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Women As Subjects And Artists

Early on, the passion for Japanese goods and aesthetics took hold among women, who were, in the mid-to-late 1800s, increasingly active in society and gaining financial power. Keeping up with the latest trends, women bought Japanese silks and decorated their homes with “curiosities” such as fans and folding screens. 

Beginning in the 1860s, paintings and prints of European women in imported kimonos were among the first Japan-inspired works of art in the West. Some works of this type depict their female subjects as inhabitants of an imagined, exotic land. Pictures of women dressed in the kimono-style “dressing gowns” and “tea gowns” worn to entertain intimate friends and admirers conveyed that these subjects were chic and fashionable, perhaps suggesting that they were sensual creatures as well. 

Otome
Otome, approx. 1818–1823, by Kikukawa Eizan (Japanese, 1787–1867). Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.17766.

Maternal Caress Caresse maternelle
Maternal Caress (Caresse maternelle), approx. 1902, by Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Miss Aimee Lamb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb, 1970.252.

Looking East explores how Japanese artists’ frank portrayal of the everyday activities of their female subjects, from combing their hair to cuddling their children, impacted Western artists, including a number of women. Mary Cassatt, who collected prints by Hiroshige, Hokusai and others, was a huge fan of Japanese art, and her excitement about it changed her trajectory as an artist. “You must see the Japanese,” she urged a fellow painter in 1890, “come as soon as you can.” In Cassatt’s Maternal Caress (about 1902), she appears to draw on both the formal devices and subject matter of Japanese woodblock prints such as Otome (1818-1823).