Hokusai wave
HOKUSAI Katsushika, The Great Wave at Kanagawa

A new vision of movement for Western artists

Monet's collection of Japanese WoodBlocks

En Francais : La collection d'estampes
Japonaises de Claude Monet claude monet

See also :
Japanese Woodblocks by Hokusai
Japanese Woodblocks by Hiroshige

Monet almost never left Europe, thus never traveled to Japan. But in his Giverny home, he surrounded himself with Japanese woodblock prints. He first collected Japanese prints in the 1860s, and this passion would last for over three decades. At the end of his life, he owned 231 Japanese engravings.

Like many other artists, Monet considered Japanese culture as very artistic, shaped by the refined aesthetic tastes of its people. Many painters of the 19th Century were influenced by Japanese prints and paintings. As far as Monet is concerned, the way Japanese art shaped his style and the way he saw the world around him can be noticed in many of his canvases as early as the 1870s.

A Taste for Japan

Who launched the frenzy for all things Japanese, called Japonism, in the 19th century ? It is hard to say, however, the universal exhibition of London in 1862 and of Paris in 1878 introduced Japanese art in Europe. Specialised merchants settled in Paris.

It was a upheaval. The artists of the Far East had a completely new aesthetic approach, marking a break with Western painting convention.   

Monet, like many others, was carried away. He began collecting woodblocks by the greatest masters, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro... "Hiroshige is a wonderful impressionist, Camille Pissarro wrote to his son. "Me, Monet and Rodin are enthousiastic about them."

The fancy for Japanese engravings seized also painters such as Vincent van Gogh, politician like Georges Clemenceau, writers like Edmond de Goncourt or Emile Zola.

Starting Monet's Collection

There are several versions about the origin of Monet's collection of engravings. His friend and biograph Gustave Geffroy told :

" Monet brought these marvels back from Holland. As he later related, he had found the first ones at a village's grocer's, where they had been brought together with products from the islands and overseas territories."

hiroshige pont sous la pluie
HIROSHIGE Ando, Sudden Shower over O-Hashi

This print of Monet's collection was interpreted by van Gogh
who made a copy in his own way

hiroshige chat a la fenetre
Asakusa Rice Fields During the Festival of the Cock

Occident Art influenced Eastern art by bringing the perspective.

Marc Elder is more precise, quoting Monet :

" I had the good fortune to discover a batch of prints at a Dutch merchant's. It was in Amsterdam in a shop of Delft porcelain." Monet was haggling over an object without any success . "Suddenly I saw a dish filled with images below on a shelf. I stepped forward : Japanese woodblocks!" The merchant, not aware of the value of these prints, let him have them with the china jar.

Cette scène se passe en 1871, l'année où Monet visite pour la première fois la Hollande au retour de son exil à Londres pendant la guerre franco-prussienne.

This scene occured in 1871, the year when Monet visited Holland for the first time when he returned from his exile in London during the war between France and Prussia.

Choices and rejections

Claude Monet kept supplementing his collection, which had 231 prints at the end of his life. He tastefully selected the Masters of 18th and 19th centuries. It was an eclectic collection (featuring 36 artists) focusing on the three majors, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro.

Monet prefered landscapes views, with the representation of the elements. He liked the scenes with women surprised in their daily occupations, the animals, but he seldom selected flowers. He was interested in the representation of the Westerners by the Japanese, a topic not very much prized at that time in Europe.

He rejects on the other hand the erotic scenes, and is hardly interested in the portraits of actors, so frequent in Japanese xylography.

Monets letters reveal how much he is impassioned for Japanese prints, both as an artist and as a collector. For instance he wishes to gather the complete series of the Large Flowers by Hokusai. “I thank you for thinking of me about the flowers by Hokusai,” he wrote to Maurice Joyant. “You do not tell me about the poppies and it is what matters, because I have already the irises, the chrysanthemums, the peonies and the volubilis”. The Irises of Hokusai later disappeared from his collection, perhaps because of a gift or of an exchange.

Monet eagerly waited for Japanese Art exhibitions in Paris, and he did not want to miss the opening. “The opening of the Japanese exhibition is not on Tuesday, he wrote to art-dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1883, but tomorrow, on Monday. Therefore I will come tomorrow.”

The collection in situ

Monet's collection of Japanese prints survives to this day as it was, bequeathed in her entirety to the Institut des Beaux-Arts by his son Michel Monet. It was restored and entirely reframed.

Monet dans sa salle a manger entouré d estampes
Monet at Giverny in his dining room
decorated with his precious collection of japanese woodblocks.

Village de Sandviken sous la neige
MONET Claude, Sandviken Village in the Snow, Art Institute of Chicago

In Norway Monet imagined he was in Japan.

Visitors discover it today in the house of the artist in Giverny, as surprised as Monet's contemporaries were.

The Japanese prints hang close to each other in most of the rooms, just like Monet decided it: 56 engravings decorate the dining room! The collection overflows towards the entrance, the grocery, the blue living room, the staircase, the hall, the rooms, and even the bathrooms. The omnipresence of the ukiyo-e all over the house is haunting. There are not any prints in a few rooms only: the kitchen for obvious reasons, Monets bedroom (it contained his large collection of canvases by his impressionist friends) and his living room-workshop, where he exhibited his own work.

The visit of Monet's home and his exceptional collection of prints enables to become imbued with the painter's vision.


Monet never made any japonism”, said his friend Octave Mirbeau, and it is true: he never servilely recopied the Japanese engravings.

But Monet carefully analyzed the prints, and he used the doors opened by the Eastern Masters to give a new start to his own painting.

Art historians do not agree about this point: was Monet really under Japanese influence, or did he seek confirmations of his own research in Eastern art ?

However, an attentive eye can establish intersting connections. The influence of the prints on Monet's art can be noted in the subjects he choosed, in the composition, in light…

Like it is often the case with prints, nature is Monet's main source of inspiration, with its changing colors under rain, sun or snow.

Like it is often the case with prints, Monet  built his painting with an oblique line or a serpentine, balanced by a vertical line, the main subject being pushed back towards the side, sometimes even truncated.

But Monet knew how to be inspired without borrowing. His painting diverge from the prints by many aspects. The Japanese artists liked to feature the anecdotic or dramatic moments, Monet concentrated on light, which was the very subject of the canvas, the object was no more than medium to convey the the plays of light.

36 vues du mont fuji par hokusai
HOKUSAI Katsushika, Mount Fuji

The structure and the colors of this print inspired Monet for a canvas of the Grainstack series

Korin Ogata Les biches
KORIN Ogata (1658-1716) The cranes
Sobriety, linearity: this work of the 17th century strikes by its modernity

 "It looks like Japan"

Monet never visited Japan. However he was very impregnated by the images of his prints. When he travelled to Norway in 1895, he believed it looked like Japan:

I have a delicious subjects here, he wrote to his daughter-in-law Blanche Hoschede, small islands level with the water, covered with snow and in the back a mountain. It looks like Japan, as it often does in this country. I have on progress a sight of Sandviken which looks like a Japanese village, then I make a mountain that is to be seen everywhere here and who makes me think of the Fuji-Yama.

A floating world

“Images of a floating world”, that is how Richard Lane defines Japanese Woodblocks.

Which definition would apply better to Monet's ultimate obsession, rendering his Waterlily pond, where he could see a whole microcosm in the rafts of water lilies floating on the water?

Bibliographical sources:

Claude Monet Home Page | Monet paintings | Claude Monet Biography | Monet's house and garden in Giverny
Monet colors | Monet Books | Monet exhibitions | Monet in Museums
Further reading on Giverny Blog with sections on Monet's Water Garden, Monet's House, Monet's Life and Monet's painting.
Paris 2012-2013 Exhibition: "Impressionism and Fashion at Musee d'Orsay

© A. Cauderlier, 38 route de Giverny 27200 Vernon France, Editor.
Last modified : Tuesday, 14-Nov-2006 09:20:03 EST