her child in France at the turn of the twentieth century.


Stop 15: 

Marked by Frederick Elkington (English, 1887–1963), Manufactured by Elkington & Co., Tea set, Birmingham, England , 1874–75, Silver, gilded silver, and ivory, Gift of Mrs. Frederick T. Bradbury, by exchange 1991, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991.539–542

Imagine serving afternoon tea from this elegant tea service, made by the British Elkington & Co. The weight of the silver teapot as you pour a cup for your guest and the diffused luster of the gold-plated vessels would make the daily ritual an elegant experience. British proponents of the Aesthetic Movement encouraged their countrymen to consider the importance of the design of the decorative objects with which they chose to surround themselves.
Aesthetes also encouraged designers of furniture, silver, and ceramics to look to the East for models of well made goods meant for everyday use. The lack of division between fine and decorative art in Japanese culture was deeply inspiring in the West where the fine arts of painting and sculpture had been traditionally seen as superior to the design of patterned textiles or serving ware like this tea set.
The designer of this tea set employs many nature-inspired motifs that recall those seen in ukiyo-e. Butterflies perch on handles and flit across the tea tray much as they hover over blossoms in Japanese prints. The handles of all of the vessels are modeled on plants common to Japan, but exotic in Great Britain. Although this tea set was largely machine-made, the high quality of materials and the carefully considered design of its ornamentation elevate it to a thing of beauty.

Stop 16:

Katsukawa Shunkō (Shunsen) (Japanese, 1762–ca. 1830), Butterfly and Peonies, Edo period, 1830s, Woodblock print; color on paper, Gift of Porter Sargent, 1949, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 49.1276

This elegant print of a butterfly hovering over peonies resembles another Japanese art form that was familiar to westerners long before ukiyo-e prints: blue and white porcelain. Such porcelain, with cobalt designs painted onto a white ground under a transparent glaze, was first developed in China. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch relied on China to satisfy European demands for delicate porcelain vessels, but social unrest in China led Dutch merchants to seek a new source for this export staple. Japan eagerly filled the void, supplying elegant designs that conformed to western tastes and yet retained their exotic allure for the Dutch export market. Before ukiyo-e became ubiquitous, these porcelains were the first type of Japanese art to reach European and American consumers.

While blue and white designs were inextricably linked with the East in America and Europe, the Japanese would have linked the azure blue of this print by Katsukawa Shunko II with the West. Beginning in the 1820s, Dutch merchants began importing a synthetic blue pigment called Prussian blue into China and Japan. The new chemical dye was more brilliant and longer lasting than indigenous indigo inks. Capitalizing on the novelty of this new hue, artists began experimenting with innovative uses for the striking color. One approach was to create designs printed almost entirely of varying shades of blue, called aizuri-e. Prints such as Butterfly and Peonies would have satisfied Japanese desires for novelty much as they would later confirm associations between brilliant blue and Japanese designs in the West.

STOP 17:

Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797–1858), White Heron and Iris, Edo period, 1830s, Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, Gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich, 1947, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 47.130

Two developments in Japanese culture, one technological and the other social , helped to make landscape and nature subjects the most popular imagery for ukiyo-e prints from the 1830s onward.  Artist Utagawa Hiroshige uses a vivid blue pigment known as Prussian blue to render a heron in a clear sky over an iris filled marsh in this wood-block print.  Prussian blue is a synthetic pigment that began being imported into Japan by Dutch and Chinese traders.  This new, more stable color made it possible for artists to depict a broader range of atmospheric conditions that made watery landscapes particularly compelling.  Increasing censorship and the eventual ban of actor, dancer and courtesan subjects by the Tokugawa Shogunate led to a greater focus on the natural world by print publishers. 

In addition to famous landscape views, Utagawa Hiroshige excelled in creating novel kacho-ga, or bird and flower prints. Although the genre’s title refers to birds and flowers, other animals, especially monkeys, fish, sea creatures, and insects were often included, as the other prints in this gallery attest. Published prints often incorporated calligraphic poetry directly into the design, and the pairings of flora and fauna often were based on poetic associations that referred to seasonal changes. The irises seen here would have been associated with the fifth month of the year and the impending arrival of summer.

The lines of Chinese poetry on this print refer to the decorative effect of seeing birds within a landscape. One line reads “White herons fly low across the fields, like a thousand flakes of snow.” Hiroshige renders the snowy white heron as a negative space within a sky of translucent blue, rather than using thick black outlines as he does on the stems and buds of the iris. The clear blue of the sky is echoed at the bottom of the composition, an indicator of the watery conditions in which irises thrive.

Hiroshige’s attention to the beauty of nature and his ability to capture the essence of natural forms through stylized representations was inspiring to legions of Western graphic designers and decorators. The reduction of three-dimensional forms into flat shapes could be adapted into decorative patterns for everything from desk organizers to advertisements.


Stop 18:

Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797–1858), Yokkaichi: Mie River from the series Fifty three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road also known as the First Tōkaidō or Great Tōkaidō, Edo period, ca. 1833–34, Published by Takenouchi Magohachi (Hoeidō), Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.30171

In the 1830s, Utagawa Hiroshige became the most successful print designer of his generation with the series Fifty Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road. The Tōkaidō was a highway linking the cities of Kyoto and Edo. A loosening of travel restrictions and a wealthy enough populace to allow for leisure travel fueled a thriving tourist industry in Japan. Hiroshige’s series features a print for each of the posts or small villages that a traveler would have passed along the road.
Though their means of escaping the city in search of rural scenery differed, artists in Paris were equally eager to seek out rural scenery and depict sites associated with tourism. A network of railway lines fanned out from Paris by 1870, making it easy for artists such as the Impressionist Claude Monet to travel to picturesque locales. Monet seems to have been directly inspired by this view by Hiroshige of the Yokkaichi Mie River. Monet’s Seacoast at Trouville includes a windswept tree that bears a striking resemblance to Hiroshige’s willow that interrupts a clear view of the river.

Stop 19:

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944), Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice), 1893, Oil on canvas, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund, 1959, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 59.301

While the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists used landscape painting as a way to explore how the eye perceived light and color, later avant-garde artists made their views of forests and fields into the mythic landscape of dreams.  In Summer Night’s Dream, the Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch has painted an enchanted realm where psychological states and phantom yearnings take form.

Summer Night’s Dream, painted in 1893, was part of a group of six paintings that Munch called “The Frieze of Life.” Here, Munch depicts a lone young woman standing amid trees near the shore. Starkly dressed in white, she thrusts her chin forward and keeps her hands behind her back; she is as rigid as the trees that surround her and as ghostly as the shaft of moonlight at right. Munch described the significance of the series:

The frieze is intended as a series of decorative pictures, which, gathered together, would give a picture of life. Through them all there winds the curving shoreline, and beyond it the sea, while under the trees, life, with all its complexity of grief and joy, carries on.”

Munch spent time in Paris in the 1890s and would have seen exhibitions of Japanese prints. His use of tall, vertically aligned trees to demarcate a mysterious realm in this painting may have been directly derived from Japanese prints, but it is equally likely that he borrowed the motif from other progressive Western artists. Japanese influences on artists such as Munch may have been second or third hand, for by 1893, the visual language of Japanese prints had become fully enmeshed with Western modernism.

Stop 20:

Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), Grainstack (Sunset), 1891, Oil on canvas, Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, 1925, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 25.112

Inspired by Japanese artists’ interest in representing the four seasons, Claude Monet began a series of paintings of haystacks in a field at the end of the summer of 1890 through the spring of 1891.  Covered in snow in a blue tinged fog or gilded by a pink sunset, as we see it here, the haystack became an excuse to paint his real subject—the intersection between light, color and visual perception. Using new theories of color science that explained how contrasting colors amplify one another, Monet created landscapes that present the world as a blur of sensations and shifting hues.

Studying Japanese prints gave the Impressionists and later radical art movements a new confidence to create works of art that were not beholden to the conventions of Western art. Since the Renaissance, Western artists strove to create an illusionistic sense of depth on flat canvases. Japanese landscape prints demonstrated that masses of color could give a sense of form without relying on shadows. Their example encouraged Western artists to embrace the two-dimensionality of paintings and prints rather than trying to create an imaginary window onto a scene.

Instead of using contrasting shadows and chiaroscuro, Monet’s haystack is picked out in shades of lavender and fuschia. It is illuminated from behind by the setting sun, yet instead of casting a grey shadow a riot of strokes of lavender and blue paint contrast with delicate pink dabs of color to give a sense of shifting light around the mound of hay.

The Impressionist critic Theodore Duret noted that “the Japanese did not see nature swathed in mourning…it appeared to them as coloured and full of light.” Here, Monet has followed the example of Hiroshige and Hokusai and swept away shadows to paint in a daring new way.

Stop 21:

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946), New York at Night, 1897, Photogravure, Charles Amos Cummings Fund, 1980, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1980.81

Alfred Stieglitz was the key figure in America’s acceptance of photography as a serious form of artistic expression. In New York at Night, he represents a city street veiled in mist and suffused with mystery. It demonstrated that photography, a medium often associated with scientific objectivity, could also be used to produce evocative scenes that were as artistically significant as painting or drawing.

Like the European Impressionists, Stieglitz was interested in capturing atmospheric effects, such as the glimmer of streetlights on a rain soaked street and the diffused light of electric lamps in the haze. This attention to the effects of weather on landscapes both rural and urban also recalls Japanese prints.  He became an important conduit between avant-garde art movements in Europe and the United States. Crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean, Stieglitz was a tireless promoter of modernism on both continents. Later in his career, he would quit striving to achieve painterly effects in his photography. Instead, he embraced a hard-edged aesthetic inspired by Cubism, which was in turn nurtured by Western encounters with Japanese treatments of space in ukiyo-e. The impact of japonisme on artists like Stieglitz and his contemporaries continued to be felt well into the twentieth century.  No longer a phenomenon unto itself, the influence of Japanese aesthetics became fully integrated into Western modernism. 

SECTION 6: Education Gallery

Stop 22:

Welcome to Frank Lloyd Wright: Building the Imperial Hotel. In 1916 the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright traveled to Tokyo to build a modern, Western-style hotel for the Japanese Imperial Government.  The hotel was more than just a building, it was a symbol of Japan’s modernity. Wright’s building replaced the original Imperial Hotel constructed in 1890 in a European historical style.

In his autobiography, Wright explains his intention to create a hotel that would be respectful of Japanese aesthetics:

“No foreigner yet invited to Japan had taken off his hat to Japanese traditions.
When foreigners came, what they had back home came too, suitable or not,
and the politely humble Japanese, duly impressed, took the offering and marveled.
They tried to do likewise in their turn.
And yet Japanese fine-art traditions are among the noblest and
purest in the world…It was my instinct not to insult them.
The West has much to learn from the East – and Japan was the
gateway to that great East of which I had been dreaming since
I had seen my first Japanese prints”

Wright was appalled that Japanese architects were copying Western historical buildings like the original Imperial Hotel throughout Tokyo. The Japanese embrace of Western styles was emblematic of the country’s larger goal of participating in global politics and trade on an equal footing with Europe and North America. Anxious to avoid the colonial invasions that had befallen China and India, Japan embarked on a campaign of rapid modernization under a new government and Emperor in 1868. This effort included the formation of a Western-style military, territorial expansion, and the import of new technologies from the West. Frank Lloyd Wright’s reputation as an innovative architect, one who looked forward instead of backward to historical styles, perfectly suited Tokyo in the early twentieth century. Wright’s Imperial Hotel served as an important meeting place between East and West until it was torn down to make way for a larger Imperial Hotel in 1967.
In this gallery, you can explore the Imperial Hotel through architectural drawings, photographs, ephemera and a digital video rendering of the hotel created by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Stop 23:

Director’s Conclusion
I hope you enjoyed visiting our galleries today. As always, we could not present these wonderful exhibitions and programs without generous support. We would like to thank our 2014 Platinum Sponsor for the Ingram Gallery, The HCA Foundation on Behalf of HCA and the TriStar Family of Hospitals. Supporting Sponsors for Looking East are Christie’s and the United States-Japan Foundation. The Frist Art Museum gratefully acknowledges R. C. Mathews Contractor and the Friends of Architecture for their support for the educational exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: Building the Imperial Hotel. Our Hospitality Sponsor is Union Station Hotel. Belmont University and Ocean Way Recording Studios donated recording time and professional expertise to produce this audio tour. We also recognize the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission and the Tennessee Arts Commission, which is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, for their generous operating support.

Thank you for visiting. I hope you will return soon and often.

Please consider supporting the Frist Art Museum with a donation. Your gift is essential to our mission of serving the community through the arts and art access in particular. We truly appreciate your generosity.