One day in 1871, legend has it, a French artist named Claude Monet walked into a food shop in Amsterdam, where he had gone to escape the Prussian siege of Paris. There he spotted some Japanese prints being used as wrapping paper. He was so taken by the engravings that he bought one on the spot. The purchase changed his life and the history of Western art.
Monet went on to collect 231 Japanese prints, which greatly influenced his work and that of other practitioners of Impressionism, the movement he helped create. Under the new Meiji Emperor, Japan in the 1870s was just opening to the outside world after centuries of isolation. Japanese handicrafts were flooding into European department stores and art galleries. Japonisme, a fascination with all things Japanese, was soon the rage among French intellectuals and artists, among them Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and the young Monet. Perhaps for that reason Impressionism caught on early in Japan and remains ferociously popular there.
But the 231 prints that helped forge that mutual infatuation have long been out of sight. For decades they graced the walls of Monet's home at Giverny, an hour outside of Paris. In the years after his death in 1926, the delicate, light-sensitive engravings were largely replaced with copies. Now the originals can be seen again, until Feb. 25, in "Claude Monet's Japanese Prints" at Paris' Marmottan Monet Museum.
As a collector, Monet had a sharp eye. Though he never went to Japan, he befriended writers, curators and art dealers who did, and they steered him toward quality. His treasures, all hand-printed from wood blocks, encompass the best of ukiyo-e "images of the floating world" of geishas, Kabuki actors and pleasure houses that flourished in 18th and 19th century Edo, as Tokyo was known. These include works by such giants as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro. Rarer still are the fierce battle scenes from the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 that Monet collected, as well as images of Westerners relaxing in Yokohama, the port city that became the focus of Japanese contact with the West. Monet had several of Hiroshige's scenes from the classic Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, plus the lively, almost offhand sketches of animals and ordinary folk by Ogata Korin.
Oddly, the Marmottan has not put any of Monet's Japanese prints side by side with his paintings to show the influences, even though this relatively small museum has one of the world's most important collections of his works. But if you're wondering how the prints inspired him, you need only descend one floor to the museum's main holdings. There you will see why Monet is hailed as one of art's more inventive geniuses. But you may have to look closely to discern how Japan made him that way.
Monet was not shy about his fascination with the country and its art. In 1876, five years after that encounter in the food shop, he painted La Japonaise, depicting his first wife Camille in a kimono against a background decorated with uchiwa (Japanese paper fans). At Giverny, where he moved in 1883 at age 42, he built a Japanese bridge over a Japanese pond in a Japanese garden, and he spent the rest of his life painting that private paradise and especially its water lilies. But like the tale of the food shop, the reality of how Japan influenced Monet is elusive, subtle and obscured by embellishment.