La petite Japonaise, 1881
Oil on canvas
40 x 50 cm | 19.69 x 15.75 in
Signed and dated upper left ‘Carl Nys / Anvers / 1881’
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Antwerp (Belgium)
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Carl Nys (b. 1858) studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, where he was thought in the academic styles of the day. Upon graduation, he left for Paris to complete his studies in the ateliers of the highly regarded artists Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), and the grand master of the juste milieu Henri Gervex (1852-1929). Even though Nys never sacrificed his academic craftsmanship for the sake of modernity, his virtuoso brushwork and modern subject matter show interest in and the influence of the impressionist impulse of the day.
The present painting was made upon the completion of Nys’ training in Paris, in the first months of his return to Antwerp. "La petite Japonaise" masterfully portrays the fascination of the French public with all things Japanese. Ending a long period of national isolation, Japan reopened its ports in 1853 to international trade under pressure of the United States of America, marking the beginning of a gradual export of Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics to Europa and the USA. When in 1867, Japan hosted a pavilion on the Parisian Exposition Universelle, Japanese art took the continent by storm and would leave a significant mark on European art. In the course of the 1870s, so-called ‘Japonisme’ was widely regarded as an important influence on impressionism, and thus radically avant-garde. By the 1880s this fascination with all things Japanese already spread to general popular culture in France. In Belgium, however, Japonism became a main influence of the avant-garde circles of Les Vingt (Les XX), and thus rose to prominence only by the late 1880s. The importance of Japanese aesthetics for the development of European art is felt as late as the beginning of the 20th century with Art Nouveau, and in the works of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) or the presence of Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968) in the Parisian avant-garde circles of modernism.
Our painting, dated 1881, is to be regarded as an exquisite and rather early example of Japonism in Belgium. The typical Japanese motives of the fan and the kimono, but also the vibrant coloring, the lack of depth, and the stylized flowers in the background, all refer to the Japanese art that took Europe by storm some years earlier. The influence of the highly successful Belgian artist Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) should be stressed, not only in terms of his modern subject matter, but also as a prominent example of painting in which academic craftsmanship is balanced with virtuosity of the brush. Stevens was one of the first Belgian artists to fully immerse himself in the Japanese aesthetic, and did so with great success.
The background is of a particular modernity, depicting plants and flowers as would be seen in Japanese prints. Without shadows and with a hard, black outline this depiction gives the feeling of a three color block print that was hastily positioned. It is in this regard that the painting anticipates the Art Nouveau aesthetics of the turn of the century. The wonderful frame, which we believe to be original to the painting, resonates beautifully with the work and forms an integral part of the ensemble.
In 1886, Carl Nys joined the Antwerp artist society ‘Als Ick Kan’, which did not have an avant-garde character but was widely respected as one of the last exhibition bodies of academic excellence. In the same year, Nys would exhibit his works alongside those of his friend Emile Claus (1849-1924), who at that point was already highly regarded as a traditional painter on the road to modernism. The double exposition "Carl Nys - Emile Claus" at the Verlatzaal in Antwerp, shows the interest in and appreciation for Carl Nys’ work by the Belgian public. Besides Carl Nys’ presence on the Belgian Triennial Salons, the artist also exhibited on the Salons de Paris, where he received an honorable mention in 1888.