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Claude Monet’s life-size oil painting of his wife Camille in La Japonaise is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, depicting her dressed in a Japanese kimono and surrounded by paper fans. She stands out amongst the blue background, which is composed mostly of cool blue tones. In terms of depth perspective, it is difficult to tell where the blue-painted wall ends and where the tiled, tatami-styled floor begins, if not for the presence of a deep cerulean band which separates the two. The viewer is encouraged to accept this band as the molding in the wall, or a border of paint in the room lining the edges of the ‘carpet’, hinting at the dimensions of the room in which Camille is posing. This background is further adorned by circular paper fans, with thin yellow or black handles. The images displayed on these fans all consist of Japanese motifs, ranging from elegant white birds, fish, flowers, peaceful seascapes, or images of Japanese women dressed in traditional garb. Like the rest of the background, Monet paints uses a primarily pastel-colored palette to represent these fans, which are largely contrast with Camille’s red kimono.
Camille stands out amongst this cool background in her bright red kimono, the warm colors of which bring her immediately to our attention as the center of focus of this painting. Her kimono in traditional style droops from her thin, chalk-colored arm, in which she holds a spread fan. The inside of the fan is painted in the repeating motif of red, white, and blue colors, which compose the majority of this painting. Furthermore, the kimono droops not only from her upper body but also ground, spreading fan-like (this is mirrored in the fan she holds in her hand and the fans that lay haphazardly on the ground and that are pinned to the wall behind her) on the tiled carpet. The kimono itself appears to be trimmed with gold, blue, and red thread, highlighting what appears to be a Japanese warrior embroidered onto its center. With ebony tufts of hair sticking out in all directions under a powder blue and yellow-gold cap, he is adorned in a similarly-colored garb, and holds an unsheathed sword in his bent hands. His permanently scowled face looks away from the viewers and in the opposite direction as Camille, pointing toward the left of the painting. What is interesting to observe here is Monet’s deviation from the smooth lines and folds of the kimono, with the warrior’s right arm depicted in such a way that it appears to be thrusting out of the borders of her outfit and into the three-dimensional space of the surroundings. Below the intricate gold twirls of the warrior’s garb on the kimono is what appears to be a dragon, with strands of yellow-green thread that suggest its arms, legs, and claws, and a silk-like patch of cloth embroidered with golden swirls of thread that the viewer can assume to be its lower body. In this lower half of the kimono, Monet uses a shift in light and color to show the folds of the dress as it is spread out on the floor, reverting to whites and lighter pinks to exemplify creases in contact with the threaded border of the kimono. Reverting to the upper half of the dress, green and blue leaves and flowers fringed in gold complement the garb of the fighter and the image of the dragon below.
Looking at the features of Camille herself, her flaxen hair is almost as yellow-gold as the thread on her kimono, and is accentuated by some strands of brown twisted into a coiled coiffure on top of her head. Her head is coquettishly tilted back, and she makes direct eye-contact with the viewer, or in this case, the painter, her husband. Looking at this painting in person, it is evident that Monet accentuates her rosy and pink-cheeked nature with the addition of thick slabs of pink paint, which is not very well blended with the rest of her face. In contrast, the rest of her face is is chalk-colored and green-tinted; these cool green patches complement her blonde hair and the green and gold colors appearing throughout her kimono. In terms of her other features, Monet highlights Camille’s European qualities through her defined black brows, delicate nose, and thin, red lips. In this, European and Eastern facial features and body types are contrasted through the likenesses of Camille and the warrior emblazoned on her dress. This is emphasized in the stark distinction between her described features and his large nose, bushy eyebrows, and large black eyes.
In this allusion to the French fad of Japanese culture, Monet creates a visual intersection between Western and Eastern cultures through La Japonaise. By thematically centering the painting on Japanese motifs, as seen in the kimono and in the fans, he commits a sort of cultural appropriation through the coquettish depiction of Camille. It can even be suggested that her position in the painting may be inferred to be a mirror of a sensual Geisha. Thus, like other impressionist and post-impressionist artists, it is evident that Monet was inspired by the work of Japanese artists and studied Japanese prints in the creation of in La Japonaise.
In a letter to his sister in 1888, post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh suggested that by “working in tropical countries…You will be able to get an idea of the revolution in painting when you think, for instance, of the brightly colored Japanese pictures that one sees everywhere, landscapes and figures.” (Chipp 31). Monet employs the use of these bright primary colors in La Japonaise through the focus on Camille’s red kimono. Deviating from the cool pastel colors we see in the background and in the majority of his later works, the bright red acts as a vivid contrast between the rest of the objects in the painting. This contrast draws our attention even more to the warrior depicted on the kimono than to Camille, who is meant to the main attraction and figurehead of this work. Furthermore, it can even be said that the alluring effect of the red causing her chalky complexion and yellow hair to fade into the background and act as a less noticeable feature of this painting. Likewise, the same effect is evident in terms of the surroundings; the viewer’s attention to the red dress renders the cool blue wall less interesting and less eye-catching than the multi-colored arrayed patterns of the kimono.
Van Gogh goes on to talk more about this “simplification of color in the Japanese manner” (Chipp 32) by noting in an 1888 letter to colleague Emile Bernard how “they express the mat and pale complexion of a young girl and the piquant contrast of the black hair marvelously well by means of white paper and four strokes of the pen.” (Chipp 33). In La Japonaise, Monet conforms to Van Gogh’s assessment of Japanese prints in his repeated use of primarily the same three colors (red, white, and blue) to convey Camille dressed in the kimono. Although he still retains his rapid impressionistic brushstrokes and transition of color using light, this work differs from his later pieces in that it approaches, rather than recedes from reality, as would be common among other impressionist artworks at the time. Thus, by using blocks of repeating color, smooth, fluid lines in representing the kimono, and sharp, straight lines in depicting the boxes on the tatami-styled carpet, Monet utilizes aspects of the Japanese art he admired and that had captivated the rest of French bourgeoisie society. Nonetheless, in doing so, he still retains his hallmark style, and is able to incorporate the two in producing this image.
Thus, through this melding of French and Japanese stylistic forms of art, Monet was able to make a social comment on the relationship between Western Identity versus the Eastern culture that had been appropriated by the European upper classes. In addition, it can also be suggested that through this painting, Monet may have tried to establish a middle ground between the two divergent cultures, as seen in the repeated use of the colors (red, white, and blue) represented on the French flag despite the key motif of Japanese art and culture. Thus, this work allows us as viewers to have a better appreciation of the Eastern influence which played a role in inspiring this painting and in the overall work of Claude Monet.
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