Japanese prints


Dear Artist,

It’s raining in Paris. The open-air book and print kiosks along the Right Bank of the Seine are clothed in plastic sheeting, their owners huddled in overcoats. They smoke soggy cigarettes, pull down their caps and complain to their neighbours how the weather is ruining the business.


“Crane Flying over Wave”
woodblock print by
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)

Notre Dame Cathedral rises up behind, a grey eminence, as if it has always been there. Through the streaming droplets, I’m looking at contemporary Japanese woodblock prints, clothes-pegged alongside inexpensive, shrink-wrapped reproductions of Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro. At one time, on this exact pavement, the likes of Van Gogh, Bonnard, Degas, Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec would have examined these same images. Here are some of the characteristics they might well have noticed:


“Amida Waterfall at the end of the Kiso Road” ca.1832-33
woodblock print by
Katsushika Hokusai

Gradations in large areas with intermediate tones.
Integrated forms with implied borders.
Stylized, neutralized and formulized expressions.
Beguiling combinations of curved and straight lines.
The dynamic and slow-fast-slow nature of some curves.
Two-dimensional patterns within three-dimensional forms.
Plain, formalized and controlled perspective.
Use of solid black for strong contrast.
Pattern gradations on particular fabrics.
Hard-won gradations for sensitive areas such as hairlines.
Pictorial attention to ordinary domestic scenes.
Decentralized or off-picture subject placement.

The early Impressionists would also have understood the origins of this art form. At first there was Japanese painting with its characteristic Sumi-e brushwork, and its “first stroke right on–no going back” limitation. Then there was the translation of this freehand skill into the stubborn resistance of the wood block. So that the fine lines on the key blocks would stand up in relief to take the printer’s ink, the incising had to be made carefully around and up to the lines. The adaptation from one form to another presented special problems and invited special solutions. The early Impressionists would have seen that technical awkwardness, while frustrating and demanding, often becomes the generator of a new way not only of making art but of looking at things. Forcing one art form to become another opens new opportunities for invention.


“Okita – Bijin at the Mirror” c.1789
woodblock print
by Kitagawa Utamaro
(c. 1753 – 1806)

Best regards,


PS: “This day I have found something wonderful that I shall surely copy.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Esoterica: Japanese art came out of the rain and went upscale. Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), a German living in France, travelled to Japan and collected wildly. Bing launched a magazine, “Le Japon Artistique,” and hired van Gogh to promote it. Bing didn’t pay him much, but van Gogh was pleased just to be surrounded by the collection. Bing’s Parisian gallery was called “L’Art Nouveau.” The Art Nouveau movement turned away from rigid classical designs and found inspiration in nature in the shapes of flowers, birds and insects. Bing was a catalyst who united his passion for “japonisme” and the skill of selling.

This letter was originally published as “Japanese prints” on December 12, 2006.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“If we study Japanese art, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic and intelligent, who spends his time doing what?… He studies a single blade of grass.” (Vincent van Gogh)



  1. Robert was such a keen observer! I shall always admire his ability to extract underlying pattern and insight from his observations, and then pass that ability on to his offspring.

  2. While I have read somewhat about these influences on the early impressionists, I have not really delved into Japanese prints in any in-depth way. Robert’s comments are intriguing to me and I would like to gain more insight .

    Can anyone recommend some books [ with good images to go along with them] that would help me learn more about the art form, and the artists that especially captivated the Impressionists…….?

    • marney kennedy on

      There is a wonderful book entiltled The Japanese influence on Western art since 1858 JAPONISME by Siegfried Wichmann published by Thames & Hudson.

      This book show the elements of design that captivated the Impressionists explaining the Eastern and Western outlooks.

      I bought mine many years ago for $45.00 It was first published in US in paperback in 1999.
      It’s a large format book with color plates, 412 pages.

        • Robin, you might be able to locate this book through AbeBooks.com. Jim Anderson’s business is based on his passion for books, with access to books and collectibles ranging from vintage paperbacks and signed first editions to antique maps and art and photography.

          Good luck with this.

          Verna Korkie

    • I would highly recommend finding a screening of the recent documentary – Hokusai – which is about the exhibition of his work at the British Museum. There is a catalogue of the show and it’s available now on Amazon.
      Also, if you look up David Bull, you will find many many youtube videos he has made about his work as a woodblock carver and printer in Tokyo. I have learned so much from watching his videos and reading his stories on line. There is also a film which I saw last spring at Hot Docs in Toronto called Ukiyo-e Heroes about his recent collaboration with an American artist.

  3. Steve Eborall on

    Thank you very much for sharing this letter. Not only for its subject of Japanese Prints, that impressed the impressionists so much.
    It also conjures up a wonderful image of Robert, the artist, visiting Paris on a rainy day and following in the footsteps of the old French artists in a great city. It reminded me of living in London and visiting the artist booths along side of Green Park at the weekends (in the rain as well).

  4. What a joy to read these letters and articles. I a world filled with mush, genuine delight in things like art is a rare thing., Thank you for the opportunity to shared your enthusiasm.

    max tomkins, adelaide, australia

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