Hanging today in an old railway station which the French have wondrously converted into an art museum called the Musee d' Orsay, is a fairly large portrait linking two men who, one might say, had some modest impact on nineteenth-century art in their country. The portrait is of Emile Zola, a writer and art critic of no small influence in his time. The portrait was painted by an even more influential Edouard Manet in 1868. In today's hypersensitive journalistic world its very existence might be cause for scandal in that it was very much a "payoff" on the part of the artist in gratitude for the writer's kind words regarding his work. But in Paris, in that day, it was merely the polite thing to do.
While the portrait is an excellent example of Manet's work and also an excellent likeness of his friend, perhaps most interesting in the work is not the figure but the background. On the wall, next to a print of Manet's Olympia, the shockingly confrontational, 1863 painting of a naked courtesan which Zola had so eloquently defended, are two Japanese prints. Their use in the background of the painting probably says more about Manet's tastes than any interest Zola may have had in such exotic artistic imports. From these prints, Manet imported his tendency to flatten forms, one of the main complaints by art critics of the time regarding his Olympia. A similar shallow depth of field and flattening of the figures can be seen in his Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) also painted in 1863.
Manet wasn't the only French artist taken with art from the Japanese islands. Edgar Degas tried the realistic subjects and new compositional arrangements he found in studying them. Vincent van Gogh like the sparse harmony he saw while Mary Cassatt, in creating woodcut prints of her own, seems to have identified more closely with Japanese compositional tradition than she did with its European counterpart. In fact, the simplicity of Japanese design and aesthetics crept into quite a number of areas less directly associated with prints or painting, such as architecture, household items, even industrial design. By the 1870s it could be found in many European speciality shops, art galleries, and even department stores. The French infatuation with anything Japanese became so noticeable in fact, art critic Phillippe Burty even gave it a name--Japonisme.