In the 1850s, after centuries of seclusion, Japan suddenly opened its doors to the West. Japanese porcelain and prints began to appear in Parisian shops and galleries, and a wave of interest in things Japanese flooded the French capital. A young American artist living in Paris, James McNeill Whistler, was especially intrigued. As he pored over ancient Japanese prints depicting courtesans wearing kimonos, an item of clothing hitherto unknown in the West, he had the idea of painting his mistress Joanna in this loose and exotic robe. He posed her looking at prints by the famous Japanese artist Hiroshige, in front of a gilded Japanese screen. This painting, The Golden Screen (see below), was one of the first to show a Western woman wearing Asian dress.
Whistler also produced The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, depicting a noted Victorian beauty in a flowing kimono and surrounded by Asian objects. Whistler’s most famous painting – Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, an austere study in greys and blacks – may give a misleading impression of his work: in fact, as you can see here, the artist loved colour.
The Balcony features yet more kimono-clad models. But perhaps Whistler was running out of kimonos: the woman standing at the rail apparently wears the same black kimono and red sash as the model in Princess, the reclining woman wears the salmon pink kimono also used in Princess and a third seems to be in the white kimono from The Golden Screen.
Rather strangely, the setting for this balcony scene is the Thames, looking across to the dark, mist-shrouded factories of Battersea. Given Whistler’s intense interest in Japan at the time, it may not be too fanciful to imagine that Battersea’s slag heaps echo images of Mount Fuji favoured by Japanese artist Hokusai, whose works Whistler collected.
Whistler’s depiction of the kimono influenced other artists, who began to paint their own intimate scenes of women in this novel boudoir item. The overwhelming tide of japonisme, and the Western love of the kimono, had begun.