Finding Japan in France

Elizabeth Emery of Montclair State University shared her research of women’s contribution to the study of Japanese art in 19th-century France.

IMG_8493PROVO, Utah (June 9, 2015)—In 1858, Japan opened its ports to the French, part of a long process ending Japanese isolation from the West. For the first time, Japanese art became widely available in Western markets. Vases and statues, brooches and hairpins, tapestries and figurines, all these items caught the imagination of Western enthusiasts, especially in Parisian marketplaces. With time, they grew from mere curiosities to a recognized art form, a transition made possible in part by their female advocates.

In a Humanities Center colloquium, professor Elizabeth Emery from Montclair State University, shared her preliminary research into the ways that women opened up a new field of artistic study in 19th-century France.

“Asian objects were slow to be adopted in France as ‘art,’ worthy of conservation in museums, because of their longstanding association with commerce, gender, sexuality, and exoticism,” Emery said. For decades, department stores and curiosity shops selling Asian collectibles marketed themselves directly to women. But collectors and vendors alike were serious about the trade and organized exhibits and printed magazines that gave their collections greater context. “Above all, they worked tirelessly to divest Asian collectibles from their mass market reputation and to convince the art historical establishment that they were worthy of conservation in the public museums that flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Female collectors were vital in this argument. Clémence d’Ennery was the first non-noble woman in France to create an art museum open to the public, displaying nearly 7,000 items bought in Parisian shops. The Musée d’Ennery was organized in d’Ennery’s home and opened its doors in 1908, 10 years after d’Ennery’s death.

Until recently, d’Ennery’s museum has been credited to her husband, the playwright Adolphe d’Ennery. This misattribution is typical of the way women have been excluded from the narrative of French Japonisme (the study of Japanese influence on Western culture). “At first, the division between men and women, connoisseurs and ‘shoppers,’ proved a helpful distinction in repositioning Japanese, Chinese and Korean objects and artefacts as ‘serious’ and ‘important,’” Emery said. For the items to be seen as art, dealers had to convince critics that these curiosities weren’t, as the stereotype held, simply for bored housewives spending their husbands’ money. “Eliding feminine associations from art also ended up eliding the importance of women in the establishment of the field of Asian studies in France.”

One of the most prolific women to contribute to the field of Asian art was Florine Langweil. By the time of her death in 1958, she had amassed an enormous personal collection, organized major Parisian exhibits and received the French Legion of Honor. Not only could she recognize the worth of individual pieces of Japanese and Asian art, she could anticipate consumer trends as well. As such, many men and women alike looked to the self-taught Langweil as a teacher and considered her a leader in the field.

“Specialists in Asian art, both men and women, were self-taught until the discipline began to grow,” Emery said. “Because we’ve reached a point where Asian studies in France is a thriving discipline, we can rewrite the history to include women, acknowledging more thoroughly that women and men alike participated in establishing the field.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.