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Western Artists Encounter Japan

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet of “Black Ships” sailed into Edo Bay and irrevocably altered Japan’s history. The Tokugawa government was forced to abandon the isolationist policy that had kept most foreigners out for more than two centuries. By the end of the decade, treaties between the United States and several European countries opened Japanese ports, allowing access to culture, art and goods that had been, until then, largely unknown to the West. 

This new exchange created a hunger for all things Japanese, transforming imports from the country into trendy, must-have items. Woodblock prints, bronzes, lacquer ware and other goods from Japan were available in shops, galleries and also a series of hugely popular World's Fairs. These items quickly came to fascinate Western artists who sought alternatives to the conservative styles of the day. 

Through Looking East, you’ll discover the aspects of Japanese art that awakened interest in the West, asymmetric designs, unusual high or low viewpoints, brightly colored shapes and dark outlines among them. “My whole work,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in an 1888 letter, “is founded on the Japanese.” 

Suido Bridge and Surugadai
Suido Bridge and Surugadai, 1857, by Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797–1858). Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.36876.34.

Carp banners in Kyoto
Carp banners in Kyoto, 1888, by Louis Dumoulin (French, 1860–1924). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fanny P. Mason Fund in memory of Alice Thevin, 1986.582.

Western artists were among the early visitors to Japan, and their pictures of its people, architecture and scenery also informed European and American views of the island nation. Louis Dumoulin’s 1888 painting Carp banners in Kyoto depicts light-dappled celebratory carp banners streaming over the city. Looking East presents this painting alongside a Japanese woodblock print with a similar theme, suggesting how Dumoulin’s work blended inspiration from Japanese art with his own travel memories, photographs and a healthy dose of imagination.