The End of Seclusion

Japan’s Influence on European Art and Design

It was in the summer of 1853 that the American Commodore, Matthew Perry, first arrived in Edo (modern day Tokyo). With four ships at his back, the Commodore had come to demand that Japan open up trade routes with the United States. Although his efforts were frustrated this time, when he returned a year later with an entire fleet the ruling Shoguns saw no other choice than to accept his demands, and so, after over 200 years of self imposed isolation, Japan opened its borders.

Wood Block print depicting Commodore Perry (centre) and other high ranking American officers.

Over the following years trade routes were established with other Western nations, exposing the weaknesses of the ruling Tokugawa shoguns and ultimately inspiring a revolution which sought to restore Japan to Imperial rule. This goal was realised in 1868 when Prince Mutsuhito was made Emperor. The Prince chose to take the word “Meiji” as his name (meaning “enlightened government”) and the radical modernisation of Japan began.


As soon as trade was opened the discovery of the Japanese style began to have a dramatic effect on European forms of art, design and architecture. In Paris, the Impressionists were influenced by “ukiyo-e” wood prints and the Japanese artists’ use of flat areas of bold colour, whilst in Britain, exponents of the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements greatly admired the Japanese sense of craftsmanship.

In the 1860’s exhibitions were held in London and Paris to display these newly discovered Japanese artefacts, and it was here that British designers from the Aesthetic movement were first exposed to Japanese art and design.

The Aesthetic movement developed from the Arts and Crafts movement which had been pioneered by William Morris as a reaction against the machine made products of the industrial revolution. Unlike the views of John Ruskin who had influenced Morris in starting the Arts and Craft movement, the Aesthetic movement was based upon the idea that art should serve no purpose other than to be beautiful. The artists and designers of the Aesthetic movement rejected the idea that art should have a moral and a social purpose and instead believed in “art for art’s sake”.

The influence of these Japanese artefacts on British designers led to the birth of a parallel movement known as the “Anglo-Japanese” style which combined these designers’ admiration for Japanese craftsmanship with their rejection of the division of labour and machine made products. One important exponent of the Anglo-Japanese style was the architect and designer Edward William Godwin who produced several pieces of furniture in this style during the 1860‘s.

“Anglo-Japanese designs by E.Godwin”

However, one of the most important figures in British design at the time was Christopher Dresser, an advocate of Japanese design who also worked as an art advisor for Londos, a company that imported Japanese goods. Born in Glasgow in 1834, Dresser became one of Britain’s most prolific designers and is commonly regarded as one of the first independent industrial designers. He established his own studio in 1860 and produced work for more than fifty manufacturers including the likes of Wedgwood and Minton. To begin with his work was highly decorative and ornamental but after visiting Japan in 1876 Dresser’s perceptions changed.

As part of the Meiji restoration the Japanese government invited Western experts to visit their country and Dresser was sent on behalf of the South Kensington Museum to advise the Japanese on the future of manufacturing. While he was there Dresser toured the country visiting manufacturers, potteries and craftsmen and had his eyes opened to the “unadorned beauty of the everyday”. Upon returning from Japan he published his book “Japan; Its Architecture, Art and Art-Manufactures” and his work evolved from the previously elaborate designs into a style which was much more sophisticated. Dresser’s new style showed that the form of an object alone could be aesthetically pleasing without the need for excessive ornamentation.

Above is a vase Dresser designed for the manufacturer Minton & Co in 1862. The vase is typical of Dresser’s style before he visited Japan. Highly ornamented, the vase has elaborately shaped legs and is gilded and decorated with flowers. To the right is one of Dresser’s most famous pieces, a teapot which he designed in 1879 after returning from Japan. The design of the teapot shows a dramatic departure from his earlier decorative style. In the design of this teapot Dresser has been sensitive to both the material and the manufacturing method. The simple geometric form is sensitive to the material in that the metal has been formed into a box-like shape requiring just a few simple bends and welds, rather than being forced into any elaborate shapes like some of his earlier metal work. The design is almost completely free of any ornamentation, apart from the handle on the lid, and the only real element of decoration is the silver-plating of the nickel which is a huge contrast to the multiple glazes and painting seen on the earlier vase.


Previously, in 1867 an exhibition of Japanese art was shown at the World’s Fair in Paris, introducing impressionist painters such as Edgar Degas to the simplified style of wood block artists such as Hokusai and Yoshitoshi Taiso. The most influential prints were those in the “ukiyo-e” style which quickly became fashionable collector’s items and in 1872 the French critic Philippe Burty coined the term “Japonisme” to describe this new cult of collecting Japanese art.

“Ukiyo-e” translates as “pictures of the floating world”. The “floating world” is a term which refers to districts of the city of Edo (now Tokyo) which were devoted to the “pleasure-seeking” aspects of the Japanese lifestyle. During the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled, the law of “Sakoku” was imposed which meant that no foreigners could enter Japan and any Japanese citizens caught trying to leave the country could be sentenced to death. Since travel was not an option, new pastimes originated and were mainly restricted to these districts which became home to brothels, tea houses and many Kabuki theatres.

“Ukiyo-e” prints were made by carving into wooden blocks to produce a negative relief of an artists drawing which would then be inked and printed onto paper. This method allowed for images to be reproduced and printed in large quantities meaning that they were readily available and cheap enough for the general townspeople who could not afford original paintings. Due to the printing method, ukiyo-e prints were characterised by their use of simplified forms with bold outlines and large areas of flat colour.

In Paris the impressionists were inspired by the lack of shadow and the composition of these prints. Previously, the traditional way of composing a painting was to situate the subject in the centre of the image in order for it to command the full attention of the viewer, but ukiyo-e prints often place the subject to one side and arrange the image diagonally rather than horizontally. The influence of this Japanese art form can easily be seen in the un-traditional composition of many impressionist paintings, particularly Degas’ “Dance class” (1874) and “The Absinthe Drinker” (1876) which both make use of a diagonal arrangement and position the subjects off centre and looking away from the viewer. The influence can also be seen later in the simplified, bold posters of the Art Nouveau movement.

The image on the left is “Cooling off at Shijo” an 1885 Yoshitoshi print from a series of prints called “100 aspects of the moon” and on the right is a poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from 1892. When seen next to each other the influence of ukiyo-e on the style of art nouveau is quite clear. Toulouse-Lautrec has made use of many of the stylistic characteristics of a ukiyo-e print in that the table and diners are arranged diagonally form the bottom left to the top right of the image. Toulouse-Lautrec has also used large areas of flat colour such as the table cloth, the green typography and the yellow background. Other aspects of the poster which are clearly influenced by ukiyo-e prints are the simplified forms and bold outlines. For example the men’s jackets are simply black shapes, the faces are free of fine detail and a green line clearly defines the edge of the table.