Cultural studies in Newport

By GREG COOK  |  August 11, 2010

Many Western artists were intrigued by Japanese art, but didn't know how to incorporate Asian influences into their style. Some just depicted Asian scenes in Western realist manner, like Louis Jules Du Moulin's 1880s painting of a Japanese lily pond. Sometimes Japanese styles were awkwardly grafted on, like a circa 1890 woman's pink dressing gown. A Japanese-inspired embroidered pattern of white, purple, and green wisteria mixes uneasily with the gown's big poufy Victorian shoulders and wasp waist. Often if felt like a masquerade, as in Dr. John J. Mason's striking circa 1908 autochrome (an early type of color photography) of a white woman in Japanese attire holding a red umbrella in a sunny American flower garden.

But other artists thoroughly absorbed Japanese delicacy, simplicity, aerial perspective, and careful asymmetrical arrangements, as seen in Fidelia Bridge's spare watercolor and gouache of autumn leaves from the 1880s and Frank W. Benson's 1920 drypoint Blackbirds and Rushes. Benson's print is rigorously realist, but he pulls it off with a Japanese-inflected airy looseness. The birds are like musical notes on the staves of marsh grass.

And then there's Frances Morriah Prentice Palmer's 1885 crazy quilt with its jitterbugging patterns of rectangles and stripes, embroidered and appliquéd flowers, and ribbons for town events. Crazy quilts took off from asymmetrical and seemingly random Japanese designs – including, perhaps, "cracked ice" china patterns. Quilters assimilated and mutated them to produce something "crazy," and Western, and brand new.

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