JAPANISM in the Cos Cob art colony - the influence of Japan at the Cos Cob, Connecticut art colony, 1890-1920

Susan G. Larkin

In September 1899, an article in the Art Interchange described the summer school that the American impressionist artist John H. Twachtman conducted in the waterfront hamlet of Cos Cob, Connecticut. The writer differentiated rustic Cos Cob from "fashionable Greenwich," the larger town of which it is a part, and named some of the painters who had found inspiration there in addition to Twachtman: Theodore Robinson, Julian Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, Leonard Ochtman, and Robert Reid. Attesting to the antiquity and charm of the pre-revolutionary house where the artists boarded, the author added, "As we row in at night from the Riverside Yacht Club, the old house with its gayly lighted paper lanterns looks almost Japanese." [1] The house, then owned by the Holley family, is now called the Bush-Holley House and is a museum operated by the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich.

The combination of American tradition and worldly sophistication described by the writer for the Art Interchange was characteristic of the Cos Cob art colony, a diverse group of artists and writers that thrived from 1890 until about 1920. The colony members' diaries, letters, snapshots, and artworks offer unusual insights into the diverse sources of Japanism and its varied expressions in their paintings, homes, and gardens.

The art colonists were not unique in their enthusiasm for Japanese culture. The Western fascination with Japan originated when Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) of the United States Navy began the process in 1854 that opened Japan to global trade after the island archipelago had spent more than two centuries in self-imposed isolation. [2] While Americans were later preoccupied with the Civil War, Europeans responded quickly to the artifacts that poured from Yokohama into London and Paris. Everything from silver to greeting cards, books, plays, and music attested to the phenomenon that the French dubbed japonisme. Artists, including the expatriate American James McNeil Whistler (see Pl. XIII) and the French impressionists, discovered fresh ideas in Japanese art. By the time Japanism gripped the general public in the United States following the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, Americans derived their knowledge of Japanese aesthetics both directly from the woodblock prints, textiles, a nd ceramics exported from Japan and indirectly through the paintings and designs of artists based in Europe.

The ultimate source of Japanism was not just Japan, however. A passion for Chinese motifs--chinoiserie--preceded and paved the way. Because Japanese goods were so long unavailable, Westerners identified Chinese artifacts with the mysterious world they called the Far East. When Japan was opened to global trade, importers like Siegfried Bing (1838-1905) in Paris, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) in London, and A. A. Vantine and Company in New York City sold objects from other countries along with those from Japan. Vantine's catalogue, for example, identified the firm as "importers from the Empires of Japan, China, India, Turkey Persia and the East." [3] Further, because much of Japanese art is indebted to Chinese sources, as American is to European, it is often difficult to isolate purely Japanese influences.

The problems of teasing apart the sources of inspiration are revealed in two paintings by Twachtman, both titled Arques-la-Bataille (Pls. I, II). In the summer of 1884, Twachtman, who was then enrolled at the Academie Julian in Paris, rented a house near the Arques River in Normandy. There, he set his easel on the riverbank to paint the unremarkable scene shown in Plate II. The tranquil mood, limited palette, and simplified forms recall Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, which Twachtman knew at least secondhand through the work of Whistler. In his Paris studio the following winter, Twachtman painted a large-scale version of this landscape (P1. I) in which he intensified its Asian--and Whistlerian--qualities. He enhanced its serenity by applying the paint more thinly smoothing the irregular edges of shoreline and shadows, and replacing the dancing wildflowers and spiky sedge with elegant calligraphic reeds. Although Arques-la-Bataille seems the most Oriental of Twachtman's paintings, he more thoroughly internalized Asian art a decade later, when he indulged his enthusiasm with two close friends and fellow members of the Cos Cob art colony Theodore Robinson and J. Alden Weir.

Robinson recorded in his diary the exhibitions they attended together, the prints they purchased, and the lessons they learned from Japanese prints. On October 31, 1893, he visited Twachtman at his home in Greenwich. Twachtman, who had just returned from Boston, was "most enthusiastic" about the Hokusai exhibition he had seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and "thought there is much to be learned therefrom," Robinson wrote, adding, "I like much T's ideas." [4] That Thanksgiving, after poring over Japanese prints with Weir, Robinson mused, "I imagine the best men have been influenced for the better by Japanese art, not only in arrangements, but in their extraordinary delicacy of tone and color." [5] Ten days later, after spending an evening discussing Japanese art with Twachtman and Weir, Robinson jotted, "Tw. & W. are rabid just now on the J." [6]

That shared excitement bore fruit the following summer in canvases Robinson and Weir painted in Connecticut. The unconventional organization of space in Weir's In the Shade of a Tree (Sunlight, Connecticut) (Pl. III) is clearly borrowed from Japanese prints. The prominent foreground element, re pressed middle ground, detailed distance, and use of an overhanging branch to frame and unify the composition are all characteristic of numerous works by Weir's favorite printmaker, Ando Hiroshige, including Yatsumi Bridge (P1. IV). [7] Robinson's use of Japanese art resulted in an equally daring painting. In Boats at a Landing (Pl. V), one of several nautical landscapes he painted during an extended stay in Cos Cob in 1894, he took up the concern for pattern, flattened shapes, and layered space evident in Japanese prints to create a nearly abstract composition. He divided the canvas into horizontal bands, alternating land (or its extension, a landing) and water, and accented those divisions with bold contrasts of blu e and yellow. He underscored the horizontals with the booms and stripes on three of the boats, countered them with the vertical masts, and softened the rectilinear grid with a curving diagonal that begins with the shoreline in the lower right corner and swings to the upper left through the delicate arc of the rigging. The high horizon line flattens the canvas, compelling attention to the strong asymmetrical design.

Because of problems in dating Twachtman's work, it is difficult to establish a chronological link between specific paintings and the "rabid" passion for Japanese prints recorded in Robinson's diary. Moreover, Twachtman drew from many sources. His landscapes were affected not only by ukiyo-e prints but also by Asian garden design and Eastern religious thought. After he settled with his family in an old farmhouse on Round Hill Road in Greenwich in 1889, Twachtman developed a "natural" garden along Horseneck Brook, which ran through his property. He built a wooden footbridge (P1. VI) over the stream and planted willows--a tree with Oriental associations--on both banks. Like Claude Monet (1840-1926) at Giverny, Twachtman made the landscape he had shaped the subject of his art. His little white bridge was not, however, inspired by Monet. [8] Instead, both artist-gardeners drew their inspiration from Asian art.

Bridges are a common motif in Chinese paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, and the decorative arts of both countries. Twachtman's aesthetic in using the bridge resembles that of Japanese gardeners, as described by Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925) in his influential book, Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings. According to Morse, Japanese landscapers balanced the ephemeral beauties of blossoms and foliage with "enduring points of interest in the way of little ponds and bridges....even the smallest pond will have a bridge of some kind thrown across." [9] Like the Japanese, Twachtman contrasted the man-made forms of architecture with the softer forms of vegetation.

The canopy on Twachtman's bridge recalls the bridge-pavilions in Chinese landscape paintings. [10] Its arched span is also identified with Asian gardens. Twachtman and his contemporaries would have seen arched bridges in ukiyo-e prints (see P1. IV) and even on the popular Blue Willow ceramic pattern that was a product of eighteenth-century British chinoiserie. For Twachtman and his guests, as for their counterparts in Suzhou, Kyoto, and Giverny, the arch provided an elevated vantage point for admiring the brook and its banks.

Twachtman's fascination with Asia extended to its spiritual writings. According to a visitor, his bookshelves held "Max Muller's translations of the Far East Bibles," possibly the 51-volume set of The Sacred Books of the East (published between 1879 and 1910), which included Buddhist texts. [11] Asian religion abetted Twachtman's meditative approach to nature. Hemlock Pool (Pl. VII), one of many canvases he devoted to Horseneck Brook, conveys his rapt absorption in the mysteries of a familiar landscape. The high horizon line, sloping banks, and background screen of trees enclose the viewer in the quiet contemplation of an intimate landscape. Responding to such paintings, one critic linked Twachtman to "the painter-priests of Zen." [12]

The Cos Cob impressionists derived their understanding of Japan not only from books and prints but also from Japanese friends. Shugio Hiromichi (b.c. 1853) arrived in New York City in 1880 to direct the American branch of the First Japanese Manufacturing and Trading Company. [13] The Oxford-educated aristocrat moved easily in the city's artistic circles. He joined the Tile Club, of which Twachtman and Weir were also members, and dined at Weir's with Twachtman and Robinson. [14] The art colonists patronized Shugio's emporium as well as those of his rivals. The Holley House bookshelves held a travel guide to Japan stamped with the company's name and address. [15] In her address book Constant Holley (1871-1965), whose parents owned the boardinghouse, listed another import store, Yamanaka and Company. During their courtship, she and Twachtman's summer student Elmer Livingston MacRae frequented the tearoom at Vantine's.

One of New York's leading Japanese businessmen, the silk importer Rioichiro Arai lived just across the Mianus River from the Holley House. [16] In the early 1890s, Arai and his business associate Yasukata Murai built adjacent Queen Anne style houses near the Riverside Yacht Club, which they both joined in 1893. One of their neighbors and fellow club members was the crusading journalist Lincoln Steffens (1866-1 936), a central figure in the Cos Cob art colony The Arai ladies taught the Holley women ikebana, the Japanese style of flower arranging; Constant Holley in turn, instructed other Greenwich women in ikebana.

The Arai and Murai houses epitomize the cosmopolitan taste the artists shared. A slight pagoda-like lift to the gables and unusual terracotta roof ornaments lend a hint of the exotic to the large shingled houses. Inside the Arai house, Japanesque stained-glass windows testify to the original owners' ancestry. A large fan-shaped window in the front stairwell shows the sun at daybreak illuminating dangling wisteria vines (P1. IX). That allusion to Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, is repeated in three smaller panels, depicting the imperial chrysanthemum flanked by blossoming branches of cherry and plum (P1. VIII). An unusual surface treatment of the clear glass in the three panels recalls Chinese Kraak porcelains. [17]

The closest Japanese friend of the colony's artists was Twachtman's student Genjiro Yeto (known after 1909 as Genjiro Kataoka). [18] Yeto, whose father owned a porcelain-painting factory in Arita, Japan, had planned a business career until he came to the United States about 1891. He studied at the Art Students League from 1894 to 1899, joined Twachtman's summer class in 1896, and lived at Holley House for extended periods until 1900. An old photograph (Fig. 1) shows him with a group of kimono-clad American women (probably fellow summer students) on a porch festooned with hanging scrolls, fans, and paper lanterns. Dining the years that he frequented Cos Cob, Yeto launched his career as an illustrator, served as a consultant for the first stage production of David Belasco's Madame Butterfly in 1900, and began exhibiting watercolors in New York City and Philadelphia. Professionally, he was both the victim and beneficiary of Japanism. Critics ignored the impressionist paintings he first exhibited, insisting that he devote himself to Japanese genre scenes (P1. X) and delicate floral studies in what they considered his native style. On the other hand, Yeto profited from the flood of books and articles on Japanese themes. He lent an aura of authenticity to the books he illustrated, including those by the prominent Japanist Lafcadio Hearn (see P1. XII); the poet and novelist Yone Noguchi (Noguchi Yonejro; 1875-1947), the father of the sculptor Isamu Noguchi; and Winnifred Eaton, the Chinese-American writer who published several sentimental romances under the Japanese pseudonym of Onoto Watanna In the latter's novel A Japanese Nightingale, published in 1901, Yeto's delicate monochromatic illustrations invade the margins and penetrate the text on every page. On the title page (P1. XI), for example, moonflowers meander behind the type. One reviewer declared A Japanese Nightingale "one of the most unique and artistic specimens of bookmaking recently issued" and wrote that "No scheme of pictorial display could be better suited to the pages, or more in harmony with the simple story." [19]

Although the older members of the art colony had long been devotees of Japanese art, the colony's Japanism became even more pronounced after Yeto's arrival. MacRae, who married Constant Holley in 1900, decorated his studio in the old house with woodcut prints, origami birds, and Japanesque flower arrangements. Paper lanterns swung from the porches, as documented in contemporary photographs and the watercolor by Childe Hassam Veranda of the Old House of 1912. [20] Hassam came to Japanism later than his friends Twachtman, Robinson, and Weir. Unlike them, he tended to express his interest by including Oriental props in his paintings rather than revising his compositional strategies. Bowl of Goldfish (P1. XIV) is one of several works in which Hassam depicted a kimono-clad woman in the Holley House. By 1912, when he painted this canvas, neither Japanism nor the kimono were new to Americans. A popular fashion magazine had declared ten years earlier that "the kimono has firmly established its popularity as a wrapper or lounging robe." [21] Women could even order them ready-made from the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogue. [22] Other American painters of Hassam's generation, including William Merritt Chase (1849- 1916) and Robert Reid (1862-1929), also depicted women dressed in kimonos. But Hassam infused fresh life into the motif, as revealed in a comparison of his painting with Whistler's La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (Pl. XIII), painted just a decade after Japan was opened to world trade.

Whistler's painting hinges on the dissonance between figure and setting, West and East. His obviously European model assumes not only the costume but also the posture of women in ukiyo-e prints. Surrounded by objects that, in 1864, were alien to most Westerners, she is literally up to her neck in the exotic. The claustrophobic interior is sealed off on every side. Hassam's painting, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly "natural." The young American model wears the kimono as if she had just pulled it from her closet (in fact, Hassam had supplied it; the same garment appears in several of his works over the course of two decades). Her unaffected posture is as straight as the tree that grows just outside the windows. The room in which she stands is furnished with a simple table and chair, which evoke not the mysterious, opulent Orient but rather the homespun American past. (The table remains in the Bush-Holley House.) In contrast to Whistler's ornate setting, the Cos Cob interior is ornamented only by a bowl of goldfish. A common element in Asian art, the goldfish, together with the kimono, suggest the art colony's long-standing interest in things Japanese. In Hassam's painting, however, the fish appear as much a part of the environment as the antique furniture, artless young woman, and sunny garden that beckons beyond the open windows. The goldfish bowl is the painting's central emblem. The swirling fish echo the young woman's auburn hair, while the water-filled globe captures the sunlight and brings it indoors, uniting interior and exterior, home and nature.

As the Cos Cob artists moved beyond impressionism to experiment with newer styles and mediums, Japanism remained a potent source of inspiration, MacRae's carved and painted wood panels of about 1920 (Pl. XVI) recall the decorative screens of the Rimpa school (Pl. XV). MacRae decorated his panels with flowers associated with Japan: cherry blossoms and Japanese iris. Adapting the stylization, asymmetry, gold-hued background, and screen format once used for the homes of the samurai elite, he produced a sophisticated decoration intended, most likely, for one of the new suburban estates that sprang up in Greenwich at the turn of the last century. [23] Nearly three decades after Twachtman, Robinson, and Weir grew "rabid" over Japanese art, MacRae found fresh inspiration in a tradition that had become the Cos Cob art colony's second language.

A traveling exhibition entitled The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore is on view at the National Academy of Design in New York City until May 13. Subsequent showings will be listed in Calendar. Related exhibitions are on view this spring at the Bush-Holley Historic Site in Cos Cob and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.

SUSAN G. LARKIN, an independent art historian, is the guest cur rotor of the exhibition described above and the author of the book of the same title published by Yale University Press.

(1.) "An Art School at Cos Cob," Art interchange, vol. 43 (September 1899), p. 56.

(2.) For a summary of the opening of Japan, see William Hosley. The Japan Idea: Art and Life in Victorian America (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1990).

(3.) Quoted ibid., p. 44. A copy of the A. A. Vantine and Co. trade catalogue of c. 1880 is in the Winterthur Museum Library, Winterthur, Delaware, Printed Book and Periodical Collection.

(4.) Robinson's diaries (March 1892-March 1896) can be consulted at the Frick Art Reference Library, New York City. The exhibition to which he refers, Hokusai and His School, was the first organized for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (1853-1908) (see Julia Meech-Pekarik, "Early Collectors of Japanese Prints and The Metropolitan Museum of Art," Metropolitan Museum Journal vol. 17 [1984], pp. 102 and 106).

(5.) Entry for November 30, 1893, Robinson's diary.

(6.) Entry for December 10, 1893, ibid

(7.) Doreen Bolger identified two other prints as possible sources for in the Shade of a Tree, one of which, Ando Hiroshige's Azakusa Kinkyuzan, was once in Weir's collection. It is not known, however, whether Weir owned it at the time he painted this canvas. He could as easily have found his inspiration in numerous other prints. See Doreen Bolger Burke, J. Alden Weir: An American Impressionist (University of Delaware Press, Newark, 1983), pp. 211 and 271 n.49 and 50. For a valuable discussion of the influence of Japanese art on Weir, see ibid., pp. 202-216. See also Doreen Bolger, "American Artists and the Japanese Print: J. Alden Weir, Theodore Robinson, and John H. Twachtman" in American Art around 1900: Lectures in Memory of Daniel Fraad, ed. Doreen Bolger and Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1990), PP. 15-27.

(8.) Twachtman may have depicted his little white footbridge as early as 1896. Monet first depicted his bridge at Giverny in 1895, but none of his bridge paintings were exhibited in the United States or reproduced anywhere during Twachtman's lifetime. See John House, Monet: Nature Into Art (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1986), Pp. 13 and 31; Daniel Wildenstein, Monet: catalogue raisound (Wildenstein Institute, Paris, and Taschen, Cologne), Nos. 1392, 1419, 1419 bis, 1509-1520, 1628-1633; and Frances Weitzenhoffer, The Havemeyers: hnpressionsim Comes to America (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1986), p. 143.

(9.) (Boston, 1886), pp. 274-275. The book ran to at least eight printings by 1895, according to Clay Lancaster, The Japanese Influence in America (Walton H. Rawis, New York, 1963), p. 67. Another source of information about Japanese gardens was the British architect Josiah Conder's Landscape Gardening in Japan, published in 1893 with a supplement containing forty photographs of famous gardens in Japan. According to the Nation, Conder's work was "the most complete and just account of Japanese gardening which has yet appeared" ('Landscape Gardening in Japan," Nation, vol. 58 [June 14, 1894], p.456).

(10.) Bridge-pavilions had appeared in Europe since the eighteenth century, when William Chambers (1726-1796) published his Designs of Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, machines, and utensils (London, 1757). see P1. 7. See also Eleanor von Erdberg, Chinese Influence on European Garden Structures (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, 1936), p. 126.

(11.) Alfred Henry Goodwin, "An Artist's Unspoiled Country Home," Country Life in America, vol. 8 (October 1905), p. 628. Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) was an Anglo-German scholar who has been called the father of comparative religion. His studies of Sanskrit led him eventually to the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern, non-Christian religions. Kathleen A. Pyne places Twachtman's interest in Asian religions in the context of a speculative discussion of his artistic intentions in her essay "John Twachtman and the Therapeutic Landscape, in Deborah Chotner, Lisa N. Peters, and Kathleen A. Pyne, John Twachtman: Connecticut Landscapes (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1989), pp. 49-69. She touches on the same ideas more briefly in her book Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996), pp. 279-282.

(12.) John Cournos, "John H. Twachtman," Forum, vol. 52 (July-December 1914). p.245.

(13.) Japanese names are given here in the Japanese style, with the surname first, except for those Japanese living in the United States, who conformed to the Western style. Shugio, although he lived in the United States, seems to have retained the Japanese form.

(14.) Robinson's diary. New York, April 8, 1894. For more on Shugio, see Meech-Pekarik, "Early Collectors of Japanese Prints," pp. 107-109.

(15.) The book, Ernest Mason Satow and A. G. S. Hawes, A Handbook for Travellers in Central and Northern Japan, Murray's Hand-book Series (London, 1884) is in the collection of the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich.

(16.) Arai was called "the very pioneer of the silk exporters of Japan" in a report on Japanese businesses in New York (Japan in New York [Anraku Publishing Company, New York, 1908], p. 19). For more on Arai, see Harm Matsukata Reischauer, Samurai and Silk.' A Japanese and American Heritage (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1986). The author, who was Arai's granddaughter, married Edwin O. Reischauer (1910-1990), the United States ambassador to Japan during the Kennedy administration.

(17.) I am grateful to Elizabeth De Rosa, an expert on stained glass, for examining the windows and sharing her impressions with me.

(18.) For more about this artist, see my article "Genjiro Yeto: Between Japan and Japanism," Greenwich History, vol. 4 (2000), pp. 8-3 1.

(19.) Brush and Pencil, vol.9 (November 1901), pp. 123 and 127.

(20.) The watercolor is in a private collection.

(21.) Delineator, vol. 60 (November 1902), p. 738.

(22.) Page from 1905 Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogue reprinted in The Wonderful World of Ladies' Fashion 1850-1920. ed. Joseph J. Schroeder Jr. Follett Publishing Company, Chicago, 1971), p. 192.

(23.) MacRae's panels can be seen in Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum's First Decade, on view at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich from March 3 to May 27.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Brant Publications, Inc.COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group


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