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Date posted:  February 15, 2016

“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting ourselves just in floating, caring not a whit for the poverty staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current; this is what we call ukiyo-e.”

— Asai Ryoi, 16th century. Quoted in Lionel Lambourne’s Japonisme: Cultural Crossings between Japan and the West, 2005

American art, and art of the American West in particular, has been influenced and formed by many artists and styles over the last 200 years. Certainly, the landscape artists and portrait painters of Europe had significant roles. European-born artists, including Peter Rindisbacher, Karl Bodmer, and Albert Bierstadt, and later the immigrant artists Nicolai Fechin and I. E. Couse, came to the American West to be inspired by its beauty and left behind indelible marks for future generations. The exploration of America — artistically, scientifically and culturally — was part of a worldwide trend in the 19th century. During the same period, Europeans explored the world for trade, riches, and empire. Along the way, explorers and traders encountered new art traditions from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific that excited and sometimes appalled audiences at home. Regardless of whether the first impression was positive or negative, exotic art, art of the “other,” engaged and influenced artists of the time.

As the young American republic expanded its foreign interests, Americans also encountered exotic peoples and their arts. Clipper ship captains and crews visited Asian open ports. They observed new and strange customs, tried different foods, and marveled at the architecture and wealth of other nations. Very quickly, an active trade between East Asia, primarily China, and the U.S. developed. However, the opening of Japan by Commodore Mathew C. Perry’s flotilla of black-hulled steamships not only initiated a new trade boom, it launched an interchange of art and ideas that continues today.

Though it was not considered high art, one of the most popular Japanese graphic arts in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was ukiyo-e, translated as “images of the floating world.” Ukiyo-e and kabuki both were very popular art forms among the samurai and merchant classes of Japan. Librettos of kabuki were printed with covers designed in the ukiyo-e style, and ukiyo-e subjects included actors and scenes of kabuki plays. The courtesans of Yoshiwara, the entertainment district of Edo, were also frequent subjects. Later in this period, Japanese artists observed the strange clothing and habits of Europeans in the port city of Nagasaki as well as the Japanese who adopted some of these strange ways. Using traditional techniques, Japanese ukiyo-e artists began creating Kamigata-e, “Osaka prints” which depicted images of the “other” to the Japanese.

Traditionally, ukiyo-e required many highly skilled hands in the printmaking process. The artist created the drawings. A master block maker transferred the artist’s vision to a series of individual wood blocks needed to make the actual print. The master block outlined the main design, but separate blocks were needed for each individual color. In the 19th century, blocks for adding texture to the print, usually to embellish articles clothing or areas of cloud, also were carved. Hand-made rice paper was created by yet another skilled artisan. Ink was applied to the block. The printer burnished the paper placed against the block to transfer the ink to the paper. Each block, in turn, added to the image and built the color palette and design complexity. To create a single print, eight or more different blocks might be required. Some extraordinary ukiyo-e used more than thirty different blocks and colors. An edition of 100 prints, for example, would require each step of the process to be repeated for each individual print — it was all highly skilled and time-consuming handwork.

Over centuries, ukiyo-e artists worked together to master their crafts and collaborate in concert. As European art entered Japan, local artists observed. Yamamoto Kanae, a traditional ukiyo-e artist, learned that European printmakers did all their own work, even selling. This was a new concept in Japan. Yamamoto broke with his own tradition and began to perform all of the steps in the process. Sosaku hanga — creative prints — were the result. Yamamoto’s work marked a clear departure in traditional Japanese art and influenced new generations of Japanese modernists. Their images were rather less refined than traditional prints. One person’s efforts could not compete with the talents of an entire group of artisans, but then, the artist’s involvement in every part of the process to present his vision was the point, not refinement.

The opening of Japan to the West initiated an intense examination of everything Japanese. The language was difficult for European tongues; kanji characters for writing were not easily transformed into the alphabet familiar to Americans and Europeans. The customs, foods, everything seemed strange. Yet, the world quickly became fascinated with the artistic traditions. Traditional Japanese furniture offered simple lines and a celebration of wood grain and textures. At the same time, furniture and decorative arts made for the great lords and the Tokugawa shoguns were intricately ornate and evidenced extraordinary refinement of detail, design, and manufacture. The arms of Japan, including swords, armor, pole arms, and horse equipment, revealed a unique synthesis of high aesthetic principles with deadly functionality.

Scroll and screen paintings, originally borrowed from the Chinese, provided a strong contrast to western traditions. Something as simple as a pleated fan, made to create a breeze in the humid heat of nineteenth century palace garden, was embellished with delicate images and poetry. Japanese clothing, especially women’s long, elegant silk kimonos, were admired in the West. Kimonos themselves were adopted as fashion wear while the image of the kimono in paintings evoked an aura of exoticism and elegance. The sometimes simple, sometimes over-the-top combination of color and design inspired an immediate and sustained passion in those who were expanding artistic horizons in the West. The elegance and very low prices attracted European artists and salon society. The influence of ukiyo-e, more than any other Japanese art, transformed European and American artistic thinking.

Ukiyo-e,  colorful and inexpensive, found a ready market among European, especially French, artists. While centuries of artistic training in Europe had developed and refined realism through perspective, subtle colors, and fine detail, Japanese woodblock prints took a different approach. Prints were not intended to create the illusion of depth. The juxtaposition of figures sometimes seemed jumbled, at other times arbitrarily truncated. By cutting off images at the edges of prints, ukiyo-e focused attention on the central subjects. In some ways, the perspective is analogous to one looking at a scene through a window that drastically restricts the view, yet focuses attention. Even the sizes and shapes of Japanese prints surprised and inspired European artists. Hashira-e, also known as pillar or poster prints, utilized a narrow, vertical format designed to be hung in formal alcoves. While the blocks were delicately carved, the resulting prints used colors that were bold, even shocking, in comparison to earlier more subtle ukiyo-e prints. (The new colors were aniline dyes imported from Germany.) Foregrounds could be shortened drastically. Facial expressions, especially on actors, emphasized emotion rather than accurate detail.

In many ways, European and Japanese artists were responding to growing desires for increased personal freedom and expression. The Tokugawa shogunate ended the disastrous battling between competing daimyos but at the cost of a stifling and burdensome control over virtually all aspects of Japanese life. In Europe, both king and church imposed strict codes of behavior and severely sanctioned those who rebelled. In both cases, growing political and religious turmoil propelled individual artists to search for freedom of expression in art. The painters who became known as the Impressionists challenged traditional ideas of painting, of perceiving, of the nature of light itself.

The influx of exotic, colorful prints from Japan offered new ways of thinking about and seeing the world. Hedonistic and genre scenes depicted in Japanese prints also resonated with the denizens of the Moulin Rouge and the Montmartre district of Paris. In the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his enthusiastic adoption of the poster as an art form, the influence of ukiyo-e is clear. Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, Divan Japonais, and Debauchery are three striking examples. Debauchery mimics the erotic traditions of shunga prints by Moronobu and Shunsho. The similarity between the free spirited existence or decadence of the Yoshiwara and Montmartre
were not lost on Toulouse-Lautrec and his compatriots.

Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh were attracted to the genre scenes and portraits of ukiyo-e. Monet’s La Japonaise and Haystacks are good examples as are Van Gogh’s Portrait of a Mousemé and Portrait of Père Tanguy. In La Japonaise, Monet replicates a courtesan print with his model wearing a colorful kimono in a room with Japanese fans covering the back wall and strewn on the floor. Fin de si.cle French painters borrowed many Japanese art forms, including clothing and decorative objects, in addition to ukiyo-e as part of the Japonisme popular trend. In the Tanguy portrait, three Japanese images, one an ukiyo-e, have been painted by Van Gogh as background. His brilliant colors and flatness arereminiscent of the Japanese style. Although not an Impressionist, Aubrey Beardsley also was influenced by the form and style of ukiyo-e, if not the colors.

The work of renowned poster artist Jules Cheret evidences the new Japanese sensibilities as seen in La Diaphane. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, he was influenced by the shape, design and color palette of Japanese prints. One of the ideas also adopted from the Japanese is that prints should be inexpensively made so that they could be sold cheaply to the masses. Poster art which promoted shows at the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian night spots was seen and appreciated by large numbers of people. Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec revolutionized the idea of poster art and created a new and exciting art form.

Before the turn of the 20th century, aspiring American artists traveled to Europe, especially Paris, to study art and be immersed in the exciting new ideas that were swirling around the continent. Mary Cassatt, well known for her sensitive images of mothers and children, was captivated by Japanese style. Her Young Woman Bathing is similar in style and use of brilliant colors to Utamaro’s Sankatsu and Hanich with their baby or Hokusai’s Women at Public Bath. Cassatt’s The Letter, in fact, is a similar composition to Utamaro’s The Courtesan Hinazuru at the Keizetsuru. The bold colors of The Boating Party by Cassatt are reminders of the vivid colors and truncated scenes of ukiyo-e.

George De Forrest Brush’s Mourning Her Brave, although an oil, uses stark flat planes of color and the vertical format of ukiyo-e to create a haunting image. Indeed, the theme of this painting and the personal desolation it portrays has parallels in the ghost story images of Hokusai and Yoshitoshi. Brush’s oil painting Out of the Silence presents cranes or egrets (perhaps a Japanese reference in itself?) on a sky of patterned clouds that is reminiscent of kimono fabric. Brush lived in Paris for some years before 1880. Upon his return, he explored Wyoming and observed life among the Shoshones, Crows, and Arapahoes. His talent and authentic experience in the West brought him to the attention of Harper’s  and Century Magazine editors who commissioned his work.

James McNeil Whistler, best known today for his sedate Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, also influenced the Realist painters. In his formative years, he explored the colors, organization, and themes of Japanese art. Particularly fine examples include Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, Symphony in White No. 2; The Little White Girl, Caprice in Purple and Gold - No. 2 - the Golden Screen; and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: the Balcony. Caprice, in particular, uses the subjects, colors, and organization represented by ukiyo-e scenes of everyday life while other paintings incorporate Japonisme elements in more subtle ways.

Paris at the end of the 19th century was exciting and dynamic. The very definition of art and its goals were hotly discussed and radically evolving. A few Americans were actually present in the great city, but many more—entire new generations of artists—learned and benefited from the changes. Very quickly, Impressionism and other new styles of art influenced American artists at home and spawned new artistic traditions.

Artists from the eastern United States and from Europe gravitated to the American Southwest in the last years of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The quality of the light, the incredible vistas, and the exotic local Indian and Hispanic cultures (from their perspective) offered new opportunities at a time when “new” was a much sought-after commodity.

Joseph Henry Sharp taught art in Cincinnati, Ohio during this period. In 1893, he visited Taos Pueblo and began a lifelong interest with the West. By 1902, he was visiting Montana to paint scenes on the Crow Reservation. He built a log cabin, known as Absorokee Hut, as his studio and home. Although his Montana work was important, Sharp settled in Taos, New Mexico, where he became the inspirational if not actual founder of the Taos Society of Artists. Sharp’s work is not particularly reflective of Japanese ideals or media, but some of the artists attracted to Taos and Santa Fe by Sharp were notable in this regard. However, in paintings such as The War Chief ’s Story, The Great MysteryMoonlight, or Prayer to the Spirit of the Buffalo, Sharp tightly crops his images, sometimes truncating people or objects important to the scene, in a manner similar to ukiyo-e. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the center of the painting.

This effect is in sharp contrast to many of the Crow and Pueblo Indian scenes that show a more expansive view, for example Green Corn Dance or SunburstCrow Reservation. Bert Phillips’s Corn Maidens with its foreshortening, colorful clothing, and personal accoutrement is similar to strolling geisha prints.

Other Santa Fe and Taos artists, including Ernest L. Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and Walter Ufer, were influenced by Japonisme to greater or lesser degrees. O.E. Berninghaus’s poster Old Faithful, Yellowstone is a fine example of both Japonisme and the European poster tradition advanced by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec. Indeed, in the early part of the 19th century, large dramatic posters, styled on the Japanese and European traditions were in vogue. Ludwig Hohlwein’s Yellowstone Park poster, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Hayden Point and Edward Brewer’s Yellowstone Park are excellent examples.

Walter Ufer’s Hunger is a closely cropped scene, foreshortened, and alive with vivid bright colors. Ernest Blumenshein’s Superstition juxtaposes brightly colored, complex, and disparate designs around a lone central figure. The similarity to actor prints and their flamboyant costumes is evident.

E. Martin Hennings’s Pueblo at Night is reminiscent of the darker architectural images of ukiyo-e of the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century. His In New Mexico crops the central scene, revels in vibrant colors, but lacks the depth perception characteristic of his landscape works. One of the clearest examples of the tribute to Japonisme is Walter Mruk’s Homage to Mabel Dodge. Mabel Dodge (Luhan) epitomed the wealthy Bohemian’s search for new meanings in old places.

When looking for examples of Japonisme in American western art, the extraordinary prints of Gustave Baumann are the most obvious. Baumann became a master of the medium and utilized many of the design concepts and colors of his Japanese counterparts. However, as Anne Morand notes, “… specifically related to prints, the greatest influence in America came in the resurgence of original printmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, and many of the artists who were working in the southwest engaged in a modernist version of Japonisme. Following the 17th- to 19th-century ukiyo-e, the 20th-century styles in Japan included shin hanga and sa saku hanga.” (Personal communication with the author.)

The printmaking tradition that encompassed colorful works as well as stark black and white images achieved great popularity among artists and patrons in the first half of the 20th century. At that time, many young Indian artists were achieving national prominence, partially through the support of Thomas Gilcrease. It is tempting to see the reflection of ukiyo-e in the flat style art of Indian artists such as Acee Blue Eagle, Woody Crumbo, Alan Houser, Fred Kabotie, Harrison Begay, and others. Vibrant colors, lack of depth, genre scenes, focus on a single or few individuals, are commonalities featured by both. Velino S. Herrera’s Going for Water and The Zuni Olla Girls both use repetitious similar images of women on colorful but sparse backgrounds. The effect is similar to prints of strolling geishas or courtesans. However, the preponderance of evidence suggests that flat style art evolved from ledger art and earlier pre-European forms such as hide paintings. The styles appear to converge but they have different roots.

However, later in the century, Indian artists definitely were influenced by Japanese art. T.C. Cannon was introduced to woodblock through the work of Kentaro Maeda (block carver) and Matashiro Uchikawa (printer), with whom he collaborated in the 1970s. His Hair Flows Like a River, 1978, and Woman in Window are outstanding examples. Although done in casein medium rather than as a print, Paul Pahsetopah’s After the Powwow appears to be designed much like a Japanese print.

Works by Ruthe Blalock Jones (Shawnee-Delaware-Peoria) exemplify the convergence of traditional flat style and ukiyo-e in the second half of the 20th century. As a student at Bacone College in the late 1960s, she was well schooled in traditional Indian arts and the influence of Woody Crumbo. She studied with Charles Banks Wilson. Jones has come full circle and is now director emeritus and associate professor of art at Bacone. She works in many media, including painting, drawing, linoleum block, woodcut and serigraph. In an interview, with the author, Ms. Jones agreed that some of her works evoke a Japanese influence. She is attracted by the detail and the use of flat planes of brilliant color. She used the vertical dyptich style of ukiyo-e in Ribbon Dance.

To paraphrase Anne Morand, the impact of Japonisme had a broad, general effect on western art that went beyond creating woodblock prints themselves. The ukiyo-e artists’ use of space and perspective allowed artists from de Forrest Brush to Remington and Russell to explore different perspectives, to include the viewer at the edge of the scene, and to create distortions of perspective. Brush’s Mourning Her Brave and Russell’s Meat’s Not Meat ’Til It’s In the Pan are both good examples of this with their limitless space, dropoffs, and uptilted foregrounds. Brush would have encountered these ideas in French academic training. Russell would have seen examples in New York and in the way other artists in the U.S. and Europe were incorporating the Japanese aesthetic.

Art of the American West, that most American of arts, often has been defined by content more than style and all too often dismissed as a genre. Yet, it is clear that the artists who painted in the West were active experimenters with new forms. They pursued new ideas and adapted new techniques just as the American West, itself, was new to the world. Far from derivative, artists in the West strove to portray the stark beauty, the quality of light, and the exotiscm they found with a broad range of perspectives and approaches that can be attributed, in part, to Japonisme. At the same time, European and American art was having influence of similar scale on Japanese art.



My sincere thanks to Anne Morand (National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum), Joan Troccoli and Ron Otsuka (Denver Art Museum), and Marguerite House (Buffalo Bill Center of the West), who reviewed versions of this manuscript and provided insights and corrections. Any errors in the article, however, are entirely my own.



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