“After Corot, Claude Monet is the artist who has made the most inventive and original contribution to landscape painting… Among our landscape painters [he] was the first to have the boldness to go as far as the Japanese in the use of colour… Let us now watch Claude Monet as he takes up his brush. To do so we must accompany him into the fields and face being burnt by the blazing sun, or we must stand with him knee-deep in snow — for despite the season he leaves his studio and works outdoors, under the open sky.” Théodore Duret, 1880
Of all Monet's works it is perhaps his effets de neige that most immediately and specifically evoke his known admiration for Japanese prints. It may be simply that certain aspects of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts — their striking compositions, simplified contours, vivid colour, and the immediacy with which they suggest nature in every aspect of every season of the year — find no counterpart in Western painting before Monet. It may also be that the world described by the Japanese artists is the world of everyday life, not symbolic, anecdotal, or burdened with social or political commentary but simply observed. In these observations, no season, no time of day, no aspect of human experience or the natural world went unnoticed.
In Western art, despite the precedent of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Netherlandish painting, the least explored of all nature's manifestations was the subject of snow in its myriad aspects. The Impressionists, and above all Monet, determined to record the complete spectrum: deep snow in brilliant sunshine, creating the bluest of blue shadows; snow under a low, grey winter sky that shrouds nature in a single so deep in snow that all details are obscured, evoking a silent world; tonality; landscapes even snow melting along a country road at sunset; or, perhaps most striking, a sky filled with snow falling. Of all the Impressionists, Monet painted the largest number of snowscapes and the greatest variety of site, time of day, quality of light, and quality of snow itself. He was not only interested in a relatively traditional conception of a snowy landscape, but he found beauty in unexpected phenomena of winter. He brought to his apes his desire to experiment both with new technique and with formal invention. Only in the realm of nineteenth-century Japanese prints could Monet find a variety of compositional approaches to snowscapes and a poetic interpretation of the subject that could be continually relevant and inspiring to his own.
When Monet died, he left behind in his house at Giverny an extraordinary personal collection of Japanese woodcut prints. These are the images that he chose to live with, and they covered virtually every wall in his house. A total of 231 prints constitute the collection he assembled over a period of decades; they hang in bedrooms and hallways, upstairs and down. In his dining room alone he had fifty-six prints, many double- or triple-hung. His embrace of Japanese art and culture extended, of course, to the remarkable garden that he created at Giverny, with its pong, water lilies, and Japanese footbridge, which showed his talent for choosing aspects of Japanese art and culture to incorporate into his creative purpose. Here he could exist in a world of his own invention that combined elements of East and West and provided him with endless motifs for his final years. Although Monet’s paintings, like his world, are ultimately more Western than Eastern, they constantly remind us of his delight in the Japanese aesthetic.
“It required the presence of Japanese prints for one of us to dare to sit by the edge of a river and juxtapose a bright red roof, a white fence, a green poplar, a yellow road and blue water on a canvas. Before Japan, this was impossible. The painter always lied.” Théodore Duret, author of Voyage en Asie (1874), collector of Impressionist paintings and Japanese books and prints, and close friend of Monet’s, 1878
While Monet’s admiration for Japanese prints is indisputable and widely recognised, the degree to which these prints influenced his own work is variously interpreted by scholars. While some feel that a case for direct, even specific, influence can easily be made, others believe that Monet and his fellow Impressionist only found in these woodcuts reaffirmation of a path they had already taken. When did Monet first discover Japanese prints, and what conclusions can we draw from a study of his art in light of this enthusiasm? We do not know precisely when he first saw them or when he began to collect them. However, his interest in and awareness of Japanese prints came first and could have been sufficient to have some effect on his work. Monet himself recalled that he first encountered them while living in Zaandam, Holland, in 1871. He later revised his recollection, stating that it had been earlier, but considerable uncertainty surrounds any precise earlier date. It seems likely, however, that he would have been aware of Japanese prints by the mid-1860s and certainly conscious of the first occasion when Japanese art was formally and extensively presented in Paris at the Exposition Universelle of 1867, which established a fashion for things Japanese.
Commodore Matthew Perry's trip in 1854 to Japan reopened its ports to the Western world and in so doing opened the door to travel and cultural exchange that altered the history of Japan's relations with the United States and Europe. After two centuries of isolation, Japan became a subject of enormous fascination, and as Westerners traveled to Japan, so the Japanese left to explore the West. By 1859 they were arriving in increasing numbers in Paris. As early as 1856, Félix Braquemond discovered Hokusai's Manga and introduced fellow printmakers to this art. Another source suggests that facsimiles of Japanese woodcuts were made in Paris as early as 1861 by a printer called Caillet in the rue Jacob. By the early 1860s several shops carrying Japanese wares had opened in Paris including La Porte Chinoise and L'Empire Chinois. According to Ernest writing on ‘Le Japon à Paris' for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, it was the artists and men of letters who first embraced Japanese art and who established a taste for Japan in the French capital. Enthusiasm for this newly discovered culture caught on quickly. Having begun in artistic circles, it soon spread to fashionable households.
It's no longer a fashion, it's infatuation, it's madness" Ernest Chesneau, 1878
The excitement over Japanese art began with decorative arts, and by the 1860s a widespread and keen interest in objects from porcelain to screens, kimonos to fans, had taken hold in Paris. The art of the period attests to it in abundance. A famous example, Manet’s 1868 Portrait of Emile Zola (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) depicts the writer seated at a desk with a Japanese screen behind him and a print of a Japanese wrestler on the wall, and confirms the presence and importance of these works in avant-garde artistic circles. A fascination with Japan informed not only the art of Whistler and Manet, but that of every artist who felt compelled to bring some token of the Japanese folie to the studio. Such accoutrements made their way into many a conservative portrait or interior. Chesneau reported that an enthusiasm for things Japanese was sweeping through all the studios. The Société japonaise du Jinglar, a group of artists and writers including Philippe Burty, Zacharie Astruc, Félix Braquemond, and Henri Fantin-Latour, gathered monthly to dine à la japonaise, off plates with Japanese motifs, and drinking wine like Sake. Hachette's book store was filled with books describing voyages to Japan, and Japanese themes infiltrated the theater, the opera, and the ballet. By 1878, describing the Exposition Universelle, Chesneau observed: 'We have seen in a very short time the consignments in the Japanese section on the Champ de Mars carried off by our collectors at fabulously high prices. It's no longer a fashion, it's infatuation, it's madness.’
Japanese mania reached a crescendo in the 1880s and 1890s, and by 1893 there were so many fervent collectors (‘les fervents de Japonisme’) that according to Le Figaro Illustré, Japanese objects had become difficult to collect.In the same issue, the situation was described, “Tout est au Japonisme à present.” Certainly among the intelligentsia, however, the movement was well established by the time Philippe Burty called it ‘Japonisme’ in 1872. Against this backdrop of intense discovery and delight in the Japanese aesthetic, the art of Monet and the Impressionists emerged.
As early as 1874, so thoroughly had the aesthetic of Japan penetrated the thinking and responses not only of artists but of writers and critics, that when Jules Castagnary reviewed the first Impressionist exhibition on 29 April of that year, he referred to ‘the epithet of Japanese, which was applied to [the Impressionists] at first.’ He went on to say that a more appropriate characterisation would be ‘Impressionist’. It is revealing that these artists’ work was labeled Japanese as a way of defining its novelty even before the term ‘Impressionist’ was thought of. In both cases, it appears in to have been Monet’s work that Castagnary had specifically in mind. Interestingly enough, in the same article he remarked upon Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines and a vantage point from which to view it that he ‘couldn’t find’. While he may have been commenting upon Monet’s exceptionally spontaneous execution of the work and its sketchy appearance, the artist’s viewpoint, looking down on the boulevard, was also an element of its novelty. It is precisely such a composition seen from an elevated point of view that owed a good deal to the ideas that had begun to emerge from a familiarity with Japanese prints.
Monet’s snowscapes of 1865 and 1867 show little evidence of Japanese inspiration. By 1874, however, elements of a Japanese approach seem to have entered into his thinking. Since no records exist of the precise dates when Monet acquired his Japanese woodcuts, it is impossible to ascertain at what point he may have seen or owned any specific work. Rather, the prints cited here are to be considered examples of works that he might have seen at any time before he acquired them. Moreover, many aspects of their composition and choice of subject generally characterise Japanese prints, and therefore could have been observed by Monet in other works. For example, the composition of Hiroshige’s Two Ladies Conversing in the Snow which looks both down on the river that flows through the centre of the image and up the snowy embankment to the side, bears comparison with Monet’s Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter of 1875. In both scenes the composition is clearly organised in three sections, the central one establishing spatial recession and leading the eye into depth as the passages on either side return the eye to the surface, bringing the subject to the immediate foreground. In the work by Hiroshige, the third figure that proceeds through the snow on the right is cut off by the frame in a manner that we associate with photography but which is typical of many Impressionist works that owe a great deal to Japanese ideas. The motif of the bridge used to create a bold or dramatic composition, so common in Japanese art, was also embraces enthusiastically by certain Impressionists, especially Monet and Sisley. These artists found many of their subjects on the river Seine, where they had an ideal opportunity to apply the Japanese inspiration to the subject of bridges, frequently depicted in Japanese woodcuts.
Of all the initial ‘Impressionist’ painters (including Manet, Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin and Charles-François Dubigny), Gustave Courbet set the most visible example that Monet followed. In the winter of 1866-67, Courbet painted approximately twenty snowy landscapes, some of which were put on view at the Place de l’Alma to coincide with the Exposition Universelle. Courbet was well-known across the world, with his work on view even in Boston in the 1860s. Despite this, Monet’s exposure to the Japanese style broke his work off from Courbet’s trend, and his image of figures in the snow, The Red Cape, is as far removed from Courbet’s version of the same subject as could be whilst remaining under the same umbrella term of Impressionism. Courbet’s 1867 painting of The Poor Woman of the Village depicts a woman trudging through the snow of the barren landscape, bent double over the weight of a bundle of sticks. She leads a goat behind her, whilst a young child steps ambitiously ahead of her. Two small houses are visible in the background, and a tree, stripped bare of its leaves, provides a reminder of the harsh effects of winter.
Whilst Courbet, along with Paulène Bourges and her Winter scene, uses a convention to depict the traditional peasant narrative of winter, Monet shows a very different approach with his painting of his wife Camille in the snow outside the window. It focuses on the mundane and transitory effects of every day life, as she passes from one window pane to the other, her eyes magically looking directly at him. The likeness of this to Utagawa Kunisada’s Winter, in Monet’s collection at Giverny, rather than Paulène Bourges’ Winter is impossible to overlook, with a prototypical depiction both of female beauty and of a winter scene connecting the lively, contemporary Winter to The Red Cape. Another of Hiroshige’s prints in Monet’s collection, titled Asasuka Ricefields during the Cock Festival, may have prompted Monet to think of framing his subject through a window, as is achieved in The Red Cape; equally, Katsushika Hosukai’s 1831-32 Reconstruction of the Ponto de Sano in the Province of Kozuke likely inspired the composition of many of Monet’s snowscapes, for example View of Argenteuil - Snow, to include, slightly unusually, the umbrella. Additionally, in Monet’s collection of Ukiyo-e prints there are at least twelve snow scenes, with half of those showing falling snow. Although common in Japanese art, precipitation was rarely shown in Western art, and the sudden emergence of falling snow in Impressionist art seems like an uncanny coincidence. The great Camille Pissarro remarked, ‘These Japanese confirm my belief in our vision.’
These Japanese confirm my belief in our vision" - Camille Pissarro
An early example of snow falling is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 1567 Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, where large white flakes delicately sprinkle the canvas on which the biblical scene takes place. Additionally, nineteenth-century popular illustrations include descriptions of snowfall. The concept of precipitation is conjured up in these examples, but it is not until Monet that it becomes palpable. His snowflakes are irregular, dotted about the canvas in as random a configuration as mathematics allows the human hand to possess, and in varying sizes and shapes. The air in The Red Cape encapsulates erratic space, subject to movement away from the figure as she skims through it.
Ukiyo-e prints were clearly produced indoors, often based on sketches made in nature, whilst Monet would almost always have ventured outdoors to paint his works, as the only Impressionist to frequently be depicted at his easel in a plein air setting. He went even further than just this, for the sake of his works. When a work was not completed in a single sessions, he often sought to return to a specific view and quality of light, only to find it irretrievably altered by weather. He would complain about the rain changing the colour of the river, and in early spring he grumbled, ‘this darned rain is going to turn everything green.’ In January 1885, he wrote to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, ‘I am in the snow up to my neck; I have a whole series of paintings in progress; I have only one fear, that the weather may change.’ In January of the following winter, he again wrote to him from Giverny, ‘I am working in the snow.’ Several years later, in 1889, he wrote to Alice Hoschedé, expressing his astonishment and distress at a sudden snowstorm in late March, ‘It’s most distressing, it’s snowing today… It’s snowing just enough to interfere with my work, but not enough to tempt me to represent it… and yet if it goes on snowing after lunch, I will try to make something of it.’
Monet is said to have painted outside in temperatures of minus thirty degrees Celsius. He wrote to Gustave Geoffrey from Norway on 26 February 1896: ‘Dear friend, a brief note just to assure you of my fate, so that you don’t suppose that I have died from the cold… I have never suffered, to the great amazement of the Norwegians, who are more sensitive to the cold than I am!’. He concluded: ‘Everything is frozen and covered with snow. One should live here for a year in order to accomplish something of value… I painted today, a part of the day, in the snow, which falls endlessly. You would have laughed if you could have seen me completely white, with icicles hanging from my beard like stalactites.’
Whilst in Norway, he painted many works of Mount Kolsaas, a site that provided him with the closest comparable subject to Mount Fuji, whose profile is so known through the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige. In another letter to Blanche Hoschedé he described similarities he perceived between the Norwegian landscape and that of Japan, even saying, ‘I am working on a view of Sandviken that resembles a Japanese village; then I’m doing a mountain that one sees from everywhere here and which makes me think of Fuji-Yama.’
Eliza E. Rathbone, "Monet, Japonisme, and Effets de Neige" in Impressionists in Winter (Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd: London, 1998)
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.