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Landscapes in Ukiyo-e: From France to the United States

The Beginning of the Ukiyo-e trend in France

In the late 19th century, the term Japonisme was introduced to American artists by the French Impressionists. It describes the craze to incorporate either iconography or concepts of Japanese art into European art. By the 1860s, Japanese Ukiyo-e (traditional Japanese woodblock prints) were exported to Paris, and many French artists such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) aimed to use Japanese traditional objects such as Kimonos, flat colors, and Japanese aesthetic principles into their paintings. For example, Manet’s 1868 portrait of Emile Zola (1840-1902) [Figure 1], a French novelist, included not only a golden folding screen behind Zola to the left of the background but also a Japanese Ukiyo-e print of a Sumo wrestler, presumably from his collection (Meech, 1982). Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), a German-French art dealer was one of the leading figures who contributed to the spread of Ukiyo-e prints among French Impressionist artists. He described in his journal his trip to Japan in 1881 and expressed his fascination with Japanese art:

Once arrived in Japan, I beat the drum to procure from one end of this remarkable Island Kingdom to the other all the artifacts that money could buy. I […] let it be known everywhere that a wild man had come ashore to buy up everything (Siegfried, 1983, p. 10).

Bing contributed to publishing the influential illustrated magazine, Le Japon Artistique, in 1888, which was dedicated to Japanese traditional art [Figure 2]. The magazine was translated into English and became an encyclopedic display of Japanese art. Many Western artists learned and observed the Japanese artistic style from that particular magazine (Meech, 1982).

Figure 1: Emile Zola (Manet, 1868).

Bing’s achievements in Le Japon Artistique were reported by art critics in many Western countries, including England, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States. In the United States, for example, the journal The Critic expressed how Bing’s magazine allowed Western viewers to appreciate Japanese art forms:

Artistic Japan maintains the high degree of excellence attained in its first numbers… M. Bing writes on the origin of painting gathered from history, and the writers have had generous assistance from native Japanese experts. [...] We rank this periodical among the highest class of art journals (The Fine Arts, Art Notes The Critic, 1889, p. 302).

Bing aimed to select talented writers who could explain the various aspects of Japanese aesthetics for the purposes of writing the columns in Le Japon Artistique. Theodore Duret (1838-1927), a French art critic, was chosen as one of the writers for Bing’s magazine since he had already visited Japan in the 1870s and acquired a rich knowledge of Japanese aesthetics (Weisberg et al., 1986). While in Japan, Duret observed several Japanese traditional artworks and was particularly interested in Ukiyo-e prints. He purchased several Ukiyo-e prints from Japan and often shared with his peers his own collections, greatly contributing to the fame of Ukiyo-e prints among French painters and art dealers.

Figure 2: Le Japon Artistique (Siegfried, 1889).

From France to the United States

The popularity of Japanese art such as Ukiyo-e prints was soon brought to the United States from France in the late 1880s. When the Japanese-inspired paintings by French Impressionists were exhibited in New York at the American Art Association and the National Academy of Design in 1886, the Japanese themes were, for the first time, acknowledged and admired by the American audience (Bolger, 1990). Such displays at the National Academy of Design encouraged many American Impressionist artists to observe how the Japanese motifs could be incorporated into Western paintings. Not only the artists but also many American art historians were inspired by Japanese art techniques and aimed to promote Japanese aesthetics in the United States. An American art historian named Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), who was honored even by the Japanese Meiji government as “the first serious Western interpreter of Japanese culture” (Meech, 1982, p.102), was one of the leading figures who spread the popularity of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints across the United States. He became the first curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When the first Ukiyo-e print exhibition was held in Tokyo in 1898, Fenollosa flew to Japan to visit the exhibition and closely examined several Ukiyo-e prints crafted by many famous Ukiyo-e masters [Figure 3]. In the catalog of the Ukiyo-e exhibition in 1898, Fenollosa commented on one of Hiroshige’s landscape paintings:

The presentation of the landscape should be called fundamental and grammatical. The artist effectively combines two-shade coloring and black-and-white drawing, contributing to the clear demarcation of parts. It is beyond the achievements of colours in oil painting (Exhibition Catalogue, 1898).

Figure 3: South Wind, Clear Dawn (Katushika, 1831).

The popularity of Ukiyo-e prints was rapidly developing, especially in the late 1880s and early 1890s thanks to the achievements of three American painters: J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), and John H. Twachtman (1853-1902). Weir, Robinson, and Twachtman were great peers who regularly painted together and exhibited their works in the same galleries. Their passion for Japanese art was further inspired through engagements with other American artists who collected Japanese Ukiyo-e prints.

According to Bolger, Robert Blum (1857-1903), who had already applied Japanese motifs and subject matters into his paintings, often welcomed these three artists into his studio in New York. Blum introduced to Weir, Robinson, and Twachtman his Japanese-themed works, such as The Ameya (1893), in which he represented a local candy-maker he observed in Japan during his trip in 1890 (Bolger, 1990) [Figure 4]. By appreciating Blum’s collection of Ukiyo-e prints as well as his Japanese paintings, Weir, Robinson, and Twachtman developed their familiarity with Japanese representations and artistic techniques. Moreover, Robinson wrote in his diary on the 30th of November in 1893 about the time when he came over to Weir’s house to view his collection of Ukiyo-e prints, saying “I imagine the best men have been influenced for the better by Japanese art, not only in arrangements but in their extraordinary delicacy of tone and colour” (Robinson, 1893).

Figure 4: The Ameya (Blum, 1893).

Influence of Landscape Paintings on American Artists

Weir, Robinson, and Twachtman were all inspired by the representation of Ukiyo-e prints. However, they were especially intrigued by Japanese landscape paintings. Ukiyo-e prints originally presented portraits of women, children, and actors for Kabuki (a Japanese traditional theatre) as well as their customs. The main subjects for the Ukiyo-e prints were traditionally figures from the Edo period (1603-1868), however, as the skills of Ukiyo-e masters developed, landscapes started to be represented in Ukiyo-e prints in the later Edo period.

American Impressionist artists were particularly influenced by two fundamental Ukiyo-e masters, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) who specialized in landscape paintings. These two masters portrayed similar geographical areas such as Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but their stylistic differences were obvious at first sight. Hokusai was capable of representing mountains and water dynamically with storms, lighting, and torrential rivers to add a dramatic effect to the scenery [Figure 3]. On the other hand, Hiroshige was talented in adding greater peace to the scene with rain, snow, moonlight, and bright stars. Unlike Hokusai’s approach, Hiroshige’s representation of the landscapes was rather calm and "monotonous" (Nagai, 2012, p. 218), creating a soft atmosphere.

Figure 5: Arques-la-Bataille (Twachtman, 1885).

Figure 6: Tile Kilns and Hashiba Ferry, Sumida River (Utagawa, 1857).

Twachtman often borrowed some artistic inventions from Hiroshige for his landscape paintings. While few documents survive about Twachtman’s introduction to Japonisme, he may have been the first artist in this group to incorporate the aesthetic principles of Japanese Ukiyo-e into his work (Bolger, 1990). In particular, Twachtman was fascinated by Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-1859), a series that contained 118 vertical landscapes in Edo. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo portrayed seasonal sceneries with beautiful nature, such as spring cherry blossoms and winter snow fields. Hiroshige applied a unique compositional technique in which he used large foreground elements to frame a distant view in the background.

For instance, Twachtman's Arques-la-Bataille (1883-1885) [Figure 5], which he painted during his 2 years of studies in Paris, shows his clear inspiration from Hiroshige’s Tile Kilns and Hashiba Ferry, Sumida River (1857) [Figure 6]. Twachtman depicted the landscape at Arques-la-Bataille, a town four miles southeast of Dieppe, in Normandy, where the Béthune and two other streams flow together to form the Arques River. His emphasis on flattened perspectives, a tonalist palette, and attention to natural landscapes recalls Japanese aesthetic principles often found in Ukiyo-e prints. The arrangement of forms, including the reeds placed close to the picture plane and flat colours are similar to Hiroshige’s representation of the Sumida River.

Figure 7: Icebound (Twachtman, 1888).

Figure 8: Ochanomizu in Snow (Utagawa, 1853).

Twachtman was especially intrigued by Hiroshige’s representation of snow in landscape paintings. For example, his Icebound (1889) [Figure 7] clearly drew inspiration from Hiroshige’s print Ochanomizu in Snow (1853) [Figure 8]. They both depict frozen water surrounded by snow receding diagonally to a raised horizon line, and their representations are quite similar. During the last decade of his life, Twachtman often portrayed landscapes in his hometown on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Unlike the typical representation of barren winter scenes, Twachtman aimed to depict the beauty of the frozen terrain with a calm atmosphere, which he observed in Hiroshige's Ochanomizu in Snow; the sinuous curves of pastel snowbanks stretching over the icy river are portrayed with a tranquil atmosphere, as observed in Hiroshige’s snow scene. In addition to the composition, to add a soft air into this harsh winter scene Twachtman applied a reddish color in the lingering autumn leaves, which Hiroshige used for some parts of his painting. The scene in Icebound is simplified and unified by snow that had fallen, yet Twachtman succeeded in adding a warm temperature to the cold winter scenery (Bolger, 1990).

Figure 9: Balcony in Winter (Twachtman, 1901-1902).

Figure 10: The Lumber Yard at Fukagawa (Utagawa, 1856).

Another painting of Twachtman in which he depicted the winter landscape with snow is Balcony in Winter [Figure 9], painted in 1901-1902. This painting also suggests a clear reference to Hiroshige's The Lumber Yard at Fukagawa (1856) [Figure 10] in its representation. In Twachtman’s Balcony in Winter, the foreground elements are enlarged, placed close to the picture plane, and cropped along the bottom edge of the canvas. The distant view, which drops off precipitously from the foreground stage is a typical representation in Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series. Twachtman appreciated Hiroshige’s innovative technique of structuring the composition, which gives the spectators the viewpoint that breaks out of the picture frame. To achieve this, Twachtman placed the planters on the balcony, which is cropped in the foreground. Such an artistic technique, which Hiroshige always applied for his landscape painting, allows the viewers of Balcony in Winter to feel as if they are observing the scenery from the balcony, feeling the fresh winter breeze.

Figure 11: The White Bridge (Twachtman, 1896).

Figure 12: Bridge in Garden (Utagawa, 1858).

Twachtman further explored the typical Japanese icons that often appeared in Hiroshige’s landscape paintings. A bridge was, for instance traditionally regarded as a common motif in many Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, and Hiroshige often represented the scene in Edo with a bridge such as Bridge in Garden (1858) [Figure 12], in which he depicted the landscape over Kameido Tenjin Shrine in Edo. Twachtman also portrayed his home in Connecticut with a bridge surrounded by trees in The White Bridge (1896) [Figure 11]. Over six years, he painted at least another six versions of the bridges in Connecticut. Loosely rendered brushstrokes of green and rich brown add the warm and fresh air over the spring blossoming scene. Twachtman's aesthetic of using the bridge to ornament the garden resembles techniques of Japanese gardeners, as described by Edward S. Morse in his influential book, Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings (1886). According to Morse, Japanese landscape architects balanced the ephemeral beauty of blossoms and foliage with "enduring points of interest in the way of little ponds and bridges...even the smallest pond will have a bridge of some kind thrown across” (Boston, 1886, pp. 274-227). Twachtman was aware of how the incorporation of the bridge adds to the painting a balanced and calm atmosphere like in Hiroshige’s landscape with a bridge portrayed with a very soft tone. As it is evident in all of Twachtman’s paintings above, the influence of Ukiyo-e prints which were initially brought from French Impressionist artists, influenced American painters such as Twachtman to represent the seasonal landscapes with a sense of tranquility by using Japanese aesthetic principles.

Bibliographical References

Bolger, D. (1990). American Artists and the Japanese Print: J. Alden Weir, Theodore Robinson, and John H. Twachtman. Studies in the History of Art, 37, 13-27.

Ellis, J. W. (2019). The Floating World of Ukiyo-e Prints: Images of a Japanese Counterculture. Journal of Social and Political Sciences, 2(3).

Kafū, N., Selden, K., & Freedman, A. (2012). Ukiyo-e Landscapes and Edo Scenic Places (1914). Review of Japanese Culture and Society, 24, 210–232.

Larkin, S. G. (1991). Light, Time, and Tide: Theodore Robinson at Cos Cob. American Art Journal. 23(2), 75-108.

Larkin, S. G. (1998). On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape. American Art Journal, 29(1/2), 53-85.

Meech-Pekarik, J. (1982). Early collectors of Japanese prints and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum Journal, 17, 93-118.

Thompson, S. (1986). The World of Japanese Prints. Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin. 82(349/350), 1-47.

Van der Eng, T. (2023). A new perspective: Understanding the role of architecture in the Ukiyo-e printing tradition through Hiroshige Utagawa.

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

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Kotono Sakai

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