Europeans had developed an interest in Far Eastern art, particularly ceramics, from the sixteenth century, but Japanese art came to the fore from 1854 when the United States and a number of European countries made treaties which forced Japan to open to the outside world. Since Japan had little heavy industry, it used the platform of several international exhibitions to promote the skills of its artists and craftsmen (at the time, the Japanese did not distinguish absolutely between 'arts' and 'crafts'). They quickly caught the imagination of the West. A handful of significant individuals also promoted Japanese art, such as Samuel Bing (1838-1905) who opened a Japanese objects shop in Paris in the 1880s frequented, among others, by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) and Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901). Bing also published a periodical, Le Japon Artistique.

Thus in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s, while many Japanese artists were studying Western-style realism, Western artists, influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain, textiles, lacquer and even architecture, were creating a new style called Japonisme. Some Western artists were content simply to incorporate Japanese motifs in their works. For others, however, Japanese decorative art offered a new freedom from imitative or photographic representation, and introduced unusual new formats such as fan leaves, folding screens and narrow hanging-scrolls. It suggested new angles of vision and an entirely different treatment of perspective. The use of bold, unshaded colour for its own sake in flatter compositions encouraged a trend towards abstraction. Strong diagonals, the silhouette, cropped close-up partial views of objects in the foreground and a flexible approach to blank space suggested fruitful new possibilities to such artists as van Gogh , Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

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