Edgar Degas And The Influence Of Japonisme On His Work

Edgar Degas And The Influence Of Japonisme On His Work

I’ve always admired Japanese art, particularly the Ukiyo-e genre, known for its woodblock prints. This era gave rise to many esteemed Japanese artists and had a significant global impact, even influencing Western art.

Edgar Degas was among the Western artists deeply inspired by this Japanese art form. His works bear a clear imprint of the aesthetics and techniques he absorbed from Japanese Ukiyo-e masters. Read on; we delve into how his exposure to Japanese artistry shaped Degas’s art and examine some of his works that display this definitive influence.

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Edgar Degas And The Influence Of Japonisme On His Work

The art world experienced a significant shift during the late 19th century, as artists from the West increasingly looked toward the East for inspiration. Japonisme, a term coined in 1872 by French art critic Philippe Burty, was a movement that encapsulated this enchantment with Japanese art and culture.

Edgar Degas, a seminal figure in the Impressionist movement, was deeply influenced by this trend. Notably, elements of Japonisme found their way into his groundbreaking works depicting scenes from modern life, including ballet dancers, laundresses, and musicians.

The Allure Of The East: Japonisme

Japonism emerged in France in the mid-19th century following Japan’s opening to foreign trade. Japanese art, mainly woodblock prints, caught the imagination of artists like Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas.

These prints were characterized by their distinctive compositions, flat color planes, and a focus on everyday scenes.

Degas’s “Dancers Practicing At The Barre”

Dancers Practicing At The Barre By Edgar Degas
Dancers Practicing At The Barre (1877) By Edgar Degas

A fascinating example of Degas’s engagement with Japonisme can be seen in his “Dancers Practicing at the Barre” (1877). Here, Degas moves away from the centralized compositions commonly found in academic paintings, instead adopting an asymmetric design.

Much like the “Willows and Bridge” painting from Japan, Degas employs diagonal solid lines that pull the viewer’s eyes across the canvas, highlighting the dynamic nature of the dancers’ stretching poses.

“Dancers Practicing at the Barre” also shares its muted color palette with Japanese works. The colors echo those found in Japanese folding screens like “Willows and Bridge,” using muted yellow, orange, green, and blue tones.

Willows and Bridge, early 17th century, By Unknown
Willows and Bridge, early 17th century, By Unknown

The painting captures the moment, a trait true to Impressionism but borrowed from the spontaneity often found in Japanese art.

The Art Of The Everyday: “Woman Combing Her Hair”

Woman Combing Her Hair By Edgar Degas
Woman Combing Her Hair (1888–90) By Edgar Degas

Another compelling example is Degas’s “Woman Combing Her Hair” (ca. 1888-90). The painting portrays an intimate moment: a woman engrossed in the simple task of combing her hair. Degas positions the viewer almost voyeuristically close, reminiscent of the intimacy in Japanese woodblock prints like Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Yamauba Combing Her Hair and Kintoki.

Yamauba Combing Her Hair and Kintoki, (1801) By Utagawa Hiroshige
Yamauba Combing Her Hair and Kintoki, (1801) By Utagawa Hiroshige (This piece is essentially the Japanese counterpart to Degas’s Woman Combing Her Hair with similarities such as content and composition.)

Both paintings share compositional techniques that make the ordinary appear extraordinary, allowing the viewer to contemplate the human figure performing everyday tasks.

The play of shadows and light in “Woman Combing Her Hair” showcases Degas’s Impressionist brushwork. It also subtly brings attention to the woman’s back and the shadows that form around it, which appear smooth despite the hurried strokes.

This delicate interplay of technique can be contrasted with Hiroshige’s work, where the lines depicting the body and hair are thin and delicate, lending a similar intimate effect.

Eastern Perspectives In “The Orchestra At The Opera”

The Orchestra At The Opera (1870) By Edgar Degas
The Orchestra At The Opera (1870) By Edgar Degas

Before he was famous for his ballerina paintings, Degas had a penchant for painting musicians. In “The Orchestra at the Opera” (1870), Degas adapts Eastern influences like a muted color scheme and a tightly cropped composition, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

His incorporation of diagonal solid lines, a technique seen in Japanese art, guides the viewer’s gaze from one musician to another, all the way to the ballerinas on stage.

Kitagawa Utamaro’s Influence

Japanese artists also profoundly impacted Degas’s use of perspective and cropping. Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Two Women Under an Umbrella” provides another reference point for Degas. The strong diagonal created by the umbrella and the women exemplifies a bold compositional choice that broke away from traditional perspectives.

Two Women Under Umbrella (1790) By Utamaro
Two Women Under Umbrella (1790) By Utamaro

This tendency toward unconventional framing can be seen in numerous works by Degas, adding to the sense of immediacy and modernity that he was so keen on capturing.

The confluence of Eastern and Western ideas in the late 19th century was a wellspring of inspiration for many artists. For Edgar Degas, the incorporation of Japonisme into his work manifested through bold compositions, intimacy, and an innovative approach to capturing everyday life.

His engagement with Japanese art gave him an expanded toolbox of techniques and perspectives that enriched his contributions to art history. Far from a superficial or exoticizing engagement,

Degas’s experience with Japonisme was a mutually enriching cultural exchange, allowing him to transcend traditional Western artistic norms while paying homage to the distinct aesthetic virtues of Japanese art.

Thus, it’s evident that although deeply rooted in the Impressionist tradition, Degas’s work gained nuanced layers by incorporating Eastern influences. These influences helped solidify Degas as an artist not confined to one tradition or school but as a global artist receptive to cross-cultural dialogues.

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