Théodore Duret in Japan

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Théodore Duret, 1868, oil on canvas, Paris, Musée du Petit Palais

Almost 150 years ago, Théodore Duret (1838-1927), a defender of the Impressionists, went on a world tour with Henry Cernuschi.1 It was on this fateful tour, from 1871 to 1872, that Duret encountered the arts of Japan. Of the first stops in London and the United States, Duret left no written record of his travels. On the other hand, his book Voyage en Asie (Journey to Asia), published by Michel Lévy Frères Éditeurs in 1874, recounts his first impressions of Asia, beginning with “Japan [… which] has closed itself off to Europeans the longest of any Asian country.” Straying from the romantic or the marvelous, as he notes in the preface, Duret intended to write narrative with “purely realistic details.” 

While listing the different sites and cities of the archipelago he visited, Duret strove to describe certain geographic, political, social, religious, and economic aspects of the country. Thus, his stay in Tokyo, from November to December 1871, was an opportunity to study Japanese art more extensively: ‘Yedo [Edo], as a capital city, is the place in Japan where one can best familiarize oneself with everything that concerns, in the life of the people, taste and art.” In fine art, Duret distinguished two domains in which Japanese artists and artisans excelled: bronze work and drawing. 

Bust of Henri Cernuschi, marble. Paris, Musée Cernuschi

“Sculptures in Japan are, in fact, principally realized in bronze…the artist mostly uses metal and casts in bronze” 

Th. Duret, Voyage en Asie (Paris Michel Lévy Frères, 1874), p. 20

“Shifting focus from sculpture and towards drawing, we find that the two central qualities of Japanese artists are the lightness of hand and the depiction of movement. It is believed, universally here, that a light-handed touch is due to their way of writing.”

Th. Duret, Voyage en Asie (Paris Michel Lévy Frères, 1874), p. 28

This journey offered the two French travelers the opportunity to amass a collection of Asian art. Cernuschi concentrated on bronze artworks that today are exhibited at the Musée Cernuschi (Musée des arts de L’Asie, Paris). While Duret, on the other hand, was seduced by graphic works: prints that were eventually scattered at a public auction on February 15, 1897, as well as illustrated books and photo albums that he gave to the Cabinet des Estampes de la Bibliothèque Nationale in 1900.2 However, the two friends did not just bring objects back home: a japanese dog made the return trip as well. Duret recounted the circumstances of this peculiar little acquisition: “We were passing by Koriyama, when a little girl who was carrying the dog in her arms agreed to sell it to us.” Named Tama (‘Jewel’ in Japanese), the little black-and-white Pikinese was later immortalized in paintings by Manet and Renoir.

  • Edouard Manet, Tama, chien japonais, huile sur toile, c. 1875. Washington DC, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Tama, chien japonais, huile sur toile, c. 1876. Williamstown, The Clark Art Institute

Tama’s portrait executed by Manet was intended for Théodore Duret, while Renoir’s portrait went to Cernuschi. This was a way for Renoir, the painter of La Loge (1874), to maybe find new sponsors among the friends of Henri Cernusci, a banker and collector of Asian art. 

1 See the bibliography: Shigemi Inaga, “Théodore Duret et le Japon” , La Revue de l’Art, 1988 (79), pp. 76-82 ; Christophe Marquet, « Le Japon de  1871 vu par Henri Cernuschi et Théodore Duret », Ebisu. Etudes Japonaises, 1998 (19) pp. 45-78 ; Ting Chang, “Collecting Asia : Théodore Duret’s Voyage en Asie and Henri Cernuschi’s Museum”,  Oxford Art Journal, Spring 2002 (25, 2), pp. 17-34

2 Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 15 février 1897, Collection d’estampes japonaises … provenant du cabinet de M. Théodore Duret; Théodore Duret compiled the catalogue of the donated works himself. He published it in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in February 1900.

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