Japonisme in late nineteenth-century French novels

The series of actions that forced the opening of Western trade with Japan in the 1850s and 1860s century created a mania that would occupy much of the Western imagination until the end of century: japonisme, the study, appropriation, and imitation of Japanese culture and styles. As trade began, the influx of Japanese art objects, radically different from those in the West, propelled japonisme to its peak during the second half of this century. The importation of these physical symbols of Japan—fans, ceramics, and woodblock prints—shook traditional Western aestheticism and fueled this rabid fascination with this “pays féerique.” [1][2] This obsession was particularly unrestrained in Paris and in France generally, to which japonisme owes its name. [3] Stories and artifacts from Japan and the Far East consumed the attention of Parisian artists and bourgeoises, while the visions of Japan contained in paintings, plays, and popular novels simultaneously pandered to and commented on japonisme. Using illuminating passages from three late nineteenth-century French novels, I will attempt to reconstruct the atmosphere that surrounded French japonisme, examine what it was that made it at once sensationalistic, disturbing, and sublime, and suggest what it can tell us about how Japan was seen from the outside during its rapid ascent to global preeminence.


1 “Fairy-like land/country.” De Goncourt, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Manette Salomon. Paris: G. Charpentier, 1877. Print. p 172. As it appears, there exists no academic English translation of Manette Salomon. This is unfortunate, because the novel is rich in uncompromising portraits and descriptions of nineteenth-century Parisian society.

2 “In an entry dated January 1862 [the De Goncourt brothers] express their views concerning the conflict between the two principles of beauty and truth... which dominated French art throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. They came to be associated... with backing the Japanese side in the conflict between Japanese and Greek art, representing beauty and truth respectively.” Lambourne, Lionel. Japonisme: Cultural Crossings between Japan and the West. London: Phaidon, 2005. Print. p 32.

3 The art critic Philippe Burty is thought to be among the first to use this term. Hartman, Elwood. “Japonisme and Nineteenth-Century French Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2, East-West Issue (Jun., 1981). Penn State UP. pp. 142. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/402462


Lucas Cuatrecasas