The major exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1890 was a revelation for countless modern artists.
They absorbed the Japanese printmakers’ abstract visual language, the flat expanses, silhouettes, abrupt cropping and decorative patterns.
Above all, however, they were inspired by the power of colour, and more specifically the colour woodcut.
Some artists — Henri Rivière and Henri Charles Guérard among them — were so impressed by this Japanese technique that they set out to imitate it as precisely as possible.
The Japanese technique
The complex process for printing a Japanese woodblock print is clearly visible in a series of trial proofs by Jules Chadel.
This printmaker was downright obsessed by Japanese prints, and even went to study under his Japanese counterpart Yoshijirō Urushibara (1888–1953), who taught him the finer points of the craft.
It was here that he learned how to print blocks inked in different colours on top of one another accurately, finishing with the key block containing the line drawing.
Searching for nuance
The Scottish Nabi artist James Pitcairn-Knowles made a very subtle colour woodcut called The Bath, in which he achieved a soft, almost watery effect by printing the key block in beige on greyish-blue paper.
We can see from an earlier trial proof that the use of a darker pigment for the key block produced a considerably harder result.
Herbert Furst, The Modern Woodcut (From its Origin), A Study of the Evolution of the Craft, London 1924
Jacquelynn Baas, The Artistic Revival of the Woodcut in France 1850-1900, Ann Arbor 1984
Marije Vellekoop, ‘Een kijkje in de werkplaats. De techniek van de prentkunst’, in Prentkunst in Parijs: De rage van het fin de siècle, Amsterdam 2012, p. 44-73