In 1858, after two centuries of isolation, Japan was forceably opened up to trade with the rest of the world. Cheap, colour wood-block prints were among the items from Japan that reached the West. Artists including Manet, Degas and Monet, followed by Van Gogh and others, began to collect and be influenced by these prints. Japanese artworks brought with them new ideas of composition, colour and design.
Monet's dining room at Giverny
hung with Japanese prints
Monet's bedroom at Giverny hung with Japanese prints
Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher via Wikimedia Commons
"I envy the Japanese for the enormous clarity that pervades their work. It is never dull and never seems to have been made in haste. Their work is as simple as breathing and they draw a figure with a few well-chosen lines with the same ease, as effortless as buttoning up one's waistcoat ...."
Vincent writing to Theo van Gogh, 24 September 1888
In early 1887 in Paris, Van Gogh purchased no fewer than 660 Japanese prints in one go, with a view to selling them on and earning some money. Although his little business venture came to nothing, Van Gogh now fell entirely under the spell of this art. [ref]
Insights: Van Gogh & Japan (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Hiroshige in the collections of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery
Vincent van Gogh (Paintings, Drawings, Quotes, and Biography)
Vincent van Gogh: The Letters : a search reveals many references to Japan and the Japanese.
Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige), 1887
(Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
This painting was based on the print by Hiroshige.
The canvas for this painting was larger than Vincent intended.
To fill excess space, he added Japanese characters from a geisha's business card.
The text is actually the address of a Kyoto brothel.
Van Gogh Museum on Twitter
"This artistic abode of my son is ornamented by a very rare collection of Japanese and Chinese. He considers the paintings upon them the finest specimens of art, and his companions, who resort here for an evening’s relaxation occasionally get enthusiastic as they handle and examine the curious figure portrayed."
Anna McNeill Whistler
Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge, ~1872-5
Old Battersea Bridge in a style inspired by Japanese prints.
Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864
Whistler's lover, Jo Hiffernan, is shown holding a Japanese fan.
"A Japanese artist grasps form always by reaching underneath for its geometry. No matter how informal, vague, evanescent, the subject he is treating may seem to be, he recognizes and acknowledges geometry is its aesthetic skeleton; that is to say—not its structural skeleton alone but—by virtue of what we have termed the symbolic spell-power—it is also the suggestive soul of his work."
"The first and supreme principle of Japanese esthetics consists in a stringent simplification by elimination of the insignificant and the consequent emphasis on reality…Always we find the one line, the one arrangement that will exactly serve…that inner harmony which penetrates the outward form and is its determining character...."
"The most important fact to realize ... is that, with all its informal grace, Japanese art is a thoroughly structural art…It is always, whatever else it is or is not, structural.""
"If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education I don’t know what direction the whole might have taken. The gospel of elimination preached by the print came home to me in architecture."
Frank Lloyd Wright
The celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright was exposed to Japanese art by Joseph Lyman Silsbee, his first employer in Chicago in 1887. He was already an established collector when he made his first visit to Japan in 1905, where he bought hundreds of woodblock prints. The following year, at the Art Institute of Chicago, he organised the first ever retrospective exhibition of prints by Utagawa Hiroshige (catalogue). In 1908 Wright participated in a second larger exhibition of Japanese prints from his own collection presented with those from other major collectors. In 1912 he published The Japanese Print: An Interpretation, a treatise on Japanese aesthetics. He held regular 'print-viewing parties' with his friends, colleagues and students.
Wright was a dealer in Japanese prints as well as a collector. Between 1918 and 1922 he sold nearly four hundred prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it is estimated that at least 20 000 prints found their way into American collections via Frank Lloyd Wright. He still had 6,000 prints in his own collection at the time of his death in 1959.
Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan
A Quickening Inspiration: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Japanese Print
Frank Lloyd Wright -- The Woodblock Print Collector
Published in 1912
Japanese prints on display in Wright's living room around 1895
The 1908 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition of Japanese color prints, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright