During the post-war era in which most of us grew up (or can well remember), the words "Made in Japan" were synonymous with cheap trinkets, plastic jewellery, and Christmas toys that broke before New Year's Eve. Then came Sony, Yashica, Minolta, Honda, Toyota, and Panasonic. They were neither cheap nor trinkets. In the realm of art, Japanese imports have been around for well over a century. Their distinctive style and Eastern aesthetics made them a fascinating, and highly collectible form of art in this country dating back to the 1840s and 50s. And like today, they were neither cheap nor trinkets. The mark of an erudite millionaire art connoisseur was the quality of his Japonisme. The French fell in love with it first, then the English, and finally the Americans, though up until the Civil War, Japanese objets d' art were neither well known nor fashionable. However, after the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, where the Japanese exhibits were immensely popular, the trend caught on.
The New York decorating firm of Herter Brothers was a leading importer. Christian Herter designed for William H. Vanderbilt an entire room in his New York City mansion decorated in a Japanese style in which Vanderbilt displayed his hundreds of Japanese art objects. Of course the room no longer exists, nor in fact does the mansion, but photographs from the period depict an expensive clutter of sculpture, furniture, bamboo, vases, silk paintings, and heavy drapery exemplifying as much Victorian tastes in decorating as a love of things Japanese. Often wealthy Americans such as William Sturgis Bigelow, a Boston physician, would go all the way to Japan on scavenger hunts which sometimes lasted several years, immersing themselves in the art and culture of this enigmatic civilisation as they poured millions of yen into their collections. Bigelow was followed by artists such as John La Farge and the writer-decorator, Samuel Bing, who collected Japanese literary works and wrote essays on Japanese art which, in 1891, he published in a three-volume set--probably a rather limited edition given its time and content.
Meanwhile, in England, the American expatriate artist, best known for painting his mother, also created a Japanese room which today does survive, transported intact to this country, and now displayed in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Assuming the role of interior decorator, James McNeill Whistler created what has since come to be known as The Peacock Room for the London home of Frederick Richards Leyland. Unlike the Victorian clutter of Herter's Japanese room in the Vanderbilt mansion, Whistler's effort is truly a work of art. Like so many of his paintings, the actual title, Harmony in Blue and Gold, reflected Whistler's interest in colour as much as Japonisme. The walls are lined in leather painted a peacock blue overlaid by a gilded ribbing carved to imitate bamboo. (Why use the real thing when you can create your own expensive substitute?) There is a lavish use of gold leaf on shelves and the ceiling, even including electric light fixtures in a Japanese style (which must have taken some imagination). The centrepiece of the room, however, was a sumptuous gold-leaf wall "painting" by Whistler of two delicately rendered peacocks, so glorious in their radiant golden plumage, that it was adopted as the trademark motif of the then-popular Aesthetic Movement.