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Motifs from Nature

Images of the natural world — butterflies, turtles, flowers and birds of all kinds — featured prominently in the Japanese prints, lacquer ware, textiles, bronzes and ceramics that saturated Western markets in the late 1800s. Western artists found inspiration in these nature-based motifs, and they became hallmarks of several major artistic movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as Art Nouveau. 

Textile stencil
Textile stencil, 1800–1900. Japan, Edo period (1615–1868) or Meiji period (1868–1912). Cut mulberry paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, RES.11.748.
Printmaking, poster design and photography had previously been considered minor or commercial arts as compared to painting and sculpture. The growing popularity of these mediums coincided with artists’ increasing use of elements from a Japanese vocabulary of stylized natural motifs. 

References to nature, like crackled ice or abstract flower patterns, were embraced by both artists and collectors and were increasingly included in chic interior designs. In the same spirit, it became fashionable for gardens to be equipped with stone lanterns, trailing wisteria and bamboo gates, elements that brought a Japanese vision of the natural world into domestic life in the West. 

Looking East
includes a selection of household items, such as an elegant tea set and a Tiffany “Grapevine” letter rack, that evoke the West’s enchantment with Japanese approaches to depicting motifs from nature.

Letter rack from the Grapevine desk set
Letter rack from the Grapevine desk set, 1900–1920, by Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933). Manufactured by Tiffany Studios. Metal and glass. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Anonymous gift in memory of John G. Pierce, Sr., RES.65.60.