Japonism: This Is What Claude Monet’s Art Has in Common with Japanese Art

Claude Monet's paintings are prominent examples of how Japanese aesthetics have impacted Western art - a frenzy known as "Japonism". Read more about the love affair between Monet and Japan.

Sep 1, 2020By Marie-Joelle Eschmann, Sotheby’s Institute of Art Certificate
la japonaise claude monet
La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) by Claude Monet, 1876, via The Museum of Fine Arts Boston (left); with The Lily Water Pond by Claude Monet, 1900, via The Museum of Fine Arts Boston (right)


Claude Monet, like many other impressionist artists, had a deep interest in Japanese art. Its novelty and sophistication fascinated many Europeans. It was a real revelation since Japan had been completely isolated from the outside world for almost 200 years. During that time – spanning from the 17th to the 19th century – Japanese artists were able to develop a distinct artistic vocabulary that remained wholly untouched by external influences.


wind god thunder god tawaraya sotatsu
Wind God and Thunder God by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, 17th century, via Kyoto National Museum 


However, in 1852, Black Ships arrived in the bay of the city of Edo (modern Tokyo) and the U.S. navy forced the shogunate to finally open itself up for trade. For the first time in modern history, foreigners were able to enter the land of the rising sun. And for the first time, the Western world was exposed to the extraordinary paintings from the Rinpa School or to the fine, multicolored woodblock prints in the ukiyo style (engl. “the floating world”). 


the great wave off kanagawa
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830, via The British Museum, London 


The Impact Of Japanese Art On European Modern Art And Impressionism


It is believed that modern artist Gustave Courbet, who paved the way for the impressionist movement in France, must have seen the famous color woodcut The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai before painting a series of the Atlantic ocean during the summer of 1869. After Courbet had discovered Japanese art, it changed the painter’s understanding of aesthetics: While in the 19th century it was common for European artists to idealize the beauty of nature, Courbet instead decided to offer an intense vision of the stormy sea, tormented and disturbing, with all the savage power of natural forces at work. The vision that Courbet presented with his paintings must have deeply disturbed the academic traditionalists of the Salon de Paris – a well-established institution that dictated the norm for aesthetics in European art.


the stormy sea gustave courbet
The Stormy Sea (La mer orageuse) by Gustave Courbet, 1869, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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The influence that Japanese art had on European artists, however, was not limited to a handful of them. In fact, it became a wide-spread phenomenon that would later be defined as Japonism. This 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 Claude Monet. Between the 1860s and 1890s, Western artists would adopt Japanese codes and experiment with new techniques. They would also start integrating Japanese-style objects and decors into their paintings or adopting new formats, such as the vertical Kakemono.


woman with fans edouard manet
Woman with Fans by Edouard Manet, 1873, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


In addition, European artists would pay more attention to harmony, symmetry and to the composition of empty spaces. The latter was one of the most fundamental contributions of Japanese art in Europe. The ancient philosophy of Wabi-Sabi has deeply shaped aesthetics in Japan. For this reason, Japanese artists would always try to avoid overcharging their artworks, developing some sort of horror pleni (fear from the full). In Europe, on the contrary, a horror vacui (fear from the empty) has predominantly shaped the sense of beauty. Hence, the composition of empty spaces would provide artists with a new possibility of alluding to hidden meanings or sentiments. Impressionist painters were finally able to turn rivers, landscapes or even water lily ponds into poetic projection surfaces of an inner world. 


woman in the garden pierre bonnard painting
Woman in the Garden by Pierre Bonnard, 1891, in Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Introduction To Japanese Art


One day in 1871, legend has it, Claude Monet walked into a small food shop in Amsterdam. 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. The Paris-born artist went on to collect more than 200 Japanese prints throughout his lifetime, which had a great impact on his work. It is believed that he was by far one of the most influenced painters by Japanese art. However, while it is known that Claude Monet adored ukiyo-e, there are still major debates about how Japanese prints influenced him and his art. His paintings diverge from the prints in many aspects, but Monet knew how to be inspired without borrowing.


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Nihon Bridge Morning View, The Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido Road by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1834, via The Hiroshige Museum of Art, Ena 


After all, it is believed that Japanese art had a much more profound impact on the impressionist artist. What Claude Monet found in ukiyo-e, in Eastern philosophy and Japanese culture went beyond his art and permeated his whole life. For example, deeply admiring nature played a central role in Japanese culture. Inspired by it, Monet created a Japanese garden in his cherished home in Giverny. He turned a small, existing pond into an Asian-influenced water garden and added a Japanese-style wooden bridge. Then he started to paint the pond and its water lilies – and never stopped. 


claude monet water garden giverny
The water garden at Giverny, via Fondation Claude Monet, Giverny


The pond and the water lilies became the obsessive focus of his intense work and the resulting paintings would later become his most appreciated and well-known artworks. The artist, however, would consider his own garden to be the most beautiful masterpiece that he has ever created. “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers,” he would say. Or: “The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.”


It took me a long time to understand my water lilies…. I grew them without thinking of painting them…. And then, all of a sudden, I had the revelation of the enchantment of my pond. I took up my palette.

—Claude Monet, 1924


Claude Monet understood how to fuse Japanese motifs with his own impressionist palette and brushstrokes to establish a hybrid, transcendent understanding of nature’s primacy. He would develop his very own, distinct artistic style by concentrating on light, which was, in fact, the very subject of his canvases. It might perhaps be the main reason that Monet and his impressionist paintings – with his distinct take on Japanese art and culture – caught on early in Japan and remain ferociously popular there.


water lilies japanese bridge
Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet, 1899, via The Princeton University Art Museum 


Claude Monet And Japanese Art: An Everlasting Love Affair


The love affair that Claude Monet found with Japan remains powerful in modern Japan. After all, without a doubt, Monet is one of the most popular international artists on the island state. 


Perhaps one of the most important monuments that Japan has set for Claude Monet can be found in the Chichu Art Museum – a building that was designed by star architect Tadao Ando and that is placed in the midst of wild nature on a small island in the Seto Inland sea. Soichiro Fukutake – the billionaire heir of Japan’s largest educational publishing house “Benesse” – started to construct the museum in 2004 as part of a philanthropic project which should enable everyone to rethink the relationship between nature and people. Hence, the museum was built mostly underground to avoid affecting the beautiful natural scenery. 


chichu art museum
Aerial image of Chichu Art Museum, via medium.com 


The museum displays works from artists Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and Claude Monet as part of its permanent collection. However, the room in which Monet’s artworks are shown is the most breathtaking one. It exhibits five paintings from Monet’s Water Lilies series from the artist’s later years. The artworks can be enjoyed under natural light that changes the ambiance of the space and thus with the passage of time, throughout the day and all along the four seasons of the year, the appearance of the artworks changes, too. The size of the room, its design, and the materials used were carefully selected to unite the Monet’s paintings with the surrounding space.


claude monet water lilies chichu art museum
Monet’s Water Lilies in the glass-roofed room, via World-Architects 


The museum also went on creating a garden that consists of nearly 200 kinds of flowers and trees similar to those planted at Giverny by Claude Monet. Here, visitors can stroll around the flora ranging from the water lilies that Monet painted in his later years to willows, irises, and other plants. The garden aims to provide a tangible experience of the nature Monet sought to capture in his paintings. And since “the way to a man’s heart goes through his stomach”, the museum shop even offers cookies and jam based on the recipes left behind by Monet. 


The love affair between Claude Monet and Japan, after all, works both ways and with the Chichu Art Museum, this spark remains extremely bright today in modern Japan.


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By Marie-Joelle EschmannSotheby’s Institute of Art CertificateMarie-Joëlle works as a communication specialist and contributing writer. Originally from Switzerland, she is currently living in Istanbul from where she travels to ancient historical sites such as Ephesos in Turkey or Persepolis in Iran. She has a deep interest in art and art history and holds a certificate from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.