Asian Trade and Art Nouveau

What is Art Nouveau?

Art Nouveau was an art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inspired by curves and flowing shapes found in nature. It often has flower/plant motifs, and was heavily inspired by eastern art, Japanese pieces in particular. It largely occurred in France, however many European and American artists took inspiration.

Trade and its Impacts on Western Art

In the 1850s, Commodore Matthew Perry opened trade routes between Japan and the west. [DL: The Dutch East India Company (VOC) had established a trade relationship with Japan by then.] After that, the Japanese shogunate ended, which marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. These events led to an exhibition in London, which displayed Japanese art to the public. Art Nouveau shops opened, with owners collecting, advertising, and selling Asian pieces and spreading popularity across Europe and the States.

Japonism (sometimes spelled “japonisme) refers to the influence of Japanese art in the west. It was a french-coined term, and was largely used in reference to early art nouveau. Oftentimes, art nouveau pieces can be deeply related to the idea of japonism, as well as chinoiserie, which is a similar idea that instead refers to chinese-inspired western works. It feels worth mentioning that some sources refer to these works as “simplified,” however I would argue that this is not a fair descriptor. Many asian-inspired pieces have a great deal of detail and intricacy, though in a different way than typically “western” art. The amount of detail in the works are clear. Though they may be “cleaner” or flatter, they aren’t necessarily simpler.

Examples of Art Nouveau Works and Asian Inspiration

Focusing on western art influenced by Asia, Japan in particular (and, to a lesser extent, China), there is a lot of crossover in symbolism and iconography especially.

The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler
London, England
Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood
Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C

The Peacock Room was heavily inspired by “Peacock Rooms” that were already seen in Asia before moving to the west. The peacock is a symbol that was popular in Asia, and is native to India, but later gained popularity in Japan and China. They were thought to symbolize divinity, later fortune, and were associated with the phoenix, known for its rebirth/immortality.

The peacocks were based on a Japanese print, and the rest of the room was decorated in gold leaf with a metal-paneled ceiling, the pattern of which was based on the peacock feather motif. The shelves are also decorated with asian-style pottery.

Design for a wall decoration with peacock, cranes, and sunflowers for the restaurant in Hotel Langham

Emile Hurtré and Jules C. Wielhorski
Pen and black, blue, and metallic ink, watercolor, over graphite
46.5 x 28.7 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This piece also centers the peacock image (top middle of the image in white), similarly to the Peacock Room. It also has cranes on either side, between pillars. The crane is a Japanese symbol associated with long life and vigilance, and was thought of as a guardian. It also has a graceful shape, with delicate curves that make it well suited for art nouveau’s tendency towards natural looking curved shapes. This piece is very symmetrical, which is common in many Asian art pieces. It also centers plants alongside the birds, rendered in a way that is reminiscent of Japanese prints.

In the background, alongside the yellow flowers, there are golden insects. Insects in general were popular subjects in Japan for millenia, however, after more interaction with the west, western entomologists began studying bugs in Japan. The combination of Japanese interest in insects and European interest in cataloging creatures led to a boom in eastern and western insect-centered art.

Though there are negative connotations with insects in the west, generally rooted in the Bible, they are thought of in a much more positive way in the east. They hold spiritual significance, and are broadly seen in Japanese and Chinese art throughout the ages.


Émile Gallé
C. 1890
Cameo glass with enamel decoration
20 x 13.3 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Speaking of the insect connection, bees captured the interest and attention of some artists. The bees in this vase are in the Edo style, and the plants are abstracted in a common way for the movement, with lines and dots. The hexagons in the background are framed by swooping lines, sectioned into stems with leaves and flowers. 

Dragonfly Brooch

Edgar Bense
ca. 1890
Gold, diamond, enamel
1.6 × 11.7 × 6.5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Insects partially gained popularity in the west due to a book of insects being translated from Japanese to French, allowing for French people to take inspiration from it. This led to many artists taking an interest in insects, such as Van Gogh, Manet, and Gallé.


Joseph-Théodore Deck
Paris, France
16 in. diameter
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In pottery, western artists took inspiration from techniques used by Japanese and Chinese artists. They were influenced by Japanese stoneware, as well as Chinese glazes and ceramics.

Divan Japonais

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Lithograph printed in four colors, wove paper
80.8 x 60.8 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art


Eugene-Samuel Grasset
Lithograph, hand-stenciled in five colors
39.3 x 27.4 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Japanese prints and lithographs were another source of inspiration for western artists. These couple of prints are influenced by Japanese clean shapes and lines in their prints. 


Art Nouveau as an art movement was heavily inspired and influenced by trade between the east and west. Many of the core parts of Art Nouveau were taken from popular symbols, subject matter, materials, and methods in Asia. Trade was a huge part of the art world in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th century, and much of the famous art of the west from this time was impacted, directly or otherwise, by Asian artworks and products.


Amaya, Mario. Art Nouveau. London: Studio Vista Limited, 1966.

Escritt, Stephen. Art Nouveau. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000.

S. R. Schachat, Insect Biodiversity in Meiji and Art Nouveau Design, American Entomologist, Volume 61, Issue 4, Winter 2015, Pages 215–222,

Wichmann, Siegfried. Japonisme. New York: Harmony Books, 1981

Author: Reagan

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