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Proust and Japanese Prints

The French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922), author of In Search of Lost Time (A la recherché du temps perdu) was an intensely visual writer, deeply interested in paintings and the arts in general. His long descriptions paint detailed pictures in our minds. Among his dedicated readers it is well-known that one of Proust's favourite artists was Vermeer and the Dutch masters in general, as well as Chardin, Whistler and Monet (most probably Elstir in the novel) and many others. Proust admired painters who focused on showing us the beauty of seemingly mundane and insignificant things. Thanks to magnificent publications such as Paintings in Proust, we can even see the numerous examples of Western art cited in his long book. However, Painitngs in Proust fails to mention any rereference in novel to Japanese prints.

There is an excellent academic article by Jan Hokenson on 'Proust's Japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics' in Modern Language Studies, vol. 29, no.1, 1999, pp.17-37, which explores more deeply the relationship between Proust and Japanese art in general. But it lacks visual references that show those connections. This blog post aims merely to highlight some of the Japanese prints mentioned by Proust in the Search. Such a study might be considered akin to stamp collecting. Indeed, Proust likened collectors and specialists of Japanese prints to collectors of stamps and snuff boxes:

...they meet with them at occasions to which laymen are not admitted, any more than those which bring together connoisseurs of old snuff boxes, Japanese prints or rare flowers, and at which, because of the pleasure of learning something new, the usefulness of the exchanged and the fear of competition, there reigns, as at a stamp market, at once the close understanding of specialists and the fierce rivalry of collectors.

In Search of lost Time, volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, p.22

In a way, searching for quotes on Japanese prints in Proust is just as niche as philately: fun for those interested in the subject, but adding nothing to our deeper understanding of the novel. Perhaps, this is true. But overall, one hopes, that such a study will move away from the Eurocentric focus of art historical studies on Proust, while reinforcing our understanding of Japonisme, so popular during the belle époque, as well as adding a layer to our knowledge of the rich and diverse sources of Eastern inspiration for Proust (he loved also the One Thousand and One Nights, and Schopenhauer's Buddhist influenced philosophy) and his almost Buddhistic way of seeing the world.

Although not a direct reference to a Japanese print, the first hint is when the young narrator, also called Marcel, captures sight of the church steeples of Martinville, that inspires him to first write and become an artist:

But a little later, when we were already close to Combray, and the sun had set, I caught sight of them [the steeples] one last time from very far away, seeming now no more than three flowers painted on the sky above the low line of the fields.

In Search of lost Time, volume 1, The Way by Swann's, p.182

Proust's unusual and original description of the three church steeples as three flowers in the sky set against a setting sun is strikingly similar to a print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Horikiri Iris Garden (Horikiri no Hanashobu), from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.

Hiroshige, 'Horikiri Iris Garden, c.1858, Library of Congress collection

Proust was familiar with Japanese prints, and particularly admired the technique known as bokashi or gradation, often used to to pigment the sky. In a description of apple trees, Proust this time directly alludes to a Japanese print:

There where, in August, with my grandmother, I had seen only the leaves and as it were the emplacement of the apple trees, they were in full flower for as far as the eye could see, unimaginably luxuriant, their feet in the mud but wearing their ball-gowns, not taking any precautions so as not to spoil the most marvellous pink satin that you ever set eyes on, made to shine by the sunlight; the far-off horizon of the sea provided the apple trees with what was in effect a background from a Japanese print; if I raised my head to look at the sky between the flowers, which made its blue appear the more cloudless, almost violent, they seemed to draw aside so as to display the depth of that paradise.

In Search of lost Time, volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, p.182.

Proust could just as well be describing the Japanese print below by Hiroshige, with pink blossoms set against a blue cloudless sky with a sea in the distance.

Hiroshige, Suijin Shrine and Massaki on the Sumida River, c.1856

When young Marcel arrives in Balbec (based on Cabourg), a seaside resort on the Normandy coast, he describes the changing landscape to an art exhibition: and one day in particular, he compares the landscape with Japanese prints:

I could have seen these landscapes as a mere selection of paintings, changed every day, arbitrarily exhibited at the spot where I happened to be...One evening it would be an exhibition of Japanese prints: beside the flimsy cut-out of the sun, red and as round as the moon, a yellow cloud was a lake against which black blades, and the trees on its banks, were silhouetted; a bar of soft pink, in a shade which I had not set eyes on since my very first paint-box, swelled like a river...

In Search of lost Time, volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, p.385

The red sun like a 'cut-out' is typical in Japanese prints such as the fan print below by Hiroshige, Sunrise at Susaki on New Year's Day, circa 1856.

Hiroshige, Sunrise at Susaki on New Year's Day, 1856, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other references to Japanese art include the painter Elstir (largely modelled on Monet) and its influence on his work. While visiting the studio of the painter Elstir in Balbec on the Normandy coast, Marcel looks at the paintings around him:

Most of those in the studio were not what I would have preferred to see: the paintings from his first and second periods, so called by an English art magazine which I had found lying on the table in the salon at the Grand-Hotel, that is, his mythological manner and the paintings in which a Japanese influence had become evident...

In Search of lost Time, volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, p.414.

Claude Monet, Madame Monet in Japanese kimono

The influence of Japanese art on Elstir was typical of the period when there was a fad for all things Japanese among the Parisian avant-garde. This became known as Japonisme and was to influence many artists including Degas, Monet, van Van Gogh, and Toulouse Lautrec among others.

Aside from Japanese prints, the decorative arts of Japan is mentioned numerous times in the novel, even at the most crucial point of the Madeleines and tea:

And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea

In Search of lost Time, volume 1, The Way by Swann's ,p.64.

Japanese art and prints especially served to help Proust in his descriptions of the world and Marcel's path to becoming an artist. One can even argue that the narrator’s prose was a type of japonisme. Especially in Combray, Proust is painterly, imbedding the boy’s first strong visual impressions, and his first efforts at writing, in visual imagery often derived from Japanese woodblock prints. Certain iconic images, such as Japanese style apple blossoms clouds and silhouetted trees, later reappear in typically Proustian fashion, threading childhood memories through adult impressions and, increasingly, artistic reflections.


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James Vincent
James Vincent
Jul 14, 2023

Thanks for this piece! I don't think this topic is "niche" at all! In fact I think Proust's taste for Japanese aesthetics is just as helpful for understanding the novel as an understanding of his fondness for Vermeer or Carpaccio. And the examples you have found are wonderful! I especially love the one of the three steeples as flowers in that Hiroshige print. I agree that the Hokenson article is very useful on this topic. There is also some good stuff in French. Suzuki Junji in his book "Proust et le japonisme" pickes up on the same passage you quote describing the apple blossoms and notes how Proust's innate fondness for views of the sea perceived through branches laden wi…

Edward Luper
Edward Luper
Jul 15, 2023
Replying to

Thank you! your article on Proust's haiku is also fascinating and beautiful! It is amazing how some of his sentences work so well as haiku - the aesthetic is indeed similar: capturing little impressions; and much shorter to read than the novel! I'm not sure about the specific connection between Japonisme and homosexuality though? is there any greater connection between that and say the sensuality of the 1001 Nights which Proust also adored? or botany? Japonisme was widely popular and fashionable at the time, and its links for Elstir wouldn't have homosexual overtones?

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