The striking influence — and beauty — of the woodblock print ‘Japanesque’ on view at the Legion of Honor


“View of Matsushima and Mt. Tomi in Mutsu Province,” from Utagawa Hiroshige’s series on “Pictures of Famous Places in the Sixty-Odd Provinces” ” © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris photos by Andrew Fox

A woman lounging in a richly colored kimono. A flowering plum tree, framed in scrawled kanji characters. A writer in his studio, a screen painted with tiny birds behind him. While these images might certainly be found in Japanese art, they are also the subjects of paintings created in the late 1800s by James Whistler, Vincent van Gogh, and Edouard Monet, inspired by the sudden, and immense, influence of Japanese woodblock prints. “Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism,” on view until Jan. 9 at the Legion of Honor, vividly illustrates the evolution of the Japanese woodblock print and how profoundly this style of art affected the West.

The exhibition’s first gallery offers an explanation of the complicated process of creating a woodblock print, a feat involving not just a single artist, but of several artisans. In a process that grew popular in Edo (today’s Tokyo) in the 1700s, a publisher commissioned an artist to draw a work on a certain theme, which would then be passed on to the carver, who created a mirror image and then painstakingly etched it into the wood. Finally, a printer pressed the images, which, for colored works, involves layering a series of perfectly aligned blocks, each cut to add specific shapes and colors. The exhibition’s portrayal of this process is clear and compelling; a series of progressive proofs show how the different layers of color — grey, beige, various tones of blue — meld together to create an ocean scene, with dark sky and mountains behind.

Hiroshige’s “Naito, New Station at Yotsuya” from the series “One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo”” © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris photos by Andrew Fox

When commercial agreements were established in the mid-1850s, Japanese prints began to become available to the French. By the 1860s, they were commonplace, and Japanese textiles and decorative arts became frequent elements of paintings, with Europeans beginning to mimic Japanese styles. The exhibition shows several European and Japanese works side by side, and the influence is clear. Europeans traditionally painted scenes as if the viewer were watching from straight in front of the action. But the Japanese artists made use of unique points of view: from up high, down low, or diagonal, as in a street scene viewed from in between a horse’s legs or an oceanscape from between the arm and leg of an oarsman, placing the viewer with him on the boat.

Japanese influence affected the content of the Impressionist’s paintings as well. While European artists in previous generations depicted the noble, grand and famous, Japanese woodblock prints featured the mundane and everyday, which was enthusiastically embraced by the Impressionists. A painting by Mary Cassatt, who saw an exhibition of woodblocks in 1870 and borrowed extensively from the images she came to adore, shows a dressmaker fitting a client, two beautiful women bathed in light, but nonetheless a mundane situation. Next to it, we see an earlier print by Isoda Koryusai of a woman being fitted for her wedding kimono. Though the garb and room décor reflect vastly different traditions, the image of two women in a similar pose clearly shows Cassatt’s embrace of this more humble subject matter.

The exhibition features an array of dazzling woodcut works by Japanese masters, with a variety of subject matters — magnificent landscapes, bustling street scenes, women in elaborate kimono sipping from teacups. Their vibrant colors — including, in later works, Prussian blue, an influence, in this case, from the Europeans on the Japanese — remain rich and lush, despite their age.

One of the most delightful displays is a juxtaposition of one of the most obvious European mimicries of Japanese woodcut works. French artist Henri Riviere, inspired by his country’s new creation – at 986 feet, then the tallest manmade structure in the world — created a lithograph book entitled “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower” (1902), displayed in this exhibition alongside its inspiration, Katsushika Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (1826-1833). Like Hokusai’s classic and oft-reproduced works – 31 of which are collected in this exhibition – Riviere captures his subject from a variety of angles: in extreme close-up with a worker astride one of its bars, a sharp tip over a bustling Paris street, a tiny nib behind a garden with a gander of geese in the forefront.

Henri Riviere’s “The Tower under Construction, As Seen from the Trocadero” from the book “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower” © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris photos by Andrew Fox

The last gallery holds newer works, including pieces by several American artists who studied the art of woodblock printing in Japan. Katharine Van Dyke Harker’s “Late Afternoon” (1926-27), for example, depicts Mt. Tamalpais framed by forked branches, a clear homage to one of Hokusai’s Mt. Fuji views.

Scheduled to complement the de Young Museum’s presentation of paintings from the Musée d’Orsay, many of which evidence a Japanese artistic influence, audiences are offered free same-day admission to “Japanesque” with their ticket to that exhibition. But, with about 250 prints, drawings, and artists’ books, this exhibition is certainly worth its own leisurely visit, to consider both Japanese woodblock prints and European paintings in a new way, and to simply enjoy these works’ stunning beauty.

The Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is located at Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9:30 a.m., until 5:15 p.m., and closed Mondays. The museum is closed on all major holidays. For more information, including admission, call (415) 750-3600 or visit

One response to “The striking influence — and beauty — of the woodblock print ‘Japanesque’ on view at the Legion of Honor”

  1. arun Avatar

    european painters gives variety of painting .we feel european painters painting.

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