Chapter 67

A wider world in 19th-century Europe

We often think of Europe, Africa, and the other continents as self-contained units, but another way to think about these places is as sites on the edges of oceans linked together internally by canals, roads, and rail that carried people from one place to another.
Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare (or Interior View of the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Auteuil Line), 1877, oil on canvas, 75 x 104 cm (Musée d'Orsay)

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare (or Interior View of the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Auteuil Line), 1877, oil on canvas, 75 x 104 cm (Musée d’Orsay)

We often think of Europe, Africa, and the other continents as self-contained units, but another way to think about these places is as sites on the edges of oceans linked together internally by canals, roads, and rail that carried people from one place to another. Among the forces that shaped Europe in the nineteenth century was transportation linking people and products throughout the world. 

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Women like Laure, depicted in Manet’s Olympia bearing a bouquet of flowers in her role as the maid, may have arrived at the great harbor at Le Hâvre on a sailing ship from the Caribbean. Arrivals in that northern port might have found their way to Paris by train, disembarking at the Gare Saint-Lazare Station. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway, oil on canvas, 1844 (National Gallery, London)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway, oil on canvas, 1844 (National Gallery, London)

It was clear early on that the steam engine and railway would fundamentally change life in Europe and beyond. The English painter, J.M.W. Turner, addressed the new technology in Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway and Claude Monet explored the visual impact of the modern train station in The Saint-Lazare Station

Watch videos and read an essay about art showing the modern train station

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed -detail

J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway: In a time when horses were the fastest mode of transit, the railroad was as radical as Turner’s abstraction.

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Claude Monet, La Gare Saint Lazare, 1877

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Hazy with smoke, the architecture of the train station and technology of the iron engine dissolve before our eyes.

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Art from Japan: Japonisme and the impact of woodblock prints

Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais,1892-3, color lithograph, 80.8 x 60.8 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Right: Toshusai Sharaku, Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji, 1794, woodblock print, 38.1 x 35.1 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, 1892–23, color lithograph, 80.8 x 60.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); right: Toshusai Sharaku, Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji, 1794, woodblock print, 38.1 x 35.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In the nineteenth century, European artists responded enthusiastically to new works of art that came their way as a consequence of trade: primarily Japanese woodblock prints. After the establishment of Japanese ports for Western trading vessels in 1853 (the so-called “opening of Japan” after centuries of closed borders), Japanese goods—particularly porcelain and raw silk—made their way to European markets. As the essay below about Japonisme explains, woodblock prints that first arrived in shipping crates as packing material for porcelain had a profound impact on European art and design.

Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, 1868, oil on canvas, 57 x 45 inches or 146.5 x 114 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, 1868, oil on canvas, 57 x 45 inches or 146.5 x 114 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Édouard Manet’s portrait of the writer and critic, Émile Zola, clearly expresses the significance of the interaction between Western European and Japanese culture. Created as a means to thank Zola for his early support, Manet surrounded the writer with objects that reflected his tastes and his world. Next to his desk, cluttered with books and papers, is a Japanese screen. Above Zola’s desk we find a bulletin board with a print of European paintings, such as Manet’s Olympia and Velázquez’s Los Borrachos, along with a colorful Japanese woodblock print depicting a wrestler by Utagawa Kuniaki II.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class,, 1874, oil on canvas, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874, oil on canvas, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

While Manet directly addressed Japanese art in his portrait of Zola, other artists, including the Impressionists, incorporated aspects of the Japanese approach in their work. Edgar Degas showed Parisian dancers attending a ballet class, comparable to the images of urban entertainers found in Japanese images of the “floating world,” shown using an elevated vantage point and elongated composition.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers (Les raboteurs de parquet), 1875, oil on canvas, 102 x 146.5 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers (Les raboteurs de parquet), 1875, oil on canvas, 102 x 146.5 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In his striking painting, The Floor Scrapers (Les raboteurs de parquet), Gustave Caillebotte used a similar vantage point that helped him to emphasize the flat pattern of the lines on the floor which contrasted with the curvilinear forms of the iron balcony railing, reminiscent of Japanese prints as well.

Claude Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge, 1874, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 80 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Claude Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge, 1874, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 80 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Claude Monet’s painting of The Argenteuil Bridge is another good reminder of how Japanese prints affected subject matter and depictions. Monet collected hundreds of woodblock prints and displayed them throughout his home at Giverny, also the site of his famous gardens and Japanese-style footbridge. Among the prints he owned was Utagawa Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake from his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series that may have played a role in Monet’s interest in the bridges of the Seine.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), 1857, Edo period, woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 34 x 24.1 cm, Japan (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), 1857, Edo period, woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 34 x 24.1 cm, Japan (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

While Monet and the others offered views of public life, artists also used this new approach for more intimate images of private life, as their Japanese counterparts did as well. After she saw an exhibition of Japanese prints in 1890, the American expatriate painter and printmaker, Mary Cassatt, incorporated bold patterning, unusual points of view, and a radical flattening out of her compositions, such as we see in The Child’s Bath.

Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath, 1893, oil on canvas, 39-1/2 x 26 inches (100.3 x 66.1 cm) (Art Institute of Chicago)

Mary Cassatt, The Child’s Bath, 1893, oil on canvas, 39-1/2 x 26 inches (100.3 x 66.1 cm) (Art Institute of Chicago; photo: Steven Zucker, CC NY-NC-SA 2.0)

As artists responded to the innovations of the Impressionists, some, like the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, returned to what they viewed as a more disciplined and rigorous approach to painting.

Watch videos and read essays about Japonisme and the impact of woodblock prints

Japonisme thumb

Japonisme: an introduction

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Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, detail

Édouard Manet, Émile Zola: This enigmatic portrait of a celebrated writer and critic does not provide the information we expect from it.

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, detail

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class: The elegance of the performance has been stripped away for an intimate look at off-duty ballerinas.

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Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers (Les raboteurs de parquet), 1875, oil on canvas, 102 x 146.5 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers (Les raboteurs de parquet): The male body at work is glorified in Caillebotte’s canvas, raising questions of class and sexuality.

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Claude Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge, 1874, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 80 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Claude Monet, The Argenteuil Bridge: Monet discards hundreds of years of tradition of how to paint light, and shows us what he’s really seeing.

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Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath (detail)

Mary Cassatt, The Child’s Bath: Cassatt’s unusual angle in this intimate moment between mother and daughter shows the pair as we might see them.

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Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - detail

Introduction to Neo-Impressionism, Part I: The Neo-Impressionist desire to conform art-making to universal laws of perception, color, and expression echoes throughout Modernism.

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Introduction to Neo-Impressionism, Part II: Although their subjects suggest carefree pleasure, there are undertones of social criticism in some Neo-Impressionist paintings.

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Van Gogh and Gauguin: Leaving Paris Behind

Paul Gauguin, Coastal Landscape From Martinique (The Bay of St.-Pierre, Martinique), 1887, oil on Canvas, 50 × 90 cm (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)

Paul Gauguin, Coastal Landscape From Martinique (The Bay of St.-Pierre, Martinique), 1887, oil on Canvas, 50 × 90 cm (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)

Other painters, like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, turned to approaches and subjects outside of the Western European world as a means to express themselves. While the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists found subject matter in the social life in and around cities like Paris, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin turned inward to fix their own emotions, dreams, and visions of a different world on canvas. In pursuit of this goal, Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin and other artists turned away from the styles of art that dominated in Paris. Vincent van Gogh left Paris for the south of France, settling in Arles where Gauguin briefly joined him, to create more directly expressive paintings—turning to Japanese woodblock prints for inspiration. Artists, like Gauguin, also lived and worked in Brittany, a province in Northern France, as well as places far from Europe such as Martinique, in the French Caribbean, and Tahiti, in French Polynesia.

Vincent van Gogh

The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh began his career immersed in a style that he associated with the Realist approach of Jean-François Millet. We can see this in his early painting The Potato Eaters with its depiction of working-class life in hues of grey, muddy green, and brown.

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885, oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885, oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

He would move on from there through an Impressionist phase after moving to Paris where he began to collect Japanese prints with his brother, Theo. Vincent remained in Paris for two years, but then left for the south of France in 1888. During that first year, he wrote to Theo from Arles (where Van Gogh moved after a period in Paris), “[a]ll my work is based to some extent on Japanese art,” and for Vincent the south of France was his equivalent of Japan. He viewed it, and Japan, as more “primitive” regions. While few would use the term “primitive” today, for someone like Vincent it meant a world unaffected by the rules and restrictions of Western European cities. During this period, he began to focus more closely on incorporating Asian traditions of design into his paintings. 

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, 24 x 19-11/16 inches (Fogg, Harvard Art Museums)

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, 24 x 19-11/16 inches (Fogg, Harvard Art Museums; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In a letter to his brother about the Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, Vincent metaphorically embedded himself in the world of Japan by depicting himself with a shaved head and simple clothing that recalled Buddhist monks, and tried to physically embody a Japanese artist in the self-portrait.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm (The Museum of Modern Art; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In Vincent’s art, we find the Japanese tradition, as he understood it, powerfully expressed in The Starry Night where vibrant areas of color dominate, presented with bold outlines, that replace a focus on depth with an overall flat design of swirling colors.

Watch videos and read essays about van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885, oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters: van Gogh began his career immersed in a style different than we typically imagine.

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Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin - detail

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin: Van Gogh’s contribution to a self-portrait exchange was radical in both its choice and use of color.

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Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night: Though the artist was obsessed with painting a starry sky en plein air, it is likely this was painted indoors.

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Primitivism and Modern Art: an introduction

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Gauguin—seeking the self in the “other”

Vincent invited Paul Gauguin to join him in Arles, in the south of France, in part because Gauguin had already sought a retreat from the complexity of modern city life. In Arles, the two artists hoped to find a simpler way of living that did not embrace the social norms, increasing technology, and cultural sophistication of Paris—in other words, they pursued  a more or less Western fantasy of a more “natural” or “primitive” world. 

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, 1888, oil on canvas, 72.2 x 91 cm (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh)

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, 1888, oil on canvas, 72.2 x 91 cm (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh)

With the painter Charles Laval, Gauguin had already visited the French colonial island Martinique—where women like the model Laure had their roots—in 1887.  Gauguin soon returned to France, when he spent time in rural Pont Aven in Brittany, early in 1888. There he created Vision After the Sermon with a design taken from Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print, Plum Garden at Kameido Shrine.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Plum Garden at Kameido, 1857, woodblock print (Brooklyn Museum)

Utagawa Hiroshige, Plum Garden at Kameido, 1857, woodblock print (Brooklyn Museum)

After spending nine turbulent weeks with Van Gogh in Arles, Gauguin left the south of France and, two years later, left France altogether for a second time. In 1891, he travelled to another overseas French possession, Tahiti, and stayed for two years. 

Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, 1897-98, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, 1897–98, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Art historians work hard to interpret Gauguin’s paintings from this period because they are important to the history of Western European art in the nineteenth century, beautiful to look at, and yet troubling to those who interpret the images’ clear indications of the dominant position of European men in European colonies and other territorial possessions. Essays linked below explore the complex issues presented by Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings.

Watch videos and read essays about Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Coastal Landscape From Martinique (The Bay of St.-Pierre, Martinique), 1887, oil on Canvas, 50 × 90 cm (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)

Gauguin and Laval in Martinique: The artists’ journey to Martinique is a lesser-known chapter in the history of nineteenth-century French painting.

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Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon - detail

Paul Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon (or Jacob Wrestling with the Angel): Gauguin contemplates modern culture’s distance from spirituality in this vivid, evocative canvas.

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Nude (detail), Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching

Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching: Featuring a frightened, nude fourteen-year-old, this painting shows the dark side of Gauguin’s Tahitian fixation.

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Detail, Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, 1897-98, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Gauguin took every opportunity to describe this enigmatic painting with melodramatic flourish.

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Paul Cezanne: Returning Home to Question Everything

Not all artists left home in search of new experiences and environments. Some, like Paul Cézanne, returned to their birthplaces. There Cézanne questioned how even the simplest objects are represented in space and time on the flat plane of the canvas. His groundbreaking work is The Basket of Apples.

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples - detail

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893, oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

While a basket of apples does not transport the viewer to new places and encounters with the people there, it is a journey of another kind deep into the nature of representational art itself. 

Watch a video about Cézanne

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples - detail

Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples: By the nineteenth century, the still life was an outmoded and undervalued subject—but Cézanne brought it back.

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There is no question that the art of Japan and the cultures of the Caribbean and Pacific cultures had an enduring impact on European art in the nineteenth century, but it is important to remember that these “influences” were the result of points of contact between people and not just cultures. John Constable and Ford Madox Brown witnessed people forced to leave their homes to search for work and a better life. Edouard Manet had Laure’s address in his notebooks, and Gauguin traveled the world. Artists like Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne lay the groundwork for new types of European art, like Fauvism and Cubism, in the twentieth century. 

Key questions to guide your reading

Why were Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese culture, in general, so important in nineteenth-century Europe?

Why did painters like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin feel the need to leave the big cities of Europe in order to create their art?

How did Paul Cezanne differ from artists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin?

Jump down to Terms to Know

Why were Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese culture, in general, so important in nineteenth-century Europe?

Why did painters like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin feel the need to leave the big cities of Europe in order to create their art?

How did Paul Cezanne differ from artists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin?

Jump down to Terms to Know

Terms to know and use

Learn more

For a discussion of Vincent Van Gogh and japonisme, you may want to look at this site from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam: Inspiration from Japan 

Collaborators

Cite this page as: Dr. Claire Black McCoy, "A wider world in 19th-century Europe," in Smarthistory, February 17, 2022, accessed May 20, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/reframing-art-history/wider-world-19th-century-europe/.