This is an essay featured in conjunction with Eye to the East The Inspiration of Japan.
By Christine Heyworth
This rather unusual term lies at the heart of the intriguing current exhibit at the Greenwich Historical Society, An Eye to the East: The Inspiration of Japan. First coined by the French as “japonisme,” the word came into use after U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry negotiated a treaty with Japan in 1854 that opened up that country in the Far East to the West. Europeans were the first to take advantage of the new trade opportunities with Japan while the Americans were embroiled in a civil war at home. Evidence of the newfound fascination with Japanese art can be seen in the Expositions in London (1862), Paris (1867) and Vienna (1873). Among the offerings were books, plays, music, greeting cards and silver objects. It was not until the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, followed by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, that most Americans came face to face with Japanese culture, including a reproduction of a Japanese tea house and garden in Chicago. Their response, like that of the Europeans, was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
To be exact, however, it wasn’t only the artifacts of Japan that intrigued Europeans and Americans. Prior to Perry’s game-changing treaty, Westerners had developed an interest in Chinese art and fine products from other parts of Asia, such as India, Turkey and Persia. As Susan Larkin points out in her article “Japanism in the Cos Cob Art Colony” in the March 2001 edition of Antiques, importers in London, Paris and New York sold objects from disparate parts of Asia along with those from Japan. Japanism, then, was broader in its inception than one might surmise from the word itself, although over the last decades of the 19th century, the focus on the unique wonders of Japanese culture and its incorporation in American paintings, homes and gardens sharpened and deepened.
How does it come to be a preoccupation of our local artists colony in Cos Cob during its heyday from 1890 to 1920? American Impressionist artist John H. Twachtman played a significant role in this movement. A sojourn in Paris in the 1880s exposed him to the influence of Japanese art in the paintings of both the French Impressionists and his own countryman, James McNeill Whistler.
Once back in the U.S., Twachtman, along with fellow artists Theodore Robinson and J. Alden Weir, attended exhibitions on Japanese art, bought Japanese prints and discussed their merits, and then incorporated elements of Japanese composition and technique into their own works. As Larkin points out in her aforementioned article, these artists borrowed features of Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, from masters like Hokusai and Hiroshige, such as the prominent foreground element, detailed distance, horizontal bands and asymmetrical designs. Childe Hassam, another member of the art colony, was also influenced by Japanese woodblock prints and incorporated “Oriental props”—like the kimono-clad woman so prominent in his “Bowl of Goldfish” from 1912—in other paintings and prints he produced.
Japanese visitors as well as local residents were instrumental in expanding the artists’ understanding of Japan. The most important was Genjiro Yeto, who came to the U.S. in about 1891 and studied at the Art Students League from 1894 to 1899. He became a member of Twachtman’s Cos Cob summer class in 1896 and was a boarder at the Holley House for extended periods of time until 1901. There he became close friends of artist Elmer MacRae and his wife Constant Holley. Elmer incorporated woodcut prints, origami birds and flower arrangements in his art studio and spent hours watching Yeto at work. Constant was known to be a gardener and flower arranger, but she attributed her love of arranging flowers to a Japanese gentleman staying at her home. (Almost certainly this must be Yeto.) Two Japanese silk importers, Rioichiro Arai and Yasukata Murai, built adjacent homes on Glen Avon Road in Riverside in 1893 and joined the Riverside Yacht Club, both just across the Mianus River from the Holley House. The Arai women taught Constant Holley ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement, and she, in turn, instructed other Greenwich women.
Mention has been made of the Japanese kimono, a piece of clothing much admired. Used as a dressing gown or lounging robe, it became a very popular element in the American wardrobe. Susan Larkin writes that Sears, Roebuck and Company sold ready-made kimonos in their catalogue. Fans and parasols also became fashionable. Paper lanterns often festooned the porch of Bush-Holley House, giving it an Oriental aura. Collectible items such as porcelain bowls and mugs and Japanese illustrated books were popular objects to have in one’s home. Japanism also spilled outside the house into gardens with footbridges, ponds, lanterns and gates. Twachtman built a wooden footbridge over Horseneck Brook, which ran through his property, and planted willow trees on the banks.
An Eye to the East shows the progression from the 1854 treaty through the international expositions into the 20th century and allows the visitor to appreciate the striking woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai that were collected by J. Alden Weir and other Cos Cob artists. The influence of these woodblock designers can also be seen in the paintings of Twachtman, Weir, Hassam, Kerr Eby, and Robert Lewis Reid. Genjiro Yeto’s influence is plainly visible in ink drawings, watercolors and book illustrations, some of which are recent donations by his granddaughter, Yukiko Tanaka, in his memory.