Academic art and new directions

The lure of the exotic

For many late 19th century European artists, the lure of exotic lands and cultures proved increasingly irresistible. Having spent his childhood years in Peru, spent time in the merchant navy and visited Madagascar, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was well travelled by the time he set out for Tahiti in 1891. Gauguin went to Tahiti hoping that it might be a primitive paradise and "to live there in ecstasy, calm and art". Financial difficulties at home, and a growing interest in non-Western art, drove Gauguin to Tahiti to escape "the European struggle for money" and to be "free at last". As he wrote to fellow artist Odilon Redon in September 1890:

Even Madagascar is too near the civilized world; I shall go to Tahiti and I hope to end my days there. I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it for my own pleasure in its primitive and savage state.

Paul Gauguin

Gauguin’s use of colour and symbolism set him apart from his contemporaries. Femmes de Tahiti, in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, shows two Tahitian women sitting on the beach. Their figures, and melancholy mask-like faces, dominate the pictorial space and create a rhythmic composition. The pensive mood of Femmes de Tahiti is found in many other of Gauguin’s works; click here to explore more of his art on Europeana.

Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics had a major impact on Western artists during the later 19th century. Japonism’s influence began to be felt in the 1850s, as ceramics, furniture and prints (ukiyo-e) from Japan were exported to Europe in increasing volumes. In 1867, Japan presented its art, in its own pavilion, for the first time at the International Exposition in Paris. Many progressive artists, including James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Vincent Van Gogh, admired the work of contemporary Japanese artists such as Hiroshige, Utamaro and Hokusai. The flattened picture space and bold use of colour in ukiyo-e was a liberating revelation to Western artists schooled in the academic tradition.

Dutch painter and photographer George Hendrik Breitner’s (1827-1953) Girl in a White Kimono is a high point in Dutch Japonism. Breitner made at least a dozen paintings of this motif around 1894, having been inspired by Japanese prints.

The girl in the picture is sixteen-year-old Geesje Kwak, a hat-seller and one of Breitner’s regular models. She is painted in a brisk, Impressionist manner, with her patterned flowing kimono being the focus of the picture.

Breitner is best known for his depictions of humble, everyday subjects in the Netherlands: city views, street life and ordinary folk going about their business. In 1882, Breitner met Vincent Van Gogh in The Hague and they spent time together, sketching working-class people in the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, motivated by concern for the lower ranks of society. The discovery in 1961 of a large collection of glass photographic negatives revealed that Breitner was also a gifted photographer. Click here to browse Breitner’s drawings, paintings and photographs on Europeana.

In the next chapter of Faces of Europe, we’ll further explore realism in art, learn about the changing role of women artists and see how artists painted interior worlds in the decades either side of 1900.