The influences on Monet were many: the Barbizon landscape painters, Manet, Constable, Turner and Whistler, to name a few. But, surprisingly perhaps, another source of inspiration came from the colourful, two-dimensional Japanese Ukiyo-e (meaning pictures of a floating world) woodblock prints.
They started to appear in Europe in the mid-1850s after Japan had been encouraged to open herself up to the world.
They were first exhibited at the World Fairs hosted in Paris (Exposition Universelle 1855, 1867, 1878) and could also be found in the less glamorous world of international freight, where they were used as packaging for goods sent from Japan.
Ukiyo-e masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) had also been revered by Manet.
It was under the influence of their flat graphic work, such as Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c.1830–32) – in which Mount Fuji is dwarfed by a giant white-tipped blue wave – that Manet started to dramatically foreshorten the perspective in his paintings, as can be seen in both Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.
Now Monet was incorporating more of their methods. The asymmetrical composition of The Thames Below Westminster, where most of the subject matter is arranged on the right-hand side, was a standard Ukiyo-e technique to generate emotional tension.
As was the privileging of a pleasurable all-round decorative solution over the accurate representation of a subject’s specific characteristics, an approach that encouraged Monet to simplify the physical shape of the pier and Houses of Parliament in his painting.