From the arrival of Perry's Black Ships in Tokyo's harbor in 1853, and particularly after the start of the Meiji era in 1868, international trade with Japan accellerated as if to compensate for years of national isolation. Most easily transported, mostly in the early days as packaging material, were the mass-produced ukiyo-e woodblock prints, exerted a considerable influence on the history of European painting and other visual arts. The word Japonisme was coined in an 1872 work about the art of contemporary France. The defining hallmarks of the style include flat colors, lack of perspective, and vertical composition, most originally introduced into the woodblock prints due to the technical limitations of the reproduction process. Ironically, just as ukiyo-e influences Western art it declined in Japan with with the sudden advent of photography and other new, foreign means of reproduction.

Four paintings by Sir Edward Burne-Jones: (from left to right) Laus Veneris, The Nativity, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, and The Heart of the Rose. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

One of the earliest adopters of elements of Japanese style in British art was Edward Burne-Jones; his stylistic tendencies varied considerably, and he produced many paintings even later in his career that did not wander far from the Pre-Raphaelite norms, but some continual traits are a compression of the depth of paintings visible to some degree in most of his paintings and dramatically in Laus Veneris (1873-5), Flodden Field (1882), and particularly in The Nativity (1887), which bears a strong resemblance to Japanese prints in its striking flatness preserved over a multi-stage vertical composition and the poses of the angels. Even at this late stage in his career he maintained a variety of modes, exhibiting the obviously Japanese-influenced King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884) in the same year he dated The Heart of the Rose (1889), a work without obvious Eastern influence in any particular. Japanse art most strongly shaped his Kelmscott Chaucer engravings and tapestries whose formats made them particularly suited to the form. Despite the strong force of Japanese influence on his career, Burne-Jones formed a unique style owing as much a debt to the Pre-Raphaelites as to the prints, and influenced younger artists, such as Aubrey Beardsley.

Two works by Beardsley: The Peacock Skirt and The Mysterious Rose Garden. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Beardsley's artistic career remains notable for its brevity and success; with less than a decade of productivity, and that before the peak of the Art Nouveau movement, his enduring popularity and association with the style remain as obvious as the influence of Japanese prints on his work. In his case this influence came even more from Burne-Jones than from the original prints themselves, but in his focus on monochromatic illustrations he pioneered the forms and lines that would later become common features of Art Nouveau while building on a solid base of Anglo-Japanese art. The famous Peacock Skirt develops motifs from Whistler's Peacock Room; "The Mysterious Rose Garden" contains both a flowing garment reminiscent of a kimono and that uniquely Burne-Jonesian gaze; all his drawings contain characteristic decorative patterns and devices contrasted with pools of empty space which find parallels in the fabrics of William Morris. As to original developments from the Japanese, the erotic engravings which shocked his Victorian audience were rather mild compared with the shunga they drew on; even Hokusai, prolific artist behind The Great Wave off Kanagawa, penned a number of drawings more explicit than anything Beardsley published, such as The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, featuring an unusually friendly octopus. Burne-Jones drew on Japonisme and left his mark as a painter; Beadsley cannot be taken as anything other than a masterful illustrator, and Sidney Sime followed in his footsteps.

Born into a poor family and working a coal mine in his early years, Sime enjoyed a less distinguished education than Sir Edward Burne-Jones or Aubrey Beardsley, but managed to put himself through art school with distinction and entered into the magazine illustration business around the same time as Beardsley did. Japanese imports were not restricted to the upper classes, but unlike his collaborator Lord Dunsany, who would remember and reference a performance of The Darling of the Gods, Sime had no particular point of Japanese influence, unless it were Lord Dunsany. His early magazine illustrations resemble more or less the convetional; his most Japanese drawings appear in his earliest collaborations with Dunsany. "Kai Laughed", from Time and the Gods (1906), features a giant with the bulging eyes and wrinkled skin of a Japanese ogre; "The Tomb of Morning Zai", from the same book, evokes Burne-Jones with a procession of identically clad, indistinguishable figures and a depthless composition set against an eerie non-landscape of mountains and ambiguous plant life; "How Shaun Found the Ultimate God" features a flat multi-stage composition similarly familiar. The slightly earlier "Slid", from The Gods of Pegana (1905), bears the greatest debt to Japanese influence, with recognizable wave crests, a decorative pattern of bubbles, and a subject seated and haloed in the manner of a Buddha. Hish, Lord of Silence from the same book carries traces of Beardsley in the curved back of the hunched figure, though the flat, mottled trees bear a resemblance to both Burne-Jones's alien flora and Alphonse Mucha's cut-out seeming plant life. Creating his best-known works after the deaths of the two earlier artists, Sime developed a style which owed more to their works than to the radically foreign style which inspired them.

The effects of the sudden influx of the severely stylized and fascinatingly unfamiliar ukiyo-e prints following the opening of Japan was felt throughout the majority of the Western artistic establishment, but the developments resulting from it were not what might be expected; the decline of the art in its native country, and the significant modifications made by Western artists with vastly different skill sets kept the results of its inspiration from being merely imitative, instead giving birth to a style as distinct in its European origins as in its Asian influences.


"Sir Edward Burne-Jones." The Victorian Web. Viewed 14 May, 2008.

"Aubrey Beardsley." The Victorian Web. Viewed 14 May, 2008.

Heneage, Simon and Henry Ford. Sidney Sime: Master of the Mysterious. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

Last modified 15 May 2008