How Japan Has Inspired Western Artists, from the Impressionists to Today
Japanese art has long been a source of fascination and inspiration for Western artists. From the 17th century onwards, Dutch imports of East Asian objets d’art created a frenzy among wealthy Europeans for exotic silks, ceramics, and other treasures. The Dutch had an exclusive trade agreement with Japan during this period, but when American commodore Matthew Perry entered Edo Bay with warships in 1853, he forced an end to the country’s 250 years of near-isolation, fully opening it up to trade with the West.
An influx of Japanese art, textiles, and other objects quickly flooded the U.S. and Europe. At the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, Japan exhibited a wide range of decorative objects and art, including bronzes, brush paintings, textiles, ceramics, and the popular ukiyo-e woodblock prints. In attendance was an emerging group of avant-garde artists, soon to be known as the Impressionists.
They were awed by what they saw and took special note of the ukiyo-e prints, which many of them voraciously collected. The motifs and techniques they observed in the prints—a focus on nature and everyday scenes, as well as compositional methods of extreme cropping, unusual vantage points, and depth created through broad planes of color instead of point perspective—greatly influenced their own work. By 1872, a new term was coined to describe the craze for all things Japanese: Japonisme.
Japanese aesthetics and culture have continued to influence artists, from the Arts and Crafts movement to Abstract Expressionism to the internet-influenced present. Below are six artists spanning three centuries whose work has taken inspiration from Japan.
One Impressionist particularly inspired by the Japanese art entering Europe was Vincent van Gogh. Along with his brother Theo, Van Gogh amassed a huge collection of ukiyo-e prints, many of which he hung around his studio. The artist incorporated Japanese styles into his work in several ways. Some paintings are near copies of these prints: Japonaiserie: Flowering Plum Tree (1887), for instance, is directly inspired by late ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige’s Plum Garden at Kameido (1857).
The stylistic features of Japanese prints permeated almost all of Van Gogh’s later output, even works without obvious thematic references. Take, for example, his 1889 portrait Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle. The picture plane is flat; depth is created by fields of color, not shadows or Western point perspective. In addition, the image awkwardly crops the sitter’s legs, a novel compositional technique gleaned from ukiyo-e.
More than 100 years on, however, the Impressionists and their connection to Japan have become points of contention for Asian American activists, who have brought to light the unequal cultural exchange between them and the tendency of Western artists to exoticize Asians as “other,” even as they appropriated Japanese techniques and ideas.
American artist Mary Cassatt, best known for unsentimental depictions of mothers and children, was, like Van Gogh, an Impressionist deeply inspired by the flat planes and simple lines of ukiyo-e. Unlike Van Gogh, however, an 1890 exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris inspired her to experiment with printmaking techniques like aquatint, drypoint, etching, and hand-coloring.
Her resulting series of 10 prints combines the elegant beauty of Japanese woodcuts with Cassatt’s trademark intimacy, offering a window into 19th-century women’s private lives. The Bath (1890–91), Cassatt’s first stab at the medium, for which she produced 17 different editions (more than for any other print in the series), is inspired both in subject and style by Japanese art. The prevailing maternal themes of Cassatt’s work found a counterpoint in ukiyo-e, with its preponderance of examples featuring the everyday lives of all kinds of women: courtesans, mothers with children, and young girls. We observe this tender scene of a mother bathing her child from a slightly higher-than-usual vantage point, and the pair is rendered flatly, with clear black outlines and minimal shadows, a sense of depth created by the layers of colors.
Jewelry company Tiffany & Co. is now perhaps most famous for its proprietary Tiffany Blue boxes and catalogues, introduced in 1845 by founder Charles Lewis Tiffany. However, the company’s legacy was secured by his son Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose groundbreaking Art Nouveau designs made him the dominant figure in American decorative arts from the 1870s to the 1920s.
Tiffany, who began his career as a painter, first encountered Japanese art as a young man at the 1867 World’s Fair. A few years later, at age 24, he began to study glassmaking, the medium for which he would become best known. During his lifetime, he embraced a wide array of media, including pottery, windows, painting, metalwork, enamels, jewelry, lighting, mosaics, and interiors. Many of his works were deeply inspired by his travels around the world, including North Africa and the Middle East, as well as Asia. He was also a prolific collector of Asian art, and displayed Japanese and Chinese works throughout his home.
Like other Art Nouveau artists, who endeavored to create a stylized, naturalistic artistic vocabulary, Tiffany’s designs were born out of the simplicity and sense of freshness he admired in Japanese art. In a blown glass vase from 1901, a pattern of peacock feathers swirls up the opalescent base, gracefully flowering into a fan-like shape at its opening.
Frank Lloyd Wright may be considered a uniquely American architect, but one of his main influences was Japanese art. A collector of ukiyo-e, he analyzed Japanese woodblock prints in his 1912 book The Japanese Print: An Interpretation.
Wright’s favorite ukiyo-e artist was Katsushika Hokusai, who had produced several instructional volumes showing how organic forms could be created through simple geometry. These writings and diagrams were some of the main inspirations for Wright’s design philosophy, which centered around creating buildings that were in tune with nature.
Perhaps the most famous of Wright’s designs is Fallingwater (1937), constructed outside of Pittsburgh for department store scion Edgar Kaufmann. Built on top of a waterfall, this house exemplifies Wright’s belief that an architect should strive to compose environments in which man and nature can live in harmony.
It’s no surprise that Wright went on to design multiple buildings in Japan, including the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (since demolished) and the Jiyu Gakuen Girls’ School. These buildings show Wright’s uncommon flexibility to work with his Japanese clients and their needs, and his willingness to use traditional Japanese materials, techniques, and style.
While critics and art historians have aligned Franz Kline’s bold abstractions with traditional Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, the artist himself rejected the claim. His thick brushstrokes, attention to positive and negative space, and black-and-white palette visually link Kline’s work to East Asian calligraphic arts. Although he denies the connection, new research suggests an entangled history of post-war artistic exchange between Japan, the U.S., and Europe.
During this time, avant-garde Japanese calligraphy groups like the Kyoto-based Bokujinkai were in direct contact with Kline and his Abstract Expressionist peers in attempts to foster international cooperation and understanding, and to raise the profile of calligraphy in modern art.
Equally complicating Kline’s demurral is Japanese calligrapher Toko Shinoda’s connection to the American AbEx movement. Shinoda, a classically trained calligrapher, relocated to New York in the 1950s. She was represented by the Betty Parsons Gallery, home to the likes of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and, yes, Franz Kline. It is unclear, however, the extent to which she was inspired by her AbEx friends, and how much she inspired them.
New York-based contemporary artist Jeanette Hayes creates art influenced by anime and manga, finding inspiration in otaku fan culture. Otaku is born out of mega-fans’ practice of copying and reworking the stories, art, and characters of their favorite manga and anime. Though originally a Japanese phenomenon, the global proliferation of Japanese video games and cartoons has made otaku a worldwide trend.
Now, fans convene at international conventions, and post fan fiction and art on websites like DeviantArt. This culture epitomizes the postmodern ethos of the internet, and it’s become nearly impossible at this point to say what is the original and what is the copy.
In this context, Hayes’s output does not seem so different from the thousands of fan images readily available online. In works like There Will Be Blood (2017), she remixes digital imagery from the internet and popular culture. In this case, Sailor Moon leaps over Darth Vader. On the other hand, unlike almost all fan art online, Hayes’s works are presented as fine art and sold in galleries around the world—a commercial element that has led members of the otaku community to question whether Hayes’s affiliation with the otaku world is a ploy to build a reputation for herself as a fine artist, or a genuine desire to connect with the culture.