Brink on Emery (2020)

Emery, Elizabeth.  Reframing Japonisme: Women and the Asian Art Market in Nineteenth-Century France (1853-1914). Bloomsbury, 2020, pp x+258, ISBN: 978-1-5013-4463-3

In Elizabeth Emery’s Reframing Japonisme:Women and the Asian Art Market in Nineteenth-Century France, 1853-1914, female collectors take center stage, revealing the crucial role women played in the promotion and distribution of Japanese objects in late nineteenth-century France. Like Christopher Reed’s Bachelor Japanists (2017), upon which Emery’s book draws, Reframing Japonisme complicates the origin narrative of Japan’s “discovery” by the West and considers the essential role of gender in this cross-cultural exchange. Both Reed and Emery make crucial contributions to the expansion of Japonisme studies by revealing how gender roles and gendered language shaped the French discourse about Japan in the later nineteenth century. While Reed’s project focuses on the connection between Japonisme and queer masculinities, Reframing Japonisme demonstrates how early male japanists reinforced gender binaries. Emery reveals the ways in which Japonisme’s most famous men repeatedly dismissed female collectors, drawing diminutive associations between the objects these women collected and the worlds of both the domestic and the decorative. By rereading the canonical writing of notable japonisants, such as the Frères Goncourt, Philippe Burty, Louis Gonse, and Siegfried Bing, alongside new archival material, Emery exposes the rhetorical strategies and narrative devices that effectively erased influential female collectors from Japonisme’s historical record. In this retelling of Japonisme’s early history, Emery adds new characters and plot-points, but also asks us to read between the lines. Incorporating shop inventories, auction records, marriage contracts, and diaries, alongside exhibition reviews, Reframing Japonisme uncovers the women who had always been there: the collectors and marchandes who bought and sold Japanese objects for a developing market of eager japonisants.

Emery anchors her analysis of object collections and displays through the unsung figure of Clémence Lecarpentier Desgranges d’Ennery, a collector whose influential and expansive collection of Japanese objects often rivalled, if not surpassed, those of her male colleagues. While d’Ennery’s biography is not the book’s principal aim, Emery carefully articulates the details of d’Ennery’s private life. Emery is most concerned with how d’Ennery amassed and later institutionalized her Japanese collection, navigating familial disputes, domestic hurdles, and legal constraints that threatened her status and legacy as a female collector. Although Emery uses d’Ennery as a crucial case-study to frame her argument about women and the Japanese art market, she also makes broader claims about domesticity, display, and the cultural meaning of collecting.  In particular, Reframing Japonisme shows how male japonisants described and disregarded the private display of Japanese collections by women as mere decoration, framing the female curation of objects as a dalliance, rather than as a serious pursuit. Across four chapters, d’Ennery’s story intersects with tales of other female collectors, as well as Japonisme’s most influential men, offering a narrative through-line about collecting, marketing, and displaying Japanese objects that makes Emery’s account both cohesive and complex. In its focus on the creation of Japanese collections in France, Emery is more concerned with Japonisme’s bureaucracy than with its interpretation of Eastern beauty, and it is often the banality and transactional nature of collecting Japanese objects that drives the argument of the book.

The attention paid to the bureaucratic complexities of acquiring and displaying Japanese objects in late nineteenth-century France illuminates the institutionalized sexism of collecting, reinforcing Linda Nochlin’s foundational feminist observation about the absence of women in art history.  The invisibility of women in Japonisme, Emery confirms, is not due to their lack of participation in the movement, but rather to the systemic barriers that kept women from being seen. Frequently eclipsed by the name and legal status of their husbands, married female collectors were treated as minors in the eyes of French law, effectively limiting their access to money and property ownership, while also necessitating male approval on all financial matters. As Emery shows, a woman’s connoisseurial or commercial acumen was often constrained by the bureaucratic banalities related to marriage, with taxes, loans, or even probate often complicating the visibility of their collections. Denied complete agency, the female collectors who Emery excavates often went unnamed, either conflated with their husbands in the legal record or glossed over in the aesthetic treatises of France’s male japonisants. This relationship between male hegemony and the control of language is not a new observation, but Emery effectively demonstrates how the discourse and protocols related to Japanese objects trafficked in various forms of male bias. By recuperating the stories and names of d’Ennery, Madame Desoye, Florine Ebstein Langweil, and Madame d’Orly, among others, Emery reinforces how influential these women and their collections were to the material knowledge of Japan in France. At once an extension of feminist scholarship on women in art and a new analysis of female collectors as cultural producers of early Japonisme, Emery’s project recasts the early French interest in Japan as more than just a male pursuit.

Reframing Japonisme marks a crucial discursive shift in the historical narrative and scholarly treatment of Japanese objects in France. Scholars of museology and collecting will be gratified by Emery’s feminist rereading of auction records, purchase histories, private displays, and museum archives, while art historians and Japonisme specialists will find value in the book’s nuanced analysis of the role women played in the marketing of Japanese art in France. In addition to offering a new interpretation of the key players and storylines that we have come to associate with the narrative of Parisian japonisants, Emery’s book is also a compelling study of Japonisme’s relationship to paperwork. From purchase receipts to collection ledgers, auction results to advertisements, Reframing Japonisme uncovers the paper trail that both men and women relied upon to market Japan in France. Emery shows how the administrative dimension of Japanese collecting directly informs how narratives were written and uses this paperwork to complicate the story of Japonisme in print. Across image and text, Emery exposes the gaps and elisions in canonical writings by japonisants such as Burty, Gonse, the Goncourts, and Chesneau, while also illuminating the masculine bias of marketing and collecting ukiyo-e. Ultimately, Reframing Japonisme shows how dominant male voices persistently papered over the presence of women in Japonisme’s early history. By peeling back layers of misogyny and myth, Emery’s book offers up an important revisionist history that alters our understanding of Japonisme and women’s place within the movement.

Emily Eastgate Brink
University of Western Australia