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Female Nudity in Ukiyo-e Prints and its Influence on Edgar Degas


In the mid-19th century, Japanese art had a profound impact on several well-known Western artists such as Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Claude Monet (1840-1926), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Mary Cassatt (1845-1926), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). The term "Japonisme" was first coined by the French critic Philippe Burty (1830-1890) and appeared in Burty's journal published in May 1872 in La Renaissance Littéraire et Artistique (Ono, 2003). Throughout his life, Burty played a significant role in the Japonisme craze, when Western artists aimed to introduce Japanese iconographies or art concepts into their art. Burty especially contributed to establishing a monthly art magazine dedicated to Japanese art in the 1880s. The international Japanese art magazine, named Artistic Japan, was published in monthly installments from 1888 until 1891 in three languages (French, German, and English) and became one of the most influential manifestations of the Japonisme movement in the West (Weisberg & Rakusin, 1986).

At the end of the 19th century, Japonisme made a significant impact across a wide range of Western art forms, such as sculpture, craft, fashion, design, architecture, photography, and theatre thanks to such publications, sharing Japanese art with the Western audience (Ono, 2003). While a precise definition of Japonisme remains under debate, Japonisme is generally considered to be a Western endeavor to incorporate the essential qualities of Japanese art into Western aesthetics (Ono, 2003).

Figure 1: 東都吉原全盛桜図 (Utagawa Kuniyasu, 1818).

During the Edo period (1603–1867), Japanese art underwent a substantial transformation in its themes. Many artists abandoned traditional religious and historical subjects. Instead, they started to represent contemporary life scenes in their paintings. As a result, Ukiyo-e prints (woodblock prints) were introduced in the Japanese modern era as a new form of art (Ono, 2003). Among various subject matters, Ukiyo-e artists were especially interested in depicting life in the Yoshiwara district [Figure 1], a well-known pleasure district which was located in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), established in 1617 (Seigle, 1993). The Yoshiwara district was famous during the Edo period for Kabuki entertainment, a Japanese traditional theatre, but it was also recognized as licensed quarters for Japanese prostitutes and courtesans (Seigle, 1993). The courtesans of the Yoshiwara district were considered to be cultural icons and were treated in an almost similar way as today's movie stars (Castro, 2016).

In Ukiyo-e prints, depictions of unclothed women had two genres. One is called Shunga, which represented explicit sexual content. In contrast, the other genre called Bathhouse Scenes [Figure 2] was less erotic and more likely to emphasize the significance of hygiene in Japanese society (Castro, 2016). Unlike the European traditions where female nudity tended to emphasize the passivity of women, the women figures in bathhouse scenes did not contain sexual connotations, rather they simply represented the daily activities (Castro, 2016).

Figure 2: Woman Bathing Under Flowers (Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1800).

Edgar Degas

Among several Japonisme artists, the French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was one of the most notable figures who valued Japanese art techniques and incorporated them into his works. When Ukiyoe-e prints first arrived in Paris in the 1850s, French artists were fascinated by how everyday activities and gestures were beautifully represented in many of them. Influenced by Japanese art, Degas decided to apply both stylistic and cultural elements from the Ukiyo-e prints in his works to portray modern life in Paris (Castro, 2016). Among many Degas’ collections of Asian art, such as Japanese drawings and Japanese watercolors, he particularly adored his collection of Ukiyo-e prints by prominent Japanese Ukiyo-e masters, including Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1818), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). The precise date when Degas first encountered Japanese art is unclear, however, it is believed that Degas’ active participation in cross-cultural exchanges occurring between France and Japan encouraged him to collect Japanese art (Zepponi, 2003).

Figure 3: Interior of a Bathhouse (Torii Kiyonaga, 1782).

As an enthusiastic Ukiyo-e collector, Degas had Torii's Interior of a Bathhouse (1782) displayed above his bed [Figure 3], which portrays eight undressed women in various poses in the public bath (Zepponi, 2003). Torii's Interior of a Bathhouse later became Degas' major source of inspiration for his representation of female nude figures in many of his works. However, rather than simply incorporate Japanese objects into his artworks or replicate them, Degas also innovatively integrated Japanese art techniques into his compositions and introduced a fresh perspective to his artistic approach (Zepponi, 2003). For example, he adopted a Japanese asymmetric composition. As a member of the Impressionist circle, Degas also frequently chose the subjects of commonplace activities, such as women bathing, and dressing (Zepponi, 2003). Particularly, the theme of women bathing became one of his major themes. In Ukiyo-e prints, women bathing was traditionally considered a fundamental subject since it expressed the importance of bathing to Japanese society without explicit eroticism, contrasting the inherent eroticism of Western nudes.

Incorporation of Japanese Techniques

Degas often employed flattened compositions and unique angles that were reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e prints traditionally applied asymmetric compositions, with which Degas was most fascinated. Woman with Chrysanthemums (1865) [Figure 4] is, for example, one of Degas' most renowned works which shows how Degas adopted Japanese artistic perspectives (Berger, 1992). It was the first painting in which Degas incorporated Japanese influence in his art (Zepponi, 2003). In this work, the deliberate use of asymmetrical composition is identifiable. The figure extends beyond the frame's boundaries, and the woman's gesture of covering her mouth with her hands resembles a pose frequently found in many Ukiyo-e prints [Figure 5] (Zepponi, 2003). Woman with Chrysanthemums portrays a shallow pictorial space that runs parallel to the picture plane. This space is predominantly occupied by a vibrant mass of autumnal blooms, which immediately draws the viewer's eye. On the right side of the painting, there is a female figure dressed in a housecoat, however, only a portion of her upper body is visible as the rest is intentionally cropped by the frame, much like the table supporting the flower vase (Berger, 1992).

Figure 4: Woman with Chrysanthemums (Degas, 1865).

What makes this composition unique is its clear Japanese influence. The woman is positioned to the right side, gazing away from the frame, and her body is cropped in a way that diminishes her dominance in the overall visual impact (Berger, 1992). This shift in emphasis redirects the viewer's attention to the decorative arrangement of the flowers. This artistic approach differs significantly from the conventional Western portrait tradition and was considered as a means of "deportraitization" of the scene (Berger, 1992, p. 51). This shift emphasizes the reproduction of a particular mood or atmosphere, which was the common technique widely used in Ukiyo-e prints. The technique of decentralizing the subject matter and dissolving the composition, often referred to as "fortuitous" framing (Beger, 1992, p. 51), was a clear adoption from Japanese traditional art. Furthermore, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka's Mumasau [Figure 5], which represents a lady whose gaze goes out of the frame is borrowed by Degas for his female figure in Woman with Chrysanthemums.

Figure 5: Fuzoku 32 scenes Mumasau (Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, 1888).

Female Nudes Influenced by Ukiyo-e Prints

In the 1880s, Degas began the series of Toilettes, which depicted women washing, drying themselves, and combing their hair (Bernd, 1991). The theme of women taking baths was famous in France in his time and many French artists were interested in learning the gestures of female bathers from Japanese Ukiyo-e prints (Bernd, 1991). However, why did the female nudes illustrated in Ukiyo-e prints gain this much attention from French artists, including Degas? In 19th-century France, there was a growing awareness of disease and hygiene. New hygienic practices were gradually implemented because of the lack of bathrooms in Parisian homes and the absence of clean running water in Paris until 1865 (Castro, 2016). Just like Ukiyo-e prints which expressed the importance of bathing to Japanese society, many French artists aimed to encourage people to bathe through their paintings. Degas was one of the artists who responded to the awareness of hygiene and disease. Yet, when Degas first exhibited his pastels from the Toilettes series, he was highly criticized for their seemingly unfinished quality and the body's lack of traditional beauty (Castro, 2016). Traditionally, the pastel was considered unfinished in Western art. Furthermore, it was completely different from the post-Renaissance tradition, in which the female nude was often represented as glorified by the male gaze. However, Degas applied the pastel technique as a means of creating the natural and realistic tone of the female body.

Figure 6: Woman in a Tub (Degas, 1883).

Figure 7: Details from Interior of a Bathhouse (Torii Kiyonaga, 1782).

Degas’ inspiration from Ukiyo-e prints is apparent in many of his works. The pose of Degas' Woman in a Tub (1883) [Figure 6], for example, resembles a female figure from Torii's Interior of a Bathhouse (1782), who is washing her right arm [Figure 7]. There is a slight difference between the two figures such as the reversal of the composition, but in both depictions, the nude figures are washing their upper arms while sitting on their legs (Zepponi, 2003). Another work that shows a clear influence from Ukiyo-e print is Degas' The Tub [Figure 8]. In this painting, a woman is shown from an elevated vantage point and surrounded by ordinary household objects. The curve of the tub is a continuation of the woman’s back, while her vertical left arm parallels the edge of the table on the right side (Zepponi, 2003). Degas borrowed this female nude from Utagawa's Chrysanthemum (1820) [Figure 9]. Although the viewing angle is not as high as Degas' The Tub [Figure 8], it is recognizable that Utagawa also represented the female bather from above, and used the space and surrounding objects such as a water heater and a scrub brush in the upper right corner to construct a visual frame. The incorporation of ordinary objects and elevated vantage points were indeed traditional Japanese techniques which Degas borrowed from Ukiyo-e prints.

Figure 8: The Tub (Degas, 1886).

Figure 9: Chrysanthemum from the series Contest of Modern Flowers (Utagawa Kunisada, 1820).

However, Degas did not simply borrow the female figures directly from Ukiyo-e prints. Rather, he studied the sketches and drawings of Japanese Ukiyo-e masters, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), simply known as Hokusai who was best known for his woodblock print series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830). Hokusai’s sketchbook collection, Manga (1814) [Figure 10] which contained many different poses of figures inspired Degas' female characters in his paintings. By the late 1870s, Degas had access to the first volume of Hokusai's Manga and spent a considerable amount of time studying the female figures. Degas carefully observed female nude figures with various gestures represented in the Manga, which were completely different from traditional Western female beauty, and incorporated them into many of his works. Hokusai's Manga prompted Degas to capture distinctive body positions and reveal movements with greater precision (Zepponi, 2003).

Figure 10: Manga vol. 1 (Katsushika Hokusai, 1814).

Figure 11: Details from Manga vol. 1 (Katsushika Hokusai, 1814).

For instance, Degas's Seated Bather Drying Herself (1895) [Figure 12] and Woman in the Tub (1884) [Figure 13] are inspired by the female illustrations found in Hokusai’s Manga [Figure 10]. Degas borrowed Hokusai's bather who is washing her underarms with the arm raised high, which is found in the left bottom corner [Figure 11, left] and the other figure washing her hip, located next to the first bather [Figure 11, right]. In Woman in the Tub [Figure 13], although Degas used a higher aerial perspective than is shown in Hokusai’s original depiction, the shapes of the figure’s torsos are almost identical, and both women are washing their right hips (Zepponi, 2003). Also, there are slight differences between the two, such as Degas’ nude [Figure 13] crossing her legs, but they are similar enough to suggest that Degas carefully studied Hokusai’s images in Manga and gained some ideas for his representation of his female figures (Zepponi, 2003).

Figure 12: Seated Bather Drying Herself (Degas, 1895).

Figure 13: Woman in the Tub (Degas, 1888).

The female figure after bathing was also an important subject in Degas' Toilettes series. Degas had a profound fascination with women's hair as he spent some time even combing the hair of his female models. One of Degas' lithographs [Figure 15] portrays a nude woman in a standing position, engaged in the act of drying herself with her long hair hanging down. His influence on this female figure can be found in Utagawa's Spring Dawn (1825-1830) [Figure 14]. In both artworks, the women appear as if they have just emerged from the water, bent over with their hair flowing down to the left side. The gesture, the posture, and the way the hair is collected on one side are all identifiable in Utagawa's woman figure (Zepponi, 2003).

Figure 14: Spring Dawn (Utagawa Kunisada, 1825-30).
Figure 15: Naked Woman Standing, Drying Herself (Degas,1891-92).

Therefore, as it was evident in all his works mentioned above, female characters illustrated in Japanese traditional Ukiyo-e prints, indeed, significantly influenced Degas' representations of women figures. However, it is important to note that Degas was never a mere imitator of Japanese aestheticism. His enthusiasm toward Japanese Ukiyo-e art resulted in the creation of a unique and innovative artistic style that blended elements of both Western and Japanese traditions. Degas, along with other Impressionists, therefore, helped introduce these Japanese influenced techniques as well as figures to the Western art world, which contributed to the development of overall modern art.

Bibliographical References

Bernd, G. (1991). Edgar Degas: 1834-1917. Editoriale L'Espresso.

Berger, K (1992). Japonisme in western painting from Whistler to Matisse. Cambridge University Press.

Castro, M. (2016). Bathing in Modernity: Undressing the Influences Behind Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt's Baigneuses. University of Colorado Boulder.

Ono, A. (2023). Whistler and Artistic Exchange Between Japan and the West: After Japonisme in Britain. Taylor & Francis.

Ono, A. (2001). Japonisme in Britain: A Source of Inspiration: J. McN. Whistler, Mortimer Menpes, George Henry, EA Hornel and Nineteenth Century Japan. University of Glasgow (United Kingdom).

Seigle, C. S. (1993). Yoshiwara: The glittering world of the Japanese courtesan. University of Hawaii Press.

Weisberg, G. P., Rakusin, M., & Rakusin, S. (1986). On Understanding Artistic Japan. The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, 1, 6–19.

Zepponi, L. C. (2003). The Influence of Japanese Figure Conventions on French Art of the Late Nineteenth Century. University of Mississippi.

Visual Sources


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Kotono Sakai

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