Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853–54 voyage to Japan not only reestablished diplomatic and mercantile relations between that country and the West for the first time since the 17th century, but also opened the floodgates for cultural exchanges that would profoundly affect Western art. In the ensuing decades, Japanese artifacts poured into Europe and America, appearing in exhibitions, import shops, and art collections, as well as in articles and books. Western artists began incorporating Japanese motifs, aesthetic principles, and techniques into their work – a phenomenon known by the French term “Japonisme.” This widespread fascination with Japanese objects dovetailed with late-19th-century artistic developments, including the interest in foreign cultures as well as reformist impulses. Japanese art’s emphasis on beautiful design and hand-craftsmanship, for instance, resonated with the “art for art’s sake” philosophy advocated by the Aesthetic Movement as a remedy for the ills of modern industrial life. Progressive styles such as Impressionism also gained inspiration from Japanese prototypes in revitalizing Western pictorial traditions.
Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880-1920 explores the myriad manifestations of Japonisme in a selection of rarely seen American works on paper from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. Concurrent with the so-called “Japan craze” in America was a renewed interest in graphic arts: as watercolor, pastel, etching, and other graphic media came to be appreciated for their artistry and expressivity, they also reflected the impact of Japanese art. Color woodcuts by late-18th- and 19th-century masters such Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi were avidly collected in the West and served as particularly influential models of stylistic and technical innovation for American artists.
Inspired by their encounters with the arts of Japan, the artists featured in Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880-1920 adopted Japanese subjects and design elements, embraced Eastern aesthetic principles, and sometimes even traveled to Japan to study its cultural traditions firsthand. Their resulting works demonstrate the variety and breadth of Japanese influence on American graphic arts at the turn of the 20th century.
Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880-1920 was organized by Karen A. Sherry, Assistant Curator of American Art.