“It is in general the unexplored that attracts us…” – Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji.
(Lambourne 2005, 10).
A preoccupation with “the other” has always been of interest to the French. In Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes, written in the early 18th century, the French nearly fall over one another in order to gaze upon an Arab traveler in their country. One observer even exclaims,
“ Ah! Ah! Monsieur est Persan! C’est une chose bien extraordinaire! Comment peut-on être Persan!” (Hirch and Thompson 2006, 97). In the second half of the 19th century after the ports of Japan opened, this is exactly what the primary French artists were exclaiming to themselves about the Japanese, “How can one be Japanese!” and in this quandary, they
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At her feet an iris lays, which was heavily used by Japanese designers (Wichmann 1999, 87). In the background of the painting, one can spot a Japanese cherry tree and a Japanese lantern hanging from the ceiling. Tissot’s painting seems to be a metaphor for himself, a westerner saturated in Japanese culture (Lambourne 2005, 38). In another work, though last seen on the New York art market, Lady in Japanese Costume (1867) further portrays Tissot’s interest in Japonisme (Berger 1980, 70). Holding a piece of porcelain in each hand, the model is dressed in two embroidered kimonos with a fan in her belt. Her features are of Japanese origin with slanted eyes and a thick, short nose. The figure even has the mouth of a Japanese doll, “where the lips are often parted to show the little individual teeth and even the tongue” (Janis 1968, JSTOR). Last, Two Ladies Admiring Japanese Objects (1869) depicts two Western women gazing upon various Japanese objects within Tissot’s home (Art Fact). This work really captures the general curiosity that the French public had in Japan.
Edward Degas (1834-1917) focused on the form of Japanese compositions perhaps more so than any other artist of his time (Lambourne 2005, 39). Instead of using Japanese props and paraphernalia, Degas sympathized with Japanese aesthetics (Ives 2004). Woman with Chrysanthemums (1865) portrays a woman sitting on the right side of the table with her