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From Ukiyo-e To Impressionism (and Back Again)

photograph of the ukiyo-e filled dining room at Giverny
The Ukiyo-e filled dining room at Giverny, Monet's home

The first time my family visited Paris, I was too young to fully appreciate all the historical and cultural aspects of the many, many sites my mother had scheduled for us to visit during the few days we had allocated to the Paris portion of our world tour, a trip planned to mark the demarcation between my father’s career as a diplomat and my parents’ new life as private art dealers.

The next few times we visited France, and during my junior year abroad, I grew to understand and appreciate all of these things more and had the opportunity to expand my trips beyond Paris, including visits to Giverny, Monet’s home. However, it wasn’t until I became an art dealer myself that the full symbiosis between Western and Japanese art, and artists, art dealers and art collectors really became clear to me. And Monet’s dining room (illustrated above thanks to the joys of the Internet) certainly helped to open my eyes to this interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship.

The dining room at Giverny is painted a bright cheerful yellow, with an equally happy red and white checkered floor, not exactly a subdued room from which to recover from the bright blues of the adjoining kitchen. What I found most striking was that the entire dining room was hung, higgledy-piggledy, with ukiyo-e prints framed simply in black. It was amazing to see so many beautiful and rare museum quality examples of ukiyo-e in one place -- Utamaro, Harunobu, Hokusal, Hiroshige...

Monet never traveled to Japan, and legend has it that he discovered ukiyo-e prints during a trip to Amsterdam, when he saw some wrapped around cups that he had purchased, in the way that we might use crumpled up newspaper today to protect the china in question from breakage. Apocryphal story or not, by the time of his death, Monet’s collection numbered over 200 Japanese woodblock prints. His friends and fellow artists Degas, Van Gogh and Rodin also collected ukiyo-e, but Monet’s collection presents particular historical interest as it is an excellent illustration of an art anthology put together by a connoisseur who knew exactly what he liked and what gaps he needed to fill to complete his collection.

Japan was closed to the West until 1858, when commerce between Europe and Japan started up again. By the time of the Universal Exhibition of 1867, entitled “Japan in Paris", Japan was very much in fashion. Japonisme (basically the name for a passion for all things Japanese art-related) had repercussions in art and decoration throughout Europe. Not only did the Impressionists rush to buy ukiyo-e, but these prints influenced how they perceived objects around them and then painted them.

Monet was especially influenced by Japanese printmaking and the Japanese artists’ use of negative space, their way of flattening planes, and their abstract approach to the use of contrasting colors. He even wrote to his son that: “Hiroshige is a marvelous impressionist. Monet and Rodin and I are filled with enthusiasm (…) these Japanese artists confirm to me our visual position." And Japan's influence on Monet went further than his acquisition of ukiyo-e: he used Japanese patterns and motifs in several of his paintings, including one of his wife dressed in a kimono which now hangs in The Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, and imported a variety of Japanese plants to add to the gardens at Giverny, whose central focal point is the Japanese bridge from which Monet's iconic water lilies can be viewed.

The admiration was not one-sided, and the Japanese dealers (often collectors themselves) from whom he purchased prints sometimes accepted one of his paintings in lieu of payment or bought some for themselves. These dealers made Monet and the Impressionists’ work known in Japan. Thanks to them, the Japanese national museums have many paintings of Monet in their holdings, and he remains one of the French painters most appreciated by the Japanese public. Inspiration went both ways as well -- Japanese artists (such as Foujita several decades later), started to look at Impressionist paintings and emulate Western art practices. Also, importantly, European interest in what the Japanese themselves considered little more than wrapping paper eventually engendered a movement in Japan to preserve the national art and to stop ukiyo-e from being so freely exported abroad and thus lost to Japanese museums and collections forever.

The importance of dealers in the diffusion of art between cultures is an important one, but the contribution of donor collectors -- helping to introduce local artists to new ideas through their international acquisitions -- should also be noted. Standing in the dining room at Giverny as a newly-fledged art dealer, I was happy to think that I was now part of a grand cultural exchange.


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