Gemma Conine, Art 109 Modern Art, TTH One of the most influential artists of the Modern Period of art was James Whistler. Whistler was an accomplished printer and painter and a brief background of the painter allows us to understand Whistler, and why more than any artist of his time, he would be attracted to Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo-e. It is also essential to understand the essence of Ukiyoe, Japanese aesthetics and its migration to the Western world. Additionally, a chronological selection of Whistler’s works must be analyzed showing how he integrated the lessons he learned from his exposure to Ukiyo-e.
Ukiyo-e literally means “pictures of the floating world”. They were mass produced woodblock prints which depicted various scenes of everyday Japanese life. yo-e artists and their patrons favored three main subjects: beautiful women-especially the courtesans of the pleasure quarters, the Kabuki Theater and erotica (Shuga). In the 19th century, landscape prints also became popular”1. The Ukiyo-e artists utilized bright blocks of color, bold lines, unusual points of view, and asymmetrical designs (1). In 1853, Commodore Perry USN sailed into Tokyo Harbor.
A year later on March 31, 1854, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed which effectively opened Japan to the world. Items like the Ukiyo-e prints became more available to the Western world. They were so prevalent that they were used as packing material for other imported items like porcelain. At about this time, Realism and Naturalism had reached their peaks and artists were looking for renewed inspiration. Imported Japanese decor and art gave artists like Whistler the stimulation they needed which is evident in the art he produced after 1863.
Whistler was one of the first artists to take Ukiyo-e woodblock prints from Japan and incorporate not only the actual decorative items into his paintings, but their aesthetics and formal elements. Whistler’s artistic background begins as a draftsman in the Drawing Division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Society. After being transferred to the etching department it is here he learns how to bite a copperplate for etching. This skill served him well for the duration of his life. His background and experience as a printer may have given him a greater appreciation for Japanese woodblock prints, techniques and qualities.
Whistler arrived in Paris as a student of painting in 1855 and was undoubtedly exposed to Ukiyo-e since they were common and French Impressionists he associated with were attracted by the Ukiyo-e “genre themes, bright colors, flattened shapes, unconventional spatial effects and asymmetrical compositions. ” 2 While he was in Paris he frequented a shop called La Porte Japonaise, where he purchased fans, woodcuts and blue and white porcelains. He also combed the shops of Amsterdam and Rotterdam for Oriental artifacts.
Whistler’s mother wrote to a letter to a friend in 1864 which stated James Whistler “considers the paintings upon them (fans, woodcuts, porcelains) the finest specimens of art. ” 3 Whistler painted La Princess du pays de la Porcelaine (Fig. 1) between 1863-64. It is a large painting, at approximately 6. 5 feet tall and 3. 8 feet wide which presents the subject as virtually life sized. This painting is filled with Far East objects; however this is the first painting where we begin to see the Ukiyo-e influences of simplicity of color, line and blocks of color.
The single woman is posed on a long narrow panel. Her body is elongated, shoulders pushed back with hips thrust forward. Her head is slightly forward. If you look at Ukiyo-e prints by artists like Utamaro or Utagawa Toyokunil (Fig. 2) you can see the same model positioning, the perpendicular and horizontal lines, draping of the kimono, and lack of shadowing. The pallet of colors in Princess du pays is limited utilizing large blocks of peach, white, blue and red. Because of the lack of shadowing she appears to be placed on items and the foreground and background are somewhat flattened. Moreover, the actual structure of the composition is related to that of the Ukiyo-e woodcuts. The floor seems tilted beneath the model’s feet, revealing the beginnings of a newer, more ambiguous conception of space”. 4 Fig. 1, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain) James McNeill Whistler United States, 1863-1865 Oil on canvas HxW: 199. 9 x 116. 1 cm Fig. 2, Rain in the Fifth Month. Artist Utagawa Toyokuni I, Ukiyo-e woodblock print. About 1800, Japan. Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, painted in 1864 again Whistler includes Japanese artifacts.
A Japanese screen and a chair are prominently in the background. His model is draped in patterned silk and a kimono. She is sitting on a red oriental rug. In the lower left corner is a lacquered chest, blue and white porcelain vase and flowers. The subject is contemplating Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which are in her hand and Fig. 3, Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864), oil on canvas Kusatsu station, from Fifty-three Stations Along the Tokaido (Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi) Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige AS (1797-1858) scattered on the floor. The Ukiyo-e prints appear to be those by Hiroshige (Fig. 3).
Again the colors are simplified, the pallet of colors reduced to purple, gold, red, turquoise, blue, white. There is very little shadowing which flattens composition. The screen creates distinct broad vertical and horizontal lines. In the left corner, a vase and flowers appear. The flowers float and don’t appear to actually be coming from the vase which confuses the Western viewer. The blue of the vase, pictures on the floor and picture in her hand complete the traditional western triangle and forces the viewer’s eye to travel around the canvas. The strokes are evident and you see the artist’s hand.
Here Whistler has beautifully blended the East and West. Variations in Flesh Color and Green: The Balcony, 1864-1867 (Fig. 4) is where he fully moves from just utilizing oriental props to fully employing Ukiyo-e principles of composition. The single figure creates a strong vertical element while her companions complete the triangle areas below. They are like cardboard cutouts and the 3rd dimension hardly exists. The tea pot looks suspended above a plain, flatly painted block of turquoise color representing the floor. The London city scape in the background is ethereal and waste heaps take on the look of mountains, an illusion.
In the spirit of Ukiyo-e, Whistler has created a dreamlike world in industrial London. “Whistler’s purpose was not to criticize or even to document the industrial landscape, but rather to transform it: the smokestacks are veiled in atmospheric mist, and the adjacent slag heap (a well-known monument of industrial waste) evokes images of Mount Fuji by the Japanese artist Hokusai. ” 5 The elements and composition is reminiscent of Ukiyo-e artist Torii Kiyonaga’s Twelve Months in the South, “The 4th Month” and “The 6th Month”, 1784 (Fig. 5) which Whistler referenced to create The Balcony.