Marie-François-Firmin Girard: The Japanese Toilette
Marie-François Firmin-Girard was born on 29 May 1838 in the village of Poncin, a hamlet in the Ain region of France adjacent to the Swiss border. The landscape is comprised of a surprising variety of terrains from flat marshlands to rich agricultural plains to the Jura mountains. By age sixteen, the ambitious young artist had left his hometown to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Initially he sought out the guidance of Charles Gleyre, the Swiss painter, who offered a traditional visual arts curriculum in an independent studio setting. Later, Firmin-Girard would study with Jean-Léon Gérôme, the academic master of orientalism and anecdotal history paintings.
Western aesthetic traditions were even more profoundly transformed by contact with the utterly unfamiliar design techniques evident in Japanese woodblock prints. According to art historical tradition, Félix Bracquemond first saw Hokusai Manga in 1856 as part of the wrapping for a porcelain consignment. More reliably, a Japanese import shop called La Porte Chinoise is documented as having opened on the fashionable rue de Rivoli in 1862. In short, Japanese art was gradually finding its way to Paris; following the 1868 Meiji restoration, the trade in Japanese goods would expand exponentially. Firmin-Girard, like so many of his contemporaries, would enjoy Japanese art as an unending source of both motifs and inspiration.
In the midst of this refreshing jolt of artistic thinking from Japan, France plunged into a destructive and ultimately devastating war with Prussia in 1870. When the hostilities officially ceased in 1871, Paris was a city divided by fierce political ideologies, and France was subjected to the humiliating occupation of enemy troops. It was in this environment that Firmin-Girard sought to re-establish his career. At the Salon of 1873, he exhibited one of his best-known paintings, La Toilette Japonaise, a slightly risqué scene of three geishas assisting each other in preparing for work. Several features are especially notable about this image: first is the oblique angle of perspective—a common technique in Japanese prints, but comparatively rare in western art in 1874. Second is the painstaking delineation of the interior furnishings and costumes, almost as if the artist hoped to offer his viewers a photographic image of a Japanese geisha’s life. This was characteristic of this early phase of Japonisme, a term coined by art critic Jules Claretie in 1872 to describe the craze for all things Japanese. As aesthetic understanding of Japanese design principles deepened, the stylistic elements would become increasingly integrated into western imagery. [Rehs Galleries]