Artistic Inspiration

The detail in this Japanese print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) depicts the respect for the power of nature that flows through Japanese artwork (courtesy The Granger Collection, New York/61823).

The artists who would become known as the Impressionists wanted to break with the rigid conventions of the French academies about what constituted a dignified subject, and about accepted techniques of drawing and painting. In looking for different subjects to paint in the scenes of life around them, the Impressionists found inspiration in Japanese colour woodcuts.

Japanese prints were going cheap, often even used as wrapping for goods shipped to Europe in the growing trade out of Japan in the 19th century. Edouard Manet was an avid collector of these prints. He and his circle of Impressionists were taken with the Japanese vibrant use of colour and the subject matter of human figures against partial backdrops, and the unexpected perspectives of partial views and the departure from symmetry. Edgar Degas boldly took these ideas, painting unconventional subjects like ballerinas and horses at the racetrack.

The lessons of Japanese art would extend to European architecture, as architects experimented with different building materials and different shapes. Other artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec extended the simple and stylized lines to the art of the poster. Vincent Van Gogh's canvasses showed his passion for the strength and intensity of colour of Japanese prints. Paul Gauguin, a stockbroker turned painter, sought further simplicity of subject and colour and found it in the South Seas.

Learn more: The Influences of Japanese Prints