Claude Monet was smitten by Japanese art: Impressionism and ukiyo-e
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Claude Monet was very important within French Impressionism and despite new artistic movements like Cubism and Fauvism altering the artistic landscape, he remained firmly committed to Impressionist art. Another major art theme which would shape Claude Monet was Japanese ukiyo-e because he was smitten by this art form when he witnessed it with his own eyes. Therefore, Claude Monet utilized these two powerful art movements and the upshot of this was stunning fresh art pieces which remain etched within the memory.
The Impressionist art movement altered the artistic world dramatically and created a new energy to art. However, for Claude Monet, and others, Impressionism was a philosophy which remained with him until parting from this world.
He was born in 1840 in Paris and died in 1926. Throughout his long life he created extremely stunning art which is internationally admired. From an early age Claude Monet adored art and in the early period he took lessons from Jacques-Francois Ochard. However, his early mentor who taught him about using oil paints was Eugene Boudin, a fellow artist, whom he met when still a teenager. Claude Monet and Eugene Boudin also benefitted from the influence of Johan Barthold Jongkind.
The year 1857 was very dramatic and full of sadness because Claude Monet’s mother died. From this period to the early 1860s he witnessed many highs and lows because other family members were opposed to his strong focus on art. In the early 1860s he served in the French army in Algeria and was meant to have stayed for seven years. However, after suffering from typhoid fever he was allowed to leave after two years because of the actions of his aunt and the reported prompting of Johan Barthold Jongkind.
Claude Monet in 1862 could once more fully concentrate on art but he wasn’t interested in following traditional art. He now became a student under Charles Gleyre in the dynamic city of Paris. In time he would meet powerful artists like Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Frederic Bazille. These artists were focused on new approaches to art and in time the Impressionist movement would radically alter the artistic landscape. Therefore, because of these individuals and others who were dedicated to new artistic concepts, a rich flow of art would galvanize the art world which remains vibrant today.
The 1870s was a very dramatic period for Claude Monet because the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 and the revolutionary fervor which gripped Paris, led to many upheavals. During the same period he was touched by Japanese print making called ukiyo-e. This love affair would stay with him for the rest of his life. However, the death of his wife from tuberculosis in 1879 after several years of illness shattered Claude Monet because he doted on Camille Doncieux.
Turning back to the impact of Japanese art on Claude Monet the writer Don Morrison, Time Magazine, commented in his article (Monet’s Love Affair with Japanese Art) that “One day in 1871, legend has it, a French artist named Claude Monet walked into a food shop in Amsterdam, where he had gone to escape the Prussian siege of Paris. There he spotted some Japanese prints being used as wrapping paper. He was so taken by the engravings that he bought one on the spot. The purchase changed his life — and the history of Western art.”
“Monet went on to collect 231 Japanese prints, which greatly influenced his work and that of other practitioners of Impressionism, the movement he helped create. Under the new Meiji Emperor, Japan in the 1870s was just opening to the outside world after centuries of isolation. Japanese handicrafts were flooding into European department stores and art galleries. Japonisme, a fascination with all things Japanese, was soon the rage among French intellectuals and artists, among them Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and the young Monet. Perhaps for that reason Impressionism caught on early in Japan and remains ferociously popular there.”
While it is known that Claude Monet adored ukiyo-e you still have major debates about how Japanese prints influenced him personally. This topic is still up in the air to many art experts and the opinion varies greatly.
On the following website (http://www.intermonet.com/japan/) it is stated that “Art historians do not agree about this point: was Monet really under Japanese influence, or did he seek confirmations of his own research in Eastern art?”
“However, an attentive eye can establish interesting connections. The influence of the prints on Monet’s art can be noted in the subjects he chose, in the composition, in light……But Monet knew how to be inspired without borrowing. His paintings diverge, from the prints by many aspects. The Japanese artists liked to feature the anecdotic or dramatic moments, Monet concentrated on light, which was the very subject of the canvas – the object was no more than (a) medium to convey the plays of light.”
Art historians can either play up or play down the influence of ukiyo-e within the art of Claude Monet. However, he was clearly charmed by the ukiyo-e of individuals like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro. This isn’t open to debate because not only did Claude Monet buy vast amount of ukiyo-e art prints but he also created a Japanese garden in his cherished home. He, and many other important Impressionists, was clearly inspired by many aspects of ukiyo-e.
The cultural dimension could never be bridged because of different thought patterns and factors behind both respective art movements. However, the richness of ukiyo-e and the freshness of this style did reinvigorate many artists in Europe and North America. Therefore, while the degree of influence may vary to respective artists who adored ukiyo-e, it is clear that new artistic concepts within ukiyo-e did inspire new thinking within many Impressionists.
Don Morrison comments that “Perhaps the greatest gift Japan gave Monet, and Impressionism, was an incandescent obsession with getting the play of light and shadow, the balance of colors and the curve of a line, just right — not the way it is in reality, but the way it looks in the artist’s imagination. “I have slowly learned about the pattern of the grass, the trees, the structure of birds and other animals like insects and fish, so that when I am 80, I hope to be better,” Hokusai wrote 16 years before his death at age 89. “At 90, I hope to have caught the very essence of things, so that at 100 I will have reached heavenly mysteries. At 110, every point and line will be living.” Monet spent the last decades of his life painting his water lilies, and then painting them again, until he lost his sight in quest of an elusive, transcendent perfection that might best be called Japanese.”
The love affair that Claude Monet found with Japan in his lifetime remains powerful in modern Japan. After all, without a shadow of a doubt Claude Monet is one of the most popular artists in this country. Therefore, the “love affair” worked both ways and this “spark” remains extremely bright today in Japan amongst art lovers.