June 2021

Arts & Letters

Boston and Japan: ‘French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’

By Sebastian Smee

Claude Monet, ‘Poppy field in a hollow near Giverny’, 1885, oil on canvas, 65.1 x 81.3 cm, Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What connects Boston’s peerless collections of French Impressionism and historic Japanese art and design?

Everyone knows Impressionism was the first major modern art movement. Without the Impressionist painters’ interpretation of the physical world as a scrim of discrete but promiscuously interlocking units of coloured light there would be no Seurat or van Gogh, and no Cézanne, and therefore no Matisse or Picasso, and no abstraction (no Kandinsky, Mondrian or Rothko). There is no question, then, that Impressionist painters deserve the monikers they attract in all the textbooks: “avant-garde”, “progressive”, “radical”. Does the same apply to the critics and collectors who first recognised Impressionism’s merits?

We are so accustomed to narratives that pit the champions of the new against an obstinate old guard that we imagine these collectors as similarly forward-looking, almost to the point of clairvoyance – as if they had somehow intuited that Claude Monet’s late waterlily paintings would lead the way to Mark Rothko’s lozenges of coloured light. We are not surprised, in any case, to discover that a rapidly modernising country such as the United States, and a city such as Boston – birthplace of the American Revolution and, in the late 19th century, one of the world’s most industrialised cities – would have been unusually receptive to Monet and his colleagues. This, in turn, would surely explain why the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) has an Impressionist collection so deep that it can (in return for a handsome fee) send a hundred paintings by the Impressionists and their French forebears to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and still have enough left over to simultaneously mount a major Impressionist show in Boston.

But just as powerful and innovative art holds contraries in trembling equilibrium, the reception of it is often charged with ironies and cradled by contending impulses. The special sensitivities that made Boston collectors so receptive to Impressionism were indeed about recognising something new. But (and this dynamic is inherent not just to modernism’s reception but also to modernism itself) these sensitivities were just as much manifestations of a kind of regret or nostalgia, a desire to kick against modernity, to turn back to something simpler, restorative and harmonised with nature, and – at a time of a spiritual crisis brought on by industrialisation – something soulful.

One place that represented all these things in the imaginations of 19th-century Bostonians was Japan, which had only just opened to the world after two centuries of isolation. So, how did an American museum, founded less than 20 years after the opening up of Japan, form not only one of the world’s greatest Impressionist collections but also the finest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan? And what is the connection?

None of the most interesting things can be explained causally. They manifest instead as webs of influence, clusters of interlocking circumstances that are fluid and multifaceted like a rippling mosaic, energised as much by unintentional contrary movements as by intentional forward propulsion. To understand the story of Boston and Impressionism, in other words, it’s necessary to grasp that it is part of the same rippling mosaic as the story of Boston and Japan.

Japan’s ruling Tokugawa shogunate had successfully prevented foreigners from entering its country for 214 years when Matthew C. Perry, a commodore in the US Navy, landed in Tokyo Bay in 1853. For more than half a century, American ships had been turned away by the Japanese. Even the Dutch – the only Europeans with whom the Japanese were willing to trade – had urged Japan to open up voluntarily: it was just a matter of time, they argued, before the matter was forced. But the Japanese resisted all overtures. And in the end, Perry, acting under orders from president Fillmore, gave the Japanese no choice. As nine American ships, belching smoke and bristling with cannon, basked in Tokyo Bay, Japan signed the first of a series of treaties that signalled the end of its sakoku (“locked country”) policy.


In 1855, barely a year after Perry’s second, clinching entry into Tokyo Bay, an American painter named William Morris Hunt returned from Europe to Boston and began telling everyone who would listen about a new school of French painters. Hunt was a powerful tastemaker. The scion of a wealthy family from Vermont, he had been prevented by his father, a lawyer and prominent politician, from pursuing his interest in art. But when his father died, at the age of just 44, Hunt’s mother took William and his siblings to Europe on a Grand Tour lasting more than a decade. She was determined to grant Hunt the art education his father had denied him.

In Paris, Hunt studied with Thomas Couture, whose other students included Édouard Manet. In 1851, the American saw a painting by Jean-François Millet at the Paris Salon, and it changed his life. Millet’s The Sower shows a monumental figure striding in a field, backlit by the setting sun, flinging seed from a pouch around his waist. Expressing the dignity of labour and charged with the symbolism of nature’s life cycle, The Sower is best known for having inspired van Gogh, who painted 13 highly personal versions of it. But before it overwhelmed van Gogh, it captivated Hunt.

The American bought The Sower for $60 and begged William Perkins Babcock, another Couture student, to introduce him to Millet. Together Babcock and Hunt went to Barbizon, a village in the forest of Fontainebleau that had become an artists’ colony. Hunt stayed, and he and Babcock formed such a strong connection to Millet that they acted as witnesses to his second marriage, in 1853.

When Hunt returned to Boston two years later, he was full of the ideas he had picked up not only from Couture and Millet but also from other Barbizon School artists such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Théodore Rousseau, as well as from Gustave Courbet, the pioneering realist painter and socialist republican. These were the artists whose styles and sensibilities formed the major tributaries leading into Impressionism.

Hunt’s enthusiasm proved remarkably contagious. His influence in Boston was enhanced by his marriage to the daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen. In short order, Boston’s collector class started buying up Barbizon paintings. Quincy Adams Shaw, whose obituary described him as “the heaviest individual taxpayer in Massachusetts”, became the most avid collector of Millet. Corot proved more popular still. His lyrical, understated work was admired by local collectors influenced by the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Walden Pond is within striking distance from Boston, as Barbizon is from Paris. While Thoreau was describing his life there, he was living only a short distance from some of America’s first factories and textile mills).


In 1856, the year after Hunt’s return to Boston, the printmaker Félix Bracquemond, a friend of Édouard Manet, was in the Paris shop of his printer, Auguste Delâtre. Delâtre showed him some manga – sketches designed for use by other artists as models. They had likely been used as packing material to protect a shipment of Japanese porcelain. But they happened to be by Hokusai, perhaps the greatest artist of the Ukiyo-e (“Floating World”) school.

Bracquemond’s interest was piqued. He sought out more work by Floating World artists; he found their freshness and design immensely appealing, and since they described aspects of everyday life, Bracquemond registered parallels between the entertainments and social relations in Second Empire Paris and early modern Edo. He began copying Japanese motifs, and spread the word to such colleagues as Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour and Edgar Degas. Those artists were part of a circle who, during the 1860s, met at the Café Guerbois in the Batignolles district of Paris. Monet and Cézanne would occasionally drop in. They all fell in love with the relaxed naturalism of Japanese prints, their treatment of everyday subjects and their flat, often asymmetrical compositions.

The Japan craze took hold. Bracquemond, Fantin-Latour and the critic Philippe Burty (who in 1872 coined the term “japonisme”) dressed in kimonos and ate with chopsticks at the monthly meetings of the Société du Jing-lar, their nine-member Japanese dinner club. Manet incorporated a Japanese screen and a print by Utagawa Kuniaki II into his 1868 portrait of Émile Zola and a print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi into Repose, his 1871 portrait of Berthe Morisot.

Bracquemond would later exhibit at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, and at two subsequent Impressionist exhibitions. Besides Manet and Degas, scores of artists – most famously Monet and van Gogh – made work that was profoundly informed by the prints, fans, textiles and ceramics that started flooding into Paris from Japan.


The enthusiasm in Boston for the gentle landscapes of the Barbizon artists had something similarly incendiary about it, and it was noticed by the artists themselves. Often overlooked by collectors and Salon juries in their native France, Millet, Corot and Courbet were boosted by the support of Hunt and his fellow artists, and the Boston collectors they influenced. “What care I for the Salon, what care I for honours,” wrote Courbet, “when the art students of a new and great country know and appreciate and buy my works?”

The upshot was that a whole class of artists and collectors in Boston was primed to receive Impressionism at the very time the Impressionist painters were forging their new style. The first Impressionist exhibition was still four years off when the MFA was founded in 1870. But Monet’s work had already been shown in Boston in 1866 at the Allston Club, a venue Hunt had established to champion Barbizon artists. A smattering of Impressionist works appeared in Boston in the 1870s as the movement was taking shape, and America’s first important Impressionist show was held at Boston’s Mechanics Hall in 1883.

By then, Impressionism had become an infatuation, similar to “japonisme” in France. Between 1889 and 1892, Impressionist paintings flooded into Boston. Local observers discerned connections between Monet’s conversion of the physical world into daubs of unmixed, coloured paint and Emerson’s transcendentalist writings, which used the metaphor of the “transparent eyeball” to advocate for an ego-less, harmonised, unmediated relationship with nature (shades of Cézanne’s later description of Monet as “only an eye – but my God, what an eye!”).

In 1892, when Monet was beginning his extraordinary series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral façade, he was already so popular in Boston that the first exhibition devoted to his work, at the St Botolph Club, could be drawn exclusively from local collections. The artist was given another big show (paired with Rodin) in 1905, and in 1911 the MFA became the first US museum to give Monet a retrospective.


One of Monet’s more extraordinary images, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), didn’t come into the MFA’s collection until the 1950s. It was painted in 1876, one year before a Boston academic called Edward Sylvester Morse accepted an invitation from Japan’s government to teach zoology at the newly founded Tokyo Imperial University. Morse was an ardent admirer of Charles Darwin. In Tokyo, Morse’s lectures on evolution were attended by the imperial family and the prime minister. He had accepted the position because of his interest in brachiopods, marine fauna he had heard were especially plentiful in Japanese waters.

For the Japanese, then, Morse was an apostle of Western science. But in fact he liked old things. He had disembarked in Yokohama, from where he took a train to Tokyo. This was Japan’s first railway line. Completed just five years earlier, it signalled the new government’s determination to catch up with the industrialised West. But Morse wasn’t thinking about that. Instead, he recognised that the train tracks went through some large shell mounds, and was soon instigating the first archaeological excavation in Japan’s history. At the same time, he became fascinated by the sheer variety of Japanese ceramics. In the process of learning all he could on the subject from, among others, the antiquarian Ninagawa Noritane, Morse assembled a collection of more than 5000 ceramics, which he classified by type. He also chronicled all the kilns in use around the country.

Morse’s ceramics came into the MFA’s collection in 1892 – the year of the first Monet show in Boston. But more important to the MFA than his ceramic collection was the catalysing role Morse played in igniting Bostonians’ interest in Japan. This was more than a “craze” for Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. It went much deeper, and it expressed something far more interesting than a dilettantish, not to say racist, taste for the exotic.

Morse’s passion for Japan convinced Ernest Fenollosa, the son of a Spanish-born musician who lived just north of Boston in Salem, to take up a position lecturing on Hegel’s philosophy at Tokyo University. While there, Fenollosa developed an intense curiosity about Japanese painting. He advised the government on foreign models of art education and, while traversing the country, he catalogued temple treasures. He collected more than 1000 paintings, which came to the MFA in 1911, the year of the MFA’s Monet retrospective.

On Morse’s third trip to Japan, in 1882, he and Fenollosa were joined by a Boston doctor, William Sturgis Bigelow. A friend to Edith Wharton and Theodore Roosevelt, Bigelow had been exposed to the Japan craze in Paris, where he had worked with Louis Pasteur. He now wanted to go to the source. He was so smitten that he stayed for seven years with only one brief interruption, collecting on a prodigious scale and immersing himself not only in every kind of Japanese art form but also in esoteric Japanese Buddhism.

Back in Boston, Fenollosa was appointed curator the MFA’s Japan department, where he organised a series of exhibitions of ancient Japanese paintings. One of them was seen by art historian Bernard Berenson, who described the experience in a letter to his future wife, Mary Costelloe: “I was prostrate … I thought I should die … We had to poke and pinch each other’s necks and wept. No, decidedly, I never had such an experience.”

Fenollosa had been accompanied on his travels in Japan by one of his students, Okakura Kakuzō, who went on to become one of the great connoisseurs of Asian art. After a period heading the new Tokyo Fine Arts Academy, Okakura came to Boston in 1898 where he took over the MFA’s department of Asian art. His influence on the growth of the collection (not just Japanese objects but art from China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea) and on cultivating an understanding of Asian culture would be hard to overstate.

Soon after arriving in Boston, Okakura wrote The Book of Tea, a taut little volume about the Japanese tea ceremony that is still beloved around the world today. (I was first introduced to it by a painter living on a farm in Queensland more than 20 years ago.) Before its publication, Okakura would read aloud from it to a circle convened by Isabella Stewart Gardner, the so-called Queen of Boston, who ruled, wrote the art critic Elise Grilli, “over an aesthetic kingdom in her palatial home at Fenway Court”.

Gardner had travelled to Japan herself. Her home, which she converted into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is situated across the road from the MFA, and its famous courtyard is, along with Fenway Park (the home of the Boston Red Sox), perhaps the most sacred space in all of Boston.

Both the Gardner Museum and the MFA, along with their remarkable collections, testify to something deeper than late-19th-century Boston’s love of art and its curiosity about other cultures. They are symptoms of a kind of spiritual recoil – an awareness that the process of industrialisation, which in Boston had been particularly wrenching, had come at a terrible price. Yes, this modernisation had created tremendous wealth – and the members of Gardner’s class were prime beneficiaries – but it also spawned gross inequities, physical ugliness and spiritual malaise.

The Gardner Museum, the verdant parks that sprang up in Boston around the same time, and Bostonians’ burgeoning love of French landscape painting and deepening interest in Old Japan were all symptoms of a collective desire for antidotes to industrialisation.

The irony is obvious. America’s navy had forced Japan open. The history of art changed course as a result. So did the lives of Morse, Fenollosa, Bigelow and Okakura, and Boston’s cultural inheritance. But the disgust they felt for Western modernity meant that their efforts in Japan were enveloped in a mood of elegy. They didn’t want Japan to Westernise. They loved and treasured the Old Japan, which they saw themselves rescuing, savouring and earnestly studying rather than plundering. In their spiritual recoil from the effects of industrialisation, these Boston-based connoisseurs cherished the same symptoms of isolation that Japan was frantically casting off.

Similarly, when France was falling in love with all things Japanese, it was Japan’s earlier seclusion they were drawn to. “It appealed to their sense of exclusivity,” explained the art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg. After almost a century of traumatic social and political upheaval in France, Old Japan also spoke to their longing for a “primitive”, untouched realm, a longing that at the turn of the century took on new expression in the Arcadian art of Paul Gauguin, Cézanne and Henri Matisse.

But modernity is ruthless. And Japan, in those years, had no time for nostalgia. The country from which Fenollosa, Bigelow and Okakura took so many antique treasures was busy building railways and a naval fleet, modernising its economy and Westernising its universities – trying, in other words, to break out of the very seclusion that the Boston connoisseurs cherished. Within a few short decades, it had transformed itself into the dominant power in the Pacific.

Perhaps this is how the dynamic of culture works: artists and tastemakers almost helplessly advancing as they yearn for a perennially vanishing past.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.

@SebastianSmee

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