Caprice in Purple and Gold No. 2 -The Golden Screen, James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1864

It doesn’t get better than this – Whistler’s mistress Joanna Hifferman in kimono, gazing at prints by Hiroshige, in front of a gilded scenic Japanese screen. Proving that Hiroshige’s work was not yet well-known in London when the painting was first exhibited, critics in 1865 didn’t understand what they were seeing – one referred to Joanna looking at “”a picture, drawing, fan or whatever it may be” – never even realizing she was looking at Japanese prints.  It was just 10 years since the opening of Japan, five years since the first visit by Japanese to the West, yet the aesthetic influence of Japan had begun, coming to the West like an unstoppable steamroller. Japonisme was the term coined for this influence and considering the other posts I have in the hopper, it looks like it will be a common theme this month.

The painting itself is a commentary on these ukiyo-e prints, with its flattened point of view and the mimicking of a traditional pose.  Whistler even designed a special frame, with kamon-like (Japanese family crests) decorations around  the edge, to extend the Japonisme effect.

For a modern-day replication of this scene, go out and pick up a vintage kimono, but more importantly, this book –  Hiroshige: 100 Views of Edo – by Melanie Trede and Lorenz Bichler. Measuring a huge 17 inches by 14 inches, it reminds me of the very funny Seinfeld episode when Kramer creates a coffee table book (about coffee tables) that has small fold out legs and is a coffee table. I think you could do that with this book. But this really is no ordinary coffee table book and the photos below do not begin to give a sense of how large and special it is! The outer binding is separate, covered in pink silk. The interior book pages also have a silky cover and look hand-stitched. It is held closed with two small toggles. The 120 images are reprints of an original set of woodblock prints belonging to the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. Each print has details and descriptions and it would be amazing to sit with a glass of wine and just absorb a few here and there.

The cover…

the interior…

and some sample pages.

It makes a perfect holiday gift for anyone interested in ukiyo-e, Japonisme or just beautiful books!!!! From a decorating point of view, this could be the lynchpin of a well styled coffee table.

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen is one of the Whistler highlights (from among a collection of 1300) at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., along with the reconstructed Peacock Room and other paintings. A definite “bucket list” item.

The Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo in Omotesando runs an ever changing series of exhibits from their huge (12,000) collection of ukiyo-e.

Image credits: 1.  Freer/Sackler Museum, 2-3. Barnes and Noble, 4-5. Taschen Books.