The broad principles of art are much the same all the world over; but it is between the lesser artists of Japan and the myriads of comparatively unknown artists of Europe that there is so great a gulf fixed. Japanese minor artists are artists indeed. Our minor artists are, I fear, anything but artists. The veriest Japanese craftsman is an artist first and a tradesman afterwards. Ours is a tradesman first and last and altogether; and even as a tradesman he is, I fear, a failure, for the honest tradesman has at least something worth the selling, whilst our men — the jerry builder, the plumber, the furniture maker, and the carpenter — give in return for solid money an article which it would break the heart of the merest artisan in Japan to put forward as the work of his hands. But perhaps nowhere is the difference between European and Japanese art so sharply accentuated as it is in the teaching of it in the great schools of the East and of the West. We Westerners are taught to draw direct from the object or model before us on the platform, whereas the Japanese are taught to study every detail of their model, and to store their brains with impressions of every curve and line, afterwards to go away and draw that object from memory. This is a splendid training for the memory and the eye, as it teaches one both to see and to remember — two great considerations in the art of drawing. You will often see a little child sitting in a garden in Japan gazing attentively for perhaps a whole hour at a bowl of goldfish, watching the tiny bright creatures as they circle round and round in the bowl. Remarking on some particular pose, the child will retain it in its busy brain, and, running away, will put down this impression as nearly as it can remember. Perhaps on this first occasion he is only able to put in a few leading lines; very soon he is at a loss — he has forgotten the curve of the tail or the placing of the eye. He toddles back and studies the fish again and again, until perhaps after one week’s practice that child is able to draw the fish in two or three different poses from memory without the slightest hesitation or uncertainty.

It is this certainty of touch and their power to execute these bold, sweeping, decided lines that form the chief attraction of Japanese works of art. Their wrists are supple; the picture in their minds is sure; they have learnt it line for line; it is merely the matter of a few minutes for an artist to sketch in his picture. There are no choppy hesitating lines such as one detects in even the finest of our Western pictures, lines in which you can plainly see how the artist has swerved first to the right and then to the left, correcting and erasing, uncertain in his touch. The lines will probably be correct in the end; but when the picture is finished his work has not that bright crisp look so characteristic of the Japanese pictures. Then, again, when a Japanese artist draws a bird, he begins with the point of interest — which, let us say, is the eye. The brilliant black eye of a crow fixed upon a piece of meat attracts his attention; he remembers it, and the first few strokes that he portrays upon his stretched silk is the eye of the bird. The neck, the legs, the body — everything radiates and springs from that bright eye just as it does in the animal itself. [52-54]


Menpes, Dorothy. Japan: A Record in Colour. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1901. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 14 July 2019.

Created 14 July 2019