The Influence of Japanese Art on Western Artists

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Throughout history Japan has had a significant influence on Western art, and continues to do so to this day. Artists have taken inspiration from all aspects of the Japanese artistic tradition, from ukiyo-e woodblock prints to modern-day manga. Let Artsper take you on a journey through time

Impressionism and the Birth of Japonisme

The influence of Japanese art on Western artists established itself at the end of the 19th century during the Impressionist movement. The phenomenon came to be known as Japonisme as there was a sudden rise in interest in Japanese art after Japan re-commenced trade with the West in 1853, thus introducing their goods and culture to Europe. Japonisme was first used as a term by French collector and art critic Philippe Burty in 1872, as the influence of Japan on Western artists became more widespread. 

One such introduction was that of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, literally meaning ‘pictures of the floating world’, referring to the pleasure districts of Edo (now Tokyo). The prints depicted Kabuki theatre actors, landscapes, erotic scenes and many other aspects of Japanese culture. Some of the most famous ukiyo-e artists were Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Hiroshige, whose flattened perspectives, bright colours and defined outlines provided no end of inspiration to Western artists. 

Indeed it is important to note that, some of the work produced by these artists is deemed Orientalism rather than simple inspiration, as they would dress in traditional clothing and imitate Japanese people. If not at the time, certainly in retrospect we recognise this practice as appropriation of the culture rather than a celebration of it, which we do not wish to glamorise. 

Subject Matter

Impressionist artists such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and James Tissot all accumulated large collections of Japanese art. However, some took inspiration more literally than others. Notably, the subject matter of Monet’s Japanese Bridge paintings can be directly compared to the landscapes of the ukiyo-e prints, especially Hokusai’s, Under Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa, thus introducing a distinctly Japanese feel to the traditionally French movement of Impressionism. 


Meanwhile, many artists made more subtle references to ukiyo-e prints, for example Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, notably in style rather than subject matter. Cassatt reinvented her signature subject matter of women and children in the style of Japanese prints, using flat colours and only indicating dimensionality through the use of line rather than tone. This is particularly evident in her print The Coiffure, which depicts a woman in the everyday activity of brushing her hair. The print is reminiscent of Kitagawa Utamaro’s Takashima Ohisa Using Two Mirrors to Observe Her Coiffure, despite the latter being created a hundred years previously, thus emphasising the timelessness of the genre. 

Similarly, Edgar Degas’, Woman Combing Her Hair is said to be directly inspired by Utagawa Hiroshige’s, Yamauba Combing Her Hair and Kintoki. Both pieces feature nude women performing domestic activities, in keeping with Degas’ already-established style. Yet the perspective of the viewer being positioned slightly above the subject is a distinctly Japanese trait, his appropriation of which can be attributed to his extensive knowledge of the work of Japanese artists. 


Of course, it is impossible to talk about the influence of Japanese art on Western artists without mentioning the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Although he was slightly later on the uptake than the Parisian artists of the time, Japanese art made a lasting impression on him. His love for nature and the landscapes depicted in ukiyo-e prints even led him to move to Arles in the south of France in search of inspiration to more authentically recreate the Japanese style of painting he had come to admire. 

Whether in subject matter or style, one thing is clear, the Impressionists couldn’t get enough of Japanese art! 

Art Nouveau and New Inspirations

Transitioning into the Art Nouveau movement, Gustav Klimt too was inspired by ukiyo-e prints, the evidence of which is especially visible in the flat planes, intricate patterns and vivid colours of his works. Additionally, he is said to have been a great admirer of the Rinpa School of Kyoto, known for their elaborate use of gold leaf backgrounds and refined style. Of course this can be seen extensively throughout Klimt’s ‘Golden Phase’, wherein his affiliation for gold leaf and detail came into their own.

Meanwhile, another artist of Art Nouveau was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose favoured subject matter of the dance halls and brothels of Montmartre represent the European equivalent of Edo’s pleasure districts. He counted as part of his collection ukiyo-e prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, who was arrested in 1804 due to his prints of historical figures pictured with courtesans at parties. The artists were clearly kindred spirits despite their differences in generation and culture! Toulouse-Lautrec’s use of colour, dark contouring and a lack of depth in his posters is particularly derivative of prints from Kabuki theatres. His piece Divan Japonais is a perfect example of his adoration for all things Japan.

Abstract Expressionism and the Art of Calligraphy

The influence of Japanese art on Western artists did not stop at the turn of the century. However, the centres of interest evolved, as did the centre of Western artistic influence; moving from Paris to New York. Artists of the American movement of Abstract Expressionism throughout the 1940s and 50s, were also said to have looked East for inspiration. The two countries were of major mutual influence in the postwar years, suggesting an infiltration of Japanese culture into the collective unconscious at the time. The Jungian theory of a collective unconscious was often referenced by Abstract Expressionists, as it is what they intended to express in the freedom of their works. Although sometimes disputed, it is generally thought that the sweeping brush strokes in the works of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were influenced by Japanese (and Chinese) calligraphy. 

Franz Kline

Furthermore, Franz Kline in particular had an interest in the avant-garde calligraphy group Bokujinkaibased in Kyoto. The group reached out to him and other artists at the time, noting the similarities between their work and his Black and White series. Kline exchanged many letters with them and even propagated Japanese calligraphy to American audiences, citing a definite similarity in the style of their works. However, as the years progressed Kline later began to deny the similarities between his work and calligraphy, giving the reasoning that his works were purely visual rather than pieces of writing. This is likely due to the sense of nationalism that was growing in America after the war and his desire to be part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. An all-American aesthetic so appealed to American art critics, and so the influence of Japanese art was suppressed.

Jackson Pollock

Additionally, Jackson Pollock, although famous for his abstract works, was also fascinated by the concept of the letter and reinvented many cultures’ scripts, Japanese calligraphy included, in an abstract style in his paintings. What’s more, Pollock used Japanese paper in the creation of his works, especially those part of his Black series, which have a visual style that is particularly reminiscent of the free flowing brush strokes of calligraphy. 

So, whether it is a modern myth or a true source inspiration, the visual similarities between Japanese calligraphy and these abstract paintings are clear to see

Contemporary Art and the Rise of Manga

Coming into the present day, the fascination with Japanese art has not ceased to exist within Western artists. Now comes the turn of manga, literally meaning comics (and its animated form, anime), characterised by its exaggerated facial expressions and bright colours. Beginning in the mid 1990s, France has developed a deep appreciation for Japanese manga, and now represents the world’s second largest market after Japan. This has lead to publishers such as Glénat producing their own French language manga and the conception of La Nouvelle Manga movement, which sees collaborations between Franco-Belgian and Japanese artists. 

Pop Culture

Additionally, this coincided with the Pokémon phenomenon which swept the world in the 1990s which brought the Japanese artistic style to the fore. No longer an unknown drawing style, but a staple of popular culture. Meanwhile artists such as Takashi Murakami, to this day one of the biggest names in contemporary art, saw a major rise in popularity during this period too. His art has been pivotal in introducing the kawaii aesthetic to West, known for its pastel colours and cute characters. Consequently, Japanese art was omnipresent in the 90s, whether in the form of comics, games or paintings, so it is no surprise that it took root in the minds of Western artists. 

Today, French and American artists in particular are continuing this art form in their own way. They take significant inspiration from the characters and style of manga, yet combine them with Western influences. For example, you can find several artists on Artsper such as Caroline Maurel and Arno Metz, who have embraced this modern style of Japanese art in their works. 

So, having travelled from Japan to France and onto the United States, we can see that Japanese art has had a major influence on Western artists over the past two centuries. No doubt Japanese art will continue to be a rich source of inspiration for many years to come as they are pioneers of modern technology, which is becoming of ever-increasing popularity as a subject matter in contemporary art. But which art form inspires you the most? The intricacy of ukiyo-e prints, the striking nature of calligraphy or the storytelling of manga?