The 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle exposed many Europeans to Japan for the first time. It was here that many purchased their first prints. Lacquer, porcelain and bronze initially intrigued fading enthusiasts of chinoiserie as the freshest wave of the exotic. Imported Japanese fans, albums, paintings, and prints began to appear in shops around Paris. These items embodied the height of vogue, inciting such intense passion that it led French art critic Zacharie Astruc and American artist James Whistler into a physical altercation over a particular Japanese fan. Whistler (1834–1903) soon found influence in meisho-e, or “famous place prints.” He echoes Hiroshige in Boats Alongside Billingsgate, London (1859), exploring dramatic close-up and truncation of form through the boat in the foreground.
While woodblock prints gained popularity more slowly than the decorative arts, by 1870 ukiyo-e could be found in curiosité shops, tea warehouses, and large magasins. Meanwhile, as Europe romanticized Japan, the Meiji Emperor rapidly steered the country away from tradition and towards modernization. The French art critic Philippe Burty (1830-1890) coined the term Japonisme in 1872 to “designate a new field of study—artistic, historic, and ethnographic borrowing from the arts of Japan.” This new designation arose from the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, but described an artistic movement spanning France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. Japanese art reached the height of fashion during the decline of Realism, at a time when the French Academy had become too rigid for many artists. Japanese art provided a fresh visual language for a changing world. The ukiyo-e masters captured the imagination of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists through compositional daring, sharp diagonals, ornamental patterns, bold, flat blocks of color, and a love for the quotidian.
Japonisme held a different meaning to each artist who came under its spell. For Jacques James Tissot (1836–1902), his expression took the form of exoticized subject matter.
In the print Prodigal Son in Modern Life: In Foreign Climes, the scene overflows with all things Japanese—courtesans, architecture, clothing, customs—but is rendered in the distinctly European style of etching. In contrast, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) found inspiration in the stylistic elements of ukiyo-e, integrating these visual concepts into his existing style. In Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery (1879-80), Degas portrays his friend and fellow artist with a narrow format, inspired by Japanese pillar prints, as he partially obscures his subject in the style of Hiroshige.
While artists such as Degas and Cassatt focused on the human form, Manet channeled the popularity of the feline subject matter and applied Hokusai’s careful, economic use of line in The Cats (1869).
From subjects to style, Japanese prints had a profound impact on French printmaking at the turn of the century.