Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) (reprint)
Stary night
Kitagawa Utamaro, Hairdresser, c

Japonism - The impact of Japanese Wood Block Print (Ukiyo-e) on French Painting


Our workshop today will explore Japanese Woodblock print images, known as Ukiyo-e which translates as ‘Picture[s] of the Floating World’. In particular, we are going to examine the way Ukiyo-e impacted on the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.




Originally made in black and white, Ukiyo-e printmaking developed in the mid-1600’s, during the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868). Under Tokugawa, the Japanese economy developed rapidly, particularly in Edo (today’s modern Tokyo), where the Shogun had established his government.


For the merchant class of Edo, these developments led to a shift in their wealth and status. Accordingly, and in a manner not unlike that of Flemish Merchants some 200 years earlier, they began to invest in art.


The art which became popular as a result reflected the change in circumstances of its patrons. With their new-found wealth and freedom, the newly rich of Edo liked to indulge their senses in the pleasure districts of the city. This aspect of Edo life became known as the ‘Floating (or fleeting, or transient) World’, and this gave its name to the art which depicted it.


The 1850’s saw the opening up of Japan to the outside world, and Ukiyo-e became increasingly popular in France and broader Europe.



With its interest in private moments, intimate encounters and the experiences of real people in pursuit of all kinds of pleasure, Ukiyo-e coincided with a wider movement in Paris of artists inspired by Baudelaire’s essay The Painter of Modern Life.


In this seminal work, the author describes a new type of art, unfettered by history and concerned instead with the real goings-on of modern life. Baudelaire urged artists to become voyeurs: witnesses to the fast-paced happenings in the city around them. Artists like Degas and Manet began to paint scenes of bars, night clubs and theatres, and they began to focus on intimate moments, such as women bathing and brushing their hair.




Meanwhile, the development in paint technology of premixed paints allowed impressionist painters to paint a new type of picture, directly from life. Dispensing with the formal compositional techniques of the Salon, these new paintings needed a new compositional approach.


Ukiyo-e provided a vital framework for these artists, flattening the composition, so that the dynamic power of the picture depended entirely on the geometries of the image, as they related to the rectangle of the frame.


This new type of painting dispensed with the composed fictions of the past, and replaced them with a new type of fiction - one based on an apparently natural, fleeting glimpse of things, as one might see in the other new phenomena of the age, Photography.

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