Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Art History and Archaeology


English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 4-29-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Elizabeth C. Childs


The belongings a person surrounds himself with can be physical representations of his interior life and social aspirations. Many avant-garde artists in late nineteenth-century Europe collected Japanese art, particularly woodblock prints, and used this art to decorate their living spaces. In this dissertation, I studied the collections and decorations of Whistler, Van Gogh, and Monet, and analyzed their art to discover how they used ideas from Japanese art and their understanding of Japanese culture to define their artistic identities and to develop a decorative vision, moving away from spaces defined by linear perspective and tonal indications of volume, and toward styles emphasizing color, pattern, and surface texture.

The history of Europe's importation of Japanese art objects is reviewed, and the collecting activities of the three artists are described. By collecting and living with Japanese art, they not only contemplated its formal conventions, but also laid claim to qualities associated with Japan. Japan represented a powerful counter-image to a Europe many in the avant-garde saw as diminished by industrial pollution, shoddy mass-produced goods, corrupt institutions, and tired artistic conventions. Aspects of Japan held up by Western writers as characteristic included its exquisite handcrafts, its people's alleged closeness to nature, their supposed genuine spirituality, and its extraordinary women, each praised for its difference from Europe. For Whistler, Japan provided a model for creating uncluttered beauty and elegance in his home and daily life, presented a new vision of the feminine, and suggested a way to aestheticize the industrialized shores of the Thames near his home in Chelsea. Van Gogh was inspired by his sense of Japan as a place of authentic spirituality where art was removed from commerce, and where artist-monks lived in harmony with one another in monastic brotherhoods, and learned about the transcendent through an intense study of nature. Monet found the model of the Japanese people living in intimate and contemplative harmony with nature especially compelling, and he admired the Japanese artist's close observation of seasonal and weather fluctuations. He not only filled his home with Japanese prints, but also designed a water garden that incorporated Japanese irregularity and asymmetry, and that would become his most important subject in his later years. For all three, their Japanese prints became significant parts of their mental store of images because of their everyday familiarity. These images incorporated into their living spaces could be drawn upon when searching for inventive solutions to artistic problems.


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