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Japanese Influence: Arthur Wesley Dow

Japanese Influence Arthur Wesley Dow

Arthur Wesley Dow, Spring Landscape, 1892, University of Michigan Art Museum



At my parents’ home in Ann Arbor as spring was arriving, I had a few minutes in the University of Michigan art museum.  I was surprised by a painting of Arthur Wesley Dow’s – very lovely, and very Japanese in its loveliness.

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The wall text said that, in 1891, a year before he painted this picture, Dow had made a visit to the Boston Public Library, where he saw Japanese woodblock prints for the first time.  “One evening with Hokusai,” he said, “gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures. I surely ought to compose in an entirely different manner.”  

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This year I have begun tracing lines of Japanese influence in French and American pictures.  It is surprising how many there are and how they vein in and out.  Dow, it turns out, wrote a book that affected several generations of American artists called Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color.  In it, he gives this definition, which I found quoted at the website of a book designer (link below):

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The term NOTAN, a Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces—whether colored or not—whether in buildings, in pictures, or in nature. Careful distinction should be made between NOTAN, an element of universal beauty, and LIGHT AND SHADOW, a single fact of external nature.  





The capitals are his, but even with the emphasis I’m not sure I’ve grasped the concept yet.  Looking at this picture, and at the trees in flower in our neighborhood, one thing that strikes me is that in spring the trees themselves give off light.  First as a kind of yellow haze around the still-bare branches, then with the spangled beauty of tiny, starry leaves, and now in the leaning, blowing light-over-shadow way that they respond to every breath of the day.


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Toward Spring

Toward Spring

Pissarro, The Public Gardens at Pontoise, 1874



In The Times this morning, an item suggesting that blossoming in the New York City parks will be unusually overlapping this season.  I remember this from certain springs.  In general it would be so carefully painted in Central Park – first the yellow forsythia, then delicate whites and rose of cherry and dogwood, then the heavier magnolias.  But that occasionally these would run together.  The effects could be beautiful, but sometimes I remember thinking that the palettes jarred, and that I preferred the slow procession, each tree gravely taking its turn to step forward.

Here, though, we long for spring, hurried or deliberate. Three brave clusters of dark purple crocuses in our yard, in a particularly sunny and warm place close to the house, are the only flowers I’ve seen. Today, when the baby and I went out to the country for a walk, we saw forsythia so tight and ashen that it seemed weeks away from bloom. Staring now out the study window, by dint of straining, I can begin to pretend that the faintest shade of yellow-green limns the edges of the severely closed branches.  

Struggling to recall the sensations of public parks in spring, I was put in mind of a Pissarro I looked at last year at the Met. The Public Garden at Pontoise painted in 1874.

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Perhaps those massed bushes would be rhodedendrons?  And lilacs?      

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The people do not seem especially joyful – their faces are deliberately not given in detail.  But they move about in an air that is full of leaves and flowers, and the people, too, look at the coming-and-going clothes of the boy on the left, are not bound tightly anymore but are carried by the fullness of spring.

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And when they climb to the heights of the hill to look out across the water, the light among the treetops is radiant.

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In a different spring, from Paris, Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien -- it was the first of March, 1884 -- of how he looked forward to being in the house that they had taken in Eragny. It had a garden and fields. “It is about two hours from Paris.  I found the country much more beautiful than Compiegne, although that day it was still pouring torrents.  But here comes the spring, the fields are green, outlines are delicate in the distance.”  

I have been imagining how that delicate green arrival felt to him.  Look at this, from the lower left, where the painting becomes a pure study of color:

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Quotation from Pissarro, Letters to his Son Lucien, edited by John Rewald and translated by Lionel Abel, p58.