With the signing of the first commercial treaty between Japan and America in 1854, more than 200 years of Japanese seclusion came to an end. In Paris, a host of import shops cropped up. J.G. Houssaye’s À la porte chinoise (At the Chinese Gate) was established on rue Vivienne by 1855, and by 1856, M. Decelle had opened L’Empire Céleste (The Celestial Empire) there. Houssaye later opened Au Céleste Empire on rue Saint-Marc.
At the 1862 London International Exhibition, the retired first British Minister to Japan, Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897) showed his collection at his Japanese Pavilion. It was a sensation. The exotic Japanese treasures – handcrafted pottery, lacquer, bamboo and ivory – seemed even more exquisite through the eyes of a public weary of the Industrial Revolution’s tawdry mass-produced wares.
That same year, Madame Desoye, who with her husband had lived for many years in Japan, opened an import shop, La Jonque Chinoise (The Chinese Junk) at 220 rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre. Among her customers were Tissot, Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sarah Bernhardt. So novel was the art of East Asia that the distinction between Japanese and Chinese traditions was blurred into the catch-all term, Oriental. But as these curiosities became increasingly available, it seemed that everyone in Paris coveted something “Japanese” – even, as one art critic noted, “imbeciles and bourgeois women.”
In the spring of 1863, when plans for a Salon des Refusés so delighted Whistler, he was in Amsterdam, buying blue and white porcelain to decorate his London home. In October 1863, a friend of Whistler’s wrote to another friend, “Jimmy has bought some very fine china; has about sixty pounds worth, and his anxiety about it during dinner was great fun.” A guest asked Whistler, “Suppose one of these plates was smashed?” He replied, “Why, then, you know, we might as well all take hands and go throw ourselves into the Thames!” Whistler bought Oriental furniture, screens, kimonos, lacquered objects, vases, fans, wall hangings and prints. He slept in a huge Chinese bed. Whistler’s mother proudly wrote, in a letter a year later, of her son’s “very rare collection” of Japanese and Chinese treasures. In July, 1864, a visitor to Whistler’s studio wrote to a friend, “Here, I am nearly in Paradise. We’re fashioning an impossible life, all three of us in Whistler’s studio. You would believe you were at Nagasaki or in the Summer Palace, China, Japan, it is splendid.”
Whistler competed for these curiosities with his Chelsea neighbor, the famed Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882). Both artists bought primarily from the prominent London art dealer Murray Marks (1840-1918), a Dutch expert on Oriental china who was based in Bond Street.
But by November, 1864, when Rossetti tried to shop for Japanese items in Paris, he “found all the costumes were being snapped up by a French artist, Tissot, who it seems is doing three Japanese pictures, which the mistress of the shop described to me as the three wonders of the world, evidently in her opinion quite throwing Whistler into the shade.”
Tissot was using his ever-increasing wealth to amass what would become a renowned collection of Oriental art. His new-found fascination initially influenced only a few of his paintings: The Japanese Bather (c. 1864, about seven by four feet, or 208 by 124 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France) and the awkward Young Lady Holding Japanese Objects (1865).
While the model for The Japanese Bather is clearly a Western woman – coy in an open silk kimono Tissot had purchased at Madame Desoye’s – the face and hair of the woman in Young Lady Holding Japanese Objects is inspired by a typical porcelain-headed doll. Unlike Whistler, Tissot did not show his “Japanese” paintings at the Salon, but he recorded them in the photograph album of the paintings he sold. His album also includes Still-life of Japanese objects, with a ceramic dragon and a Japanese doll lying on a gleaming wooden tabletop that reflects her painted porcelain face. And in his gorgeous 1866 commission, Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérèse Feuillant, he outdid himself by including elegant touches of japonisme. (For a high-resolution, interactive version of this portrait at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, click here .)
In London, Whistler was incorporating his Japanese treasures into paintings such as The Golden Screen (1864), The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (completed 1864; exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year), The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (completed 1863-64; exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865), and The Little White Girl (completed 1864; exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865).
After returning to London from his misadventure in Valparaiso, Chile in late 1866, Whistler moved into No. 2, Lindsey Row. It was a three-story house with an attic that looked out on the River Thames. He hosted a house-warming party on February 5, 1867. Dante Rossetti and his brother – also one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – attended. William Michael Rossetti (1829 – 1919) wrote in his diary: “There are some fine old fixtures, such as doors, fireplaces, and Whistler had got up the rooms with many delightful Japanesisms. Saw for the first time his pagoda cabinet.”
In Paris, the word japonisme was coined to describe the influence of Oriental art and and design that captured everyone’s imagination. Customers fought over the items for sale at Madame Desoye’s curio shop on the fashionable rue de Rivoli. The painter Alfred Stevens spoke of a dinner party at which Whistler carried a fan that Madame Desoye was supposed to have kept back for another customer, a writer. When this gentleman saw “his” fan and vociferously objected, Whistler raged, “Me, I’m going to give you a good punch in the eye.”
But it was James Tissot who would lay claim (without a fistfight) to a source of japonisme much more significant than a mere fan, the following year.
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Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
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