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Aestheticism and Japan: The Cult of the Orient

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"Aestheticism and Japan: The Cult of the Orient"

From The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989
Vivien Greene
Published in 2009
13 pages, fully illustrated

Exploring the influence Asian art, religion, and philosophy had on a generation of American artists associated with the Aesthetic movement, this essay turns to iconic figures such as John La Farge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and James McNeill Whistler to display the effect of these new trends. Vivien Greene stresses the importance of these artists' written travel accounts, the art objects that they brought back, and the translations of religious and philosophical texts within the work of Mary Cassatt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, La Farge, Henry David Thoreau, and Whistler.


Japan, stereotypically seen as the "civilized" Asian country, and often gendered as female and passive, seems to have held Anglo-Americans in a special thrall. The Eastward gaze was spurred by economic and political motives, as America strove to become an imperial power in the Pacific region and to capitalize on expanding trade. Escapism incited a longing for the "primitive," especially after the official closure of the American frontier in 1893 at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. The loss of a Wild West to conquer propelled some Americans beyond the Pacific, where they sought to recapture a sense of individual will or authority through the superiority they felt over Asian cultures and the freedoms these non-Western lands allowed them. In a post–Civil War society of financial prosperity as well as its ugly underside — urban malaise — members of the privileged classes evaded the unsavory dimensions of progress and industry to discover the "innocent" and "untrammeled" world of the Orient. The overstimulation and fragmentation of a civilized modernity also compelled Americans to seek the East, where they hoped to find a cure for their neurasthenia. Finally, in a search for alternate spiritualities in the face of secularization, they went in a quest for mystical experiences and psychic harmony. And myriad other projections were made upon the screen that was the East.

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