A brief introduction

16 04 2010

Oscar Claude Monet (born in Paris, November 14, 1840 – died December 5, 1926) was not only a famous French Impressionist painter, but also an early collector of Japanese work of arts.

His collection is made of 231 prints and counts 46 woodblocks made by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), 23 by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and 48 by d’Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).

When Monet was 16, he met Eugene Boudin who encouraged him to work outdoors and Monet later experimented with Pierre-Auguste Renoir a new style, which will be known as impressionism. In 1873, he painted Impression Sunrise, the painting for which the entire mouvement was named.

How and why did Monet encounter the Japanese art and to what extend did it affect his life and own works?


I) The historical and cultural context: how two cultures met

14 04 2010

1. First encounters with the Japanese world

In the 18th century, it was very common for some rich collectors to have in their possession some rare Japanese items, often imported via Holland or Siam. There had been the famous Marie-Antoinette’s collections of gloss paintings, as well as Chinese and Japanese ceramics that decorated priviledged residences. This tradition was later continued by the Duke of Morny and the Duke of Montebello.

Since the middle of the 19th century, France began to take a particular interest in Japan.This took many forms, be it in the political, economical or cultural field: under the Second Empire, France followed Holland in its modern relations with Japan. For example, in the economical domain, Philip Franz von Sieblod wanted to create an international society of exploitation of Japan and that is why he precisely took initiatives towards Napoleon III .

It must be kept in mind that Japan was closed to the rest of the world for more than two centuries. The country only opened itself in 1854, thanks to Matthew C. Perry, Commander of the United States naval forces and who forced the Edo period of Japan (1603-1868) to open. Since then, in Holland, England and France: many shops, which used to sell Chinese art, began to acquire and present Japanese work of arts and prints to the rest of Europe.

One of the most important features of the discovery of Japanese art in Europe was the host of the Universal Expositions in Paris such as the one in 1807, 1818 or 1867.  This created a real interest for a new and exotic part of the world. This probably explain why various shops specialized in Japanese art and why a new trend had been created and called “japonism“. During the first international Congress of Easterners held in Paris in 1873, this “Japanese taste” was reinforced and became more than a trend: a real craze and even a “foly”, according the Ernest Cheneau, “Le Japon à Paris”, December 1878.

Between 1878 and 1883, Louis Gonse prepared the edition of his book “The Japanese Art“, which presented all the characteristics of this mouvement. Many people were therefore eager to travel in Japan and some of them wrote books about their discovery of Japan, such as Théodore Duret and the Italian Henri Cernuschi.

HOKUSAI Katsushika, The Great Wave at Kanagawa

2. The collectors or “the love of the artists”

All in all, this attracted most of the great thinkers of that time, included famous artists and painters such as Monet, Renoir, Rodin who all discovered with great interest Japanese prints. A lot of French impressionists started to collect Japanese art, as it truly corresponded to an ideal.

Nowadays, there are two most important collections : Auguste Rodin’s, which is now in the Musée Rodin and Claude Monet‘s, which is certainly the most scientific one, the most representative of the Japanese culture, such as a woodblock depicting the sino-japanese war. Monet’s collection mainly consists of Kutamaro’s prints, showing women, flowers, or basically the Japanese society. There are also many Hiroshige’s prints. These very important and private collections are now scattered all over the world: in France, England (British Museum for instance) and even in the USA.

It must now be mentionned that collections of the impressionist paintings were also created in Japan, most particularly by Hayashi Tadamasa and Matsukata Kojiro. The artists met indeed in Europe, bought work of arts in the desire to create a museum but unfortunately, couldn’t open it during their lifetime.

  • Hayashi came to the first Parisian exhibition and was a translater for the Goncourt brothers.
  • Mastukata was an industrial, and started to buy mainly Monet’s paintings.

Most of the paintings collected at that time are now on show in the National Museum in Tokyo.

A few examples of French paintings collected by Hayashi:

Claude MONET, Le Parc Monceau (1876, Sen-oku Hakuko-kan, Tokyo)

Camille COROT, Ville d'Avray (1835-40, Bridgestone Museum of the Ishibashi Fundation)

II) A society of exchanges

13 04 2010

Like many Western intellectuals, Monet was very keen to learn about Japanese civilization. He was in contact with Hayashi Tadamasa who taught him about Japanese arts. Therefore, this was an real exchange of ideas between impressionists and Japanese painters.

Claude Monet found indeed in Japanese prints the same approach to the landscape. He was said to have discovered Japanese art in Holland with his friend Octave Mirbeau in 1871. The legend even pretends that he actually found a print in a piece of paper (Japanese art was at its most important peak of popularity and people wanted to be the first to have discovered Japanese prints). Monet bought prints, but also exchanged some with Hayashi. To a certain extend, this helped Japanese art to be known worldwide.

Monet's Japanese Bridge at Giverny

The discovery of these new forms of art in Western civilization was considered to be extraordinary, for Western artists found out that they had the same preoccupations and the same sensibilities.

They were motivated by the same philosophical contemplation of Nature and had more or less the same apprehension of the landscape.

It was certainly not by chance that Claude Monet created his famous garden in Giverny, which is, according to him, “his best work of art”.

He also wrote to Japanese friends who sent him Japanese plants and shared with them his passion for gardens. In his paintings, Monet tried to catch the instant in the landscape, like the Mount Fuji in the Hokusai painting (seen in the first post). This may explain why you find so many Hiroshige paintings  in Monet print collection.

Between the subject and the landscape : there is a timeless element. The painter is catching something that is not going to last.

Similarities with the dilettanties

One cannot ignore the incredible ressemblance with the society of dilettanty, the network of noblemen founded in London in the 18th century, which promoted ancient Greek art. The first collectors of Japanese arts such as Claude Monet also experienced a period of expansion, corresponding to a cultural ideal. This was combined as well with a fascination for the East, a culture of curiousity based on what is not known yet. They also had the same tendency to create a center, that is to say Paris or London for the Universal expositions.

Although Monet did not go on a Grand Tour in order to see the world and gain experience from it, he still had for his collection the same underlying notion of showing that you have good taste.  They were all like “reporters”. The dilettanties hired painters to paint the scene and make portraits and the aim was to obtain accurate drawings from nature. They all shared the significant desire to correspond reality and represent things as “being there”.

This was particularly true for all landscapes of Monet, such as his paintings of Argenteuil for instance. The scene has changed nowadays, with new houses and various buildings. However, the philosophical dimension of Monet’s piece of work lies in its strong desire to capture an unique moment.

Claude Monet, Red Boats at Argenteuil

III) A technical interest

11 04 2010

Claude Monet collected Japanese prints, not only because it was a new trend in Europe. He was truly interested in Japanese culture, which served him a didactic will, as he developped an interest for the painting techniques.

  • What is exactly a print?

Woodblock prints were created by three different people. The famous painters such as Hokusai or Hiroshige did not print themselves  their work, but they only imagined and drew the lines. Their work was then given to an engraver who cut away the lines and later to an imprinter.

The basic method was to use one woodblock for each colour, which was printed one after the other. The original artist signed after the seal in order to complete the work. We can still see now, when we look at the hair how precise and fine the work was.

The art of woodwork print existed for centuries and was very well developed in Japan. At the beginning, the art of print in Japan used to be black & white Buddhist prints. It was during the Edo period that first appeared print colours. The best and most subtle period for Japanese prints is known to be from the time of the painter Kutamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) to the middle of the 19th century, though the great masters of this art (Kutamaro, Hokusai…) were only discovered in Europe after their death.

  • The collection of Claude Monet

Monet decorated his house in Giverny, where he worked since 1883. He put 56 engravings in his dining room, but also Japanese prints in the entrance, the grocery, the blue living room, the staircase, the hall, the rooms, and even the bathrooms.

Monet at Giverny in his dining room decorated with his collection of Japanese woodblocks.

Monet’s collection can be divided into three main categories:

  • Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806)

Utamaro, Okita of the Naniwaya Teahouse.

Utamaro was famous for the themes of his prints: he mainly represented women, and most particularly the “Bijin“, the courtisanes of the Edo period, who lived in special quarters.

He drew portraits of women in their everyday activities: they were either arranging flowers, dressing their hair, or going outside for some feasMonet acquired 231 engravings called “Ukiyo-e” : Paintings of the Floating World.

Ukiyo-e paintings aimed at catching an instant of life and gave an accurate idea of the way of life in the Edo period. Yet, there were a few men represented in Utamaro’s prints in Monet collection.

  • Hiroshige Ando, Hokusai Katsushika (great landscape painters)

Monet collected a great number of landscapes. He had for example the almost complete views of the Mount Fuji by Hokusai, which are very rare and of high quality. He thus had a fascination, not of the

Hokusai, Mount Fuji

volcano like the dilettanties, but of the Mount Fuji, which bares, even today, a mythical dimension for the Japanese people. It was, to a certain extend, a way to learn Japanese history and culture.

Like other Western painters, Monet discovered a new way of page setting, which very different from what they knew. It was the beginning of photography and people had sometimes difficulties to differenciate a print from a photography. The train was another big discovery. Hiroshige and Hokusai tried also to catch landscape for people who could not travel.

There was a very intimate relationship between Japanese painters and Monet. For instance, they happened to use the research technique of the “serie”, that is to say, they drew the same motif, at different times of the day.

Hiroshige, Sudden Shower over O-Hashi

However, Monet never went to Japan but he imagined in a way his own Japan. When he went to Norway in 1895, he wrote to his wife in a very famous letter:

I have a delicious subjects here: small islands level with the water, covered with snow and in the back a mountain. It looks like Japan, as it often does in this country. I have on progress a sight of Sandviken whic

h looks like a Japanese village, then I make a mountain that is to be seen everywhere here and who makes me think of the Fuji-Yama.

The mountain that reminded him of the Mount Fuji was actually a Norwegian mountain, but this shows the images Monet had about Japan, through namely Hokusai’s prints of the Mount Fuji.

Hiroshige was known for landscapes with small individuals, but it was not the case for Monet who didn’t paint people, especially in the end of his life. In that sense, Monet was even closer to Hokusai than Hiroshige, as there is no character in the landscape.

  • Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95: very close to nowadays comics

It must be said that it was the beginning of journalism, as known today. Artists were on the scene, drew what they saw, like nowadays. A new “genre scenes” appeared.

Before Japan opened completely, there was two places: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where Dutch people went and settled in colonies. Some artists represented these scenes, because they were astonished by the way of life of the foreigners. This series of prints are very different from the rest of the collection.

Finally, let us mention that the entire Monet’s collection became property of the French Academy of Fine Arts, thanks to Michel Monet, the painter’s second son (who devised all his belongings to the Museum of Marmottan, Paris, which belongs to the French Institute.

A final word

10 04 2010

The influence of Japanese technical art of woodblock prints on Claude Monet is very subtle and hidden by embelishment. Still, Monet shared the same interest for Nature and informal scenes of the everydaylife. He was not at all hiding his passion for Japan, as a few years after his discovery of Japanese art, he painted his first wife, Camille, dressed in a kimono.

Monet, The Japanese Woman

Although it is quite difficult to measure the exact influence Japanese art had on Monet, it is certain that the French painter became sensitive to the play of light and shadow, the use of the range of colours and the line of the curves. Finally, Claude Monet spent the end of his life painting waterlilies, again and again, trying perhaps to obtain a perfection, close to the Japanese prints he admired and collected with all his heart.