A small exhibition of late-19th century works at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick paints a telling picture of a time when a passion for things Japanese cast a wide spell. ln the process, the assembled objects and images join forces with other works on view at the museum to tell a story of epic proportions.

Culled from the Kusakage-Griffis Japonisme Gallery while it is under renovation, the assembled decorative objects, paintings, and fine china serve as a narrative that speaks of world history, a pivotal era in the arts, and the evolution of the modern aesthetic. “Japonisme Highlights: Paintings and Ceramics from the Collections” is also a reflection of the Zimmerli’s important role in uncovering and telling that story, and an indication of the scope and scale of the museum’s holdings.

The story begins in the 1850s when Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world after more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation. At the time, objects from that country flowed into the West, capturing the imagination of artists and collectors with their exotic look — an artistic vocabulary that was antithetical to the prevailing aesthetic. Before long, shiploads of oriental bric-a-brac-fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and silks poured into England and France, filling the windows of galleries and shops. On the crest of that wave of graphic exotica were woodcut prints; works whose lack of perspective and shadow, flat areas of strong color, compositional freedom, and asymmetrical and abstracted design had a profound effect on the nature of art and craft in France and Belgium. In the process, the advent of Japonisme broke down the barriers between the fine and decorative arts.

According to former Zimmerli director Dennis Cate, who brought the museum from minor gallery leagues into the top five percent of university museums during his three-plus-decade tenure, the discovery of Japanese art gave much needed graphic tools to French artists who were desperately seeking change. “The academic style was going stale at the time. The more radical artists, who were rebelling against the formal demands of the academy, looked to other sources. Japan and its art became a liberating force; a new world they could borrow from.”

The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 enriched the available mix, bringing a further influx of Japanese wares along with some of the earliest Japanese visitors to that city. It was not long before the public, too, was hooked, and a collecting frenzy was in the works. The term “japonisme” was soon coined by a French art critic to describe the sweeping influence of Japanese style on French art and craft.

The influence of the Japanese aesthetic was powerful and long-lived. By the turn of the 20th century, it had engendered dramatic changes in the nature of art and design on both sides of the Atlantic. Beginning in France, architecture, pottery, painting, prints, books and magazines, and even fashion took on a new and often improved look, echoing the interest in precisely detailed nature forms and exquisitely balanced sense of design that were the hallmarks of Japanese art and artifact.

Cate notes that to some degree, Japonisme laid the foundation for modernism. “Art slowly moved away from the direct representation of nature. It became a compromise between realism and abstraction. Artists became more interested in color and composition, less in the literal image.”

A star-studded galaxy of artists that included Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and James McNeill Whistler has since been credited with “grafting on to the tired stump of Europe the vital shoots of Oriental art.” The focus on Japan even reached behind the footlights to give rise to such masterful works as Madame Butterfly and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.

The exhibition functions nicely as a virtuoso demonstration of the powerful impact and graphic appeal of the Japanesque. Drawn from the museum’s landmark holdings in this field, it serves as a mini-survey, making graphic note of significant aspects of the style. In the process, it combines nicely with several other works on view at the museum to chart the eloquence of that style and demonstrate its material breadth and graphic energy.

The “Japonisme” exhibit includes paintings, dinnerware, vessels, serving pieces, and a large enameled statuette of a kimono-clad figure. Emblematic of the movement are four elegant dinner plates from the Rousseau service designed by Felix Braquemond, an innovative artist who pioneered the use of motifs culled from Japanese art. Covered with precisely detailed images of flowers, birds, and fish, copied from a Japanese illustrated book, the service was exhibited to great acclaim at the Paris Exposition of 1867, where the innovative use of such motifs on French porcelain created a sensation. La Japonaise, the slip-cast polychrome three-dimensional figure by Joseph-Theodore Deck — one of the earliest artists to embrace Japonisme — nicely illustrates the genre’s lavish use of pattern and rich and varied color. A stoneware vase with oxblood glaze by Ernest Chaplet — another major figure in the movement — echoes the form and glazing of ancient traditional vessels while approaching modernist style in affect. And paintings by French and American artists show how Japanese style was given a Western voice.

Christine Giviskos, associate curator of 19th century European arts, who staged the exhibition, says that these objects were selected for their importance. “We chose our most famous examples. The Deck statue is notable. The work of Gallet and Chaplet, who designed some of the vases, was crucial to the development of art nouveau.”

The story of Japonisme and its influence continues with a pleasing glow in a nearby gallery, with “Art Nouveau Illuminated: Lamps from the Sigmund Freedman Bequest.” Again pattern and nature forms set the style. But here it has evolved into a more organic, Westernized mode using the whiplash curves of art nouveau, a muted palette, and irregular organic forms. Opulent lamps from French and American workshops include several exquisite examples by Tiffany Studios as well as a sampling of French manufacture. As in earlier Japanese-influenced work that echoes nature forms, botanicals, and insects are among the most-used motifs. Domed, leaded glass shades are decorated with vines, blossoms, and buds. Bamboo and lily pads are wrought into sculptural metal bases. And in one Tiffany lamp we see an opaque shade that was meant to temper the harsh glare of the newly introduced electric light bulb.

According to Giviskos, these lamps speak of the creative energy that marked the style. “The manner in which the Japanese treated nature in decoration challenged western artists to look at standard motifs in new ways.”

Many of the works in the 19th century European galleries also make reference to the impact of Japonisme. A new display of prints from the permanent collection, which goes on view on Monday, July 6, includes telling examples. Among them are a pair of landscapes by Jules Chadel in which Giviskos says the use of woodcut as the medium was directly influenced by Japanese prints. She also makes note of the artists’ strong interest in Japan in three prints from an album by Georges Bigot, who lived and worked in Japan for 20 years. And, she says that a calendar by Henry Somm, with its inclusion of fans, lanterns, and a Japanese screen, essentially illustrates the story of how the passion for Japanese style changed what art was about in the late 19th-century France.

The Zimmerli and Rutgers University have a long history with things Japanese. Taro Kusukabe, one of the first Japanese students to study at an American institution of higher education, enrolled at Rutgers College in 1867, where he became the first student to receive an American degree. William Elliot Griffis, an 1869 Rutgers College graduate, was one of the earliest scholars of Japanese.

The focus on Japonisme gathered energy and took shape at the Zimmerli in 1975 when the museum joined with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery to stage “Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on French Art, 1854-1910,” which broke new ground. Cate, who organized that exhibition, says that it was the first major display to examine the dimensions of the Japanese influence in the west by focusing broadly on paintings, prints, and the decorative arts. “Our show was our the first to deal with all media, to look broadly at Japonisme.” He says that this landmark exhibition changed the way scholars considered the subject. “The exhibition codified Japonisme as an area of research. It became a legitimate form of study. Before then it was viewed as a side note within the context of other subjects.”

Over the years, a significant portion of gallery space at the Zimmerli has been devoted to changing exhibitions concentrating on the Japanese-influenced art of late 19th century France, “The Circle of Toulouse-Lautrec” and “Flora and Fauna: The Japanese Influence on the Depiction of Nature in Western Art, 1875-1925” among them. In the process, the museum has built a collection of Japonisme that makes it a major center for the study of the genre.

Giviskos says the Zimmerli’s holdings are among the most significant, anywhere. “I don’t think any other museum has made the same effort in organizing important exhibitions and collecting.”

Art Exhibit, Zimmerli Art Museum, George and Hamilton streets, New Brunswick. On view to Friday, July 31. “Japonisme Highlights: Paintings and Ceramics from the Collection,” French and American paintings and ceramics inspired by Japanese art and aesthetics. 732-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

The Zimmerli is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in July and for the entire month of August.

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