Artwork La Japonaise by Claude Monet

Exhibited at an Impressionist group show in 1876, “La Japonaise” was intended to be a satirical comment on the Paris social trend for Japonisme or “all things Japanese.” The painting gained much attention for Claude Monet (1840-1926), but it was intended as biting satire and not a serious artistic subject matter.

While Monet himself was a fan of true Japanese art, this painting was a drastic contrast to the Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) he so admired. “La Japonaise,” like many of the paintings from this time in Monet’s life, features his wife, Camille who, in this full-sized portrait, wears a kimono and blonde wig  posing against a backdrop of “uchiwa” (paper fans).

Monet’s Love of Japanese Art

While his own commentary about the mass rush toward a kitsch version of Japan in “La Japonaise” (1876) bites with satire, Claude Monet’s sincere appreciation of Japanese art had a profound effect on his work. Legends about the artist hold that in 1871 Monet discovered Japanese art in Amsterdam, when he walked into a store one day, and some prints of Japanese work were being used to wrap goods from the store.

During the 1870s, Japan was flooding the European market with its goods, which appeared in stores throughout Paris, attracting the attention of artists (including Manet, Whistler, Degas, Pissarro, Van Gogh, among others). Monet himself began to explore Japanese art, collecting more than 200 prints during his lifetime, which graced the walls of his home at Giverny. He also built a Japanese-style garden with bridge there, made famous by his water lily paintings.

Among the famous Japanese prints that Monet collected are works of Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, and Ogata Korin. These included illustrations of classic Japanese novels, ferocious battle scenes, even depictions of Westerners in Yokohama, the busy Japanese port city.

This influence can be seen in the artist’s own work, whether of the water lilies of Giverny or snow scenes at Argenteuil, which mirror the Japanese artists’ fascination with Mount Fuji. Monet was trying to capture the light, line, and balance of color he saw in his Japanese prints onto his own canvases.

Japonisme

While Monet was exploring the beauty and grace of Japanese wood-block prints, the public was in thrall with all things Japanese, a trend labeled Japonisme by French Art Critic and Journalist Philippe Burty. All manner of Japanese handicrafts and art objects began saturating the markets of Europe (particularly Paris and Amsterdam) following the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. More than 200 years of Japanese isolation ended, and the public was introduced to Japan properly in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle. This sparked the trend of Japonisme, which Monet’s work mocks.

The Artist’s Model

The woman at the center of this painting, like in so many of the other Impressionists’ paintings (she was a model for Renoir, among others) was Camille-Leonix Doncieux. Of humble origins, she was a beautiful teenager when she met Monet and became his model and mistress. They eventually went on to marry and have two children, but she died very young (age 32).

“La Japonaise” is one of the last appearances of Camille in Monet’s paintings. She also graces such works of Monet’s as “Woman in the Garden” and “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.”

While “La Japonaise” was later considered by Artist Claude Monet to be “trash,” it points to an important period in European social history (the opening of Japan and its influence in popular culture). It also serves as an indicator of Monet’s own love for Japanese art, which would strongly influence his own artwork for years to come. To Monet, Japonisme degraded the true genius of Japanese art, and that was the message he was seeking to impart by his own painting.