Bridging Cultures: Viewing and Creating Japanese Spaces in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century French Art

Maggie Bryan '15

Advisor: Peggy Wang
Year-long Honors Project
Fall 2014-Spring 2015

In the mid nineteenth century, in the wake of the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, trade between Japan and the Western world flourished. In the West, collectors and artists alike were captivated by Japanese art forms. In particular, European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters were attracted to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and drew inspiration from their sophisticated composition, serene subject matter, general aesthetic, and the profound and varying emotional responses that these elements evoked. This phenomenon of artistic emulation and intrigue was first coined byFrench art critic Philippe Burty in 1872.

Hiroshige, Distant Bank of Oi River, Kanaya from The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.

My thesis examines the effects of Edo Period art—namely, the woodblock prints of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige—on conceptions and subsequent representations of space in the works of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. I argue that, in terms of these two artists, the influence went far beyond simple visual representation of the world on the canvas and also permeated their daily viewing of the world. Under the influence of Japanese art, both of these artists created their own “Japanese spaces” in France; when van Gogh moved to Arles in the spring of 1888, he ascribed his vision of Japan that he had acquired through viewing prints and reading travel writing to southern France, quickly describing Arles as his own personal “Japan.” In a different, yet comparable fashion, Monet moved to Giverny in the later part of his life and began crafting his own “Japanese” landscape in his herbaceous and aquatic gardens, even though he had never traveled to the country himself. It was in these respective “Japanese Frances” that van Gogh and Monet created some of their most inspired and celebrated works.
While the relationship between Japan and their art was highly personal for both painters, through my research I discovered that these Japanese spaces in France had broader geopolitical implications in regards to the Orientalist art that both preceded and coincided with van Gogh’s and Monet’s careers. There are elements of these painters’ Japonisme that seems almost on the cusp of transcending Orientalism. While Orientalist painters of the time were often traveling to foreign lands and westernizing the East with their brushes, in a sense the exact opposite was occurring in Arles and Giverny. While the cultural appropriation was clear in van Gogh’s and Monet’s earlier Japanese-inspired works, later the distinctions became less clear, and, in some of their later works, it is difficult to tell where the Japanese influence ends and the French one begins. However, simultaneously, van Gogh and Monet were far from free from the shackles of biased cultural ideologies with which their époque them. Many of their works and their approaches contain strong Orientalist underpinnings. In this thesis, I examine how these two spaces thus become a representation of the conflict in cultural sentiments at the time between national and transnational, between marginalization and appropriation of the foreign “Other” and a simultaneous developing appreciation of non-Eurocentric arts and culture.


The Cliff, Etretat, Sunset (Claude Monet)