The Loyal Ronins
( G.P. Putnam Sons, 1880)

For over 200 years, Japan under shogun rule consciously isolated itself from the rest of the world, completely closing its border except to a few Dutch traders allowed to live on the outskirts of the country. This changed in 1854, when American Commodore Matthew Perry, through a show of military might, "persuaded" the Japanese to open their borders under the Kanagawa Treaty.

With this, Japanese decorative and fine art goods began to flood the market in Europe . The curiosity shops that sold Japanese goods, such as L'Empire Chinoise in Paris, were often popular meeting places for artists and collectors of the time, including such well-known painters as James Abbot McNeil Whistler, Eduoard Manet, Claud Monet and Edgar Degas. They were fascinated by the quality of this work done in a style wholly unlike their own. In addition, world pavilions at the International Exhibition in London 1862, the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 exposed the general public to Japanese art.


In Ghostly Japan
(Little, Brown and Company, 1899)


The 1880s were the height of the Japanese craze in Europe and America. Anything with a Japanese theme was guaranteed some success, one reason for the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan's satirical operetta The Mikado (1885). Everyone wanted Japanese style objects in their home, and producers obliged, providing both original imports and Western decorative wares done in the Japanese style, such as furniture, wallpaper, sculptures, porcelain, prints, and textiles. Designers used books such as A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design (1879-80) by Thomas Cutler and original Japanese craftsman manuals as sources for their designs.

Many developments in 19th century art reflect the influence of Japan . Artists such as Manet experimented with flattened forms after seeing Japanese prints. Vincent van Gogh collected hundreds of Japanese prints, and they influenced his use of brilliant colors and heavy outlines. Larger artistic movements such as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau have a great deal of Japonisme at their root. Though the primary Japonisme craze was in the 1880's and 90's, artists and designers continued to use elements of the style for some time, particularly when dealing with Japanese themes.

The Land of the Incas and the City of the Sun
(Estes and Lauriat, 1885)

The Open Road: A Little Book for Wayfarers
(H. Holt and Company, 1926)


With respect to book-binding, cover designers employed a variety of techniques that reflected an interest in Japanese style. In the Victorian period, covers that didn't necessarily look Japanese showed the influence through the use of asymmetrical design, strong diagonals, oriental typefaces and motives, and a variety of fill patterns (see pbw01188 or pbw01253).

In the move away from more gaudy Victorian covers, many designers appreciated the simplicity of some of Japanese style. Some covers mimicked the binding style of Japanese books (for example, see pba00756 or pba02290) or Japanese paper (pba01551). Others used an oriental style typeface (see pba00756) or actual Japanese characters (pbw00891 or pba02297). Asymmetrical design continued to be popular as well as imitations of the flat Japanese landscape style. Many of the covers of books by author Lafcadio Hearn are done in these styles, reflecting his subject matter and immigration to Japan


The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies and Stories
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905 )


Certain known cover designers showed influence by Japonisme. Some of Sarah Wyman Whitman's simple elegant designs have evidence of roots in Japonisme, while others use more explicit Japanese motifs (for example, see pba00759, pba02290), although she herself denounced the gaudy 1880s eclectic covers that "represented a combination of bad French art mixed with Japanese art; scrolls and arabesques, which had to do with some debased form of book cover mixed with a bit of Japanese fan."* Several covers by Bertha Stuart, who designed primarily between 1903 and 1911 show a strong Japanese influence as well.


* Quoted in Charles Gullans and John Espey. “American Trade Bindings and Their Designers, 1880–1915.” In Collectible Books: Some New Paths , ed. by Jean Peters (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1979), 38.

Search the PBO database for Japonisme


"Japonisme." Metropolitan Museum of Art Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jpon/hd_jpon.htm

Allen, Sue. Victorian Bookbindings. A Pictorial Survey . Rev. ed. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Lambourne, Lionel. Japonisme: Cultural Crossings Between Japan and the West. New York : Phaidon Press, 2005.

Wichmann, Siegfried. Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Art Since 1858. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Return to PBO home