Monet & Japan

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Flowers and Plants of the Four Seasons

Japanese, Flowers and Plants of the Four Seasons, 18th century | One of a pair of six panel folding screens: ink, color, and gold leaf on paper
Saint Louis Art Museum, Edwin and Betty Greenfield Grossman Endowment 3:2010.2

Monet and Japan: What’s the Connection?

Utagawa Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797-1858; published by Uoya Eikichi, Japanese, active mid-19th century, Edo period (1615-1868); Sudden Shower Over Ohashi Bridge and Atake, 1857; color woodblock print; image: 13 1/4 x 8 1/2 in., sheet: 14 7/ 16 x 9 9/16 in.; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 167:1955

What do artists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and James McNeil Whistler have in common? They were all influenced by Japanese art. But was Claude Monet?

Monet was familiar with ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), Japanese woodblock prints made by artists during the Edo period (1615-1868). These expressive images often depicted beautiful courtesans, views of famous Mount Fuji, and common everyday activities of the Japanese inhabitants of Edo (Tokyo), the capital city. Three of the most influential ukiyo-e artists were Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Hokusai. Their works were highly sought after by Europeans, especially avant-garde artists.

A Japanese art enthusiast, Monet collected ukiyo-e prints and displayed them at his home in Giverny. He owned several by Hiroshige that featured views of the sea as well as scenes of Mount Fuji. The impact of these prints is clear when one views Monet’s coastal paintings as well as his haystack series.  In these works he employed Japanese compositional techniques such as positioning items at extreme vantage points and in asymmetrical configurations. The influence of Japanese aesthetics, known as Japonisme, also manifested itself in patterned decorative elements, close-up views, and commonplace subject matter. Monet was open about the effect of Japonisme on Western art.

Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760-1849; Fuji in Clear Weather, c.1829-33; color woodblock print; 9 5/16 x 14 in.; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 1051:1920

Monet’s Grand Decorations show strong traces of Japanese influence. In viewing Water Lilies, one notices the lack of a single point perspective, common in the West. Within Japanese hanging scrolls and screens there are often multiple points of interest to be found, each with its own vanishing point. Asian art also does not commonly center its most important objects in the middle of the painting as is customary in the West. Rather, the main objects are often falling off the print, screen, or scroll. Monet was clearly aware of these and other Japanese compositional techniques when designing Water Lilies.

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