Both Edo-period (1603–1868) Edo (present-day Tokyo) and fin-de-siècle Paris were facing challenges to the status quo from the rising middle classes on multiple levels. In Edo, townspeople pursued hedonistic lives as a way of defying the state-sanctioned social hierarchy that positioned them at the bottom; their new pastimes supplied subject matter for ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world). Many such pictures arrived in France in the 1860s, a time when the French art world and society at large were undergoing substantial changes. In Paris, as in Edo, antiestablishment attitudes were on the rise. As artists searched for new and more expressive forms, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and his contemporaries were drawn to novel Japanese prints.
While ukiyo-e’s formal influences on Toulouse-Lautrec and his peers have been well studied, the shared subversive hedonism that underlies both Japanese prints and Toulouse-Lautrec’s work has been less examined. Through around ninety works drawn from the Seattle Art Museum’s Japanese prints collection as well as private holdings of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, this exhibition offers a revealing look at the renegade spirit within the graphic arts in both Edo and Paris, highlighting the social impulses—pleasure seeking and theatergoing—behind the burgeoning art production.
Shizuka of the Tamaya House, from the series A Complete Set of the Great Beauties of the Present Day, 1794, Kitagawa Utamaro, Japanese, 1754 –1806, woodblock print: ink and color on paper, sheet: 15 x 9 3/4 in., Gift of Mary and Allan Kollar, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2017.23.4. Photo: Scott Leen