Japanese art was a breath of fresh air to the citizens of 19th-century France, whose country was being overwhelmed with rapid modernization and industrialism. The focus on individual craftsmanship and quality stood in stark contrast with mass production, and the simple utilitarian designs were the antithesis of perceived contrivances in European schools of art. Japanese aesthetics quickly permeated all aspects of popular culture, from fashion to theatre to home decor, and assembling collections of Japanese imports became a common pastime for the wealthy elite. This enthusiastic reception and emulation of Japanese art was called japonisme. To highlight the place of women collectors within this trend, author Elizabeth Emery hones in on the one larger than life figure: vendor, collector, curator and gallerist Clémence “Gisette” Lecarpentier Desgranges d’Ennery (1823-1898).
Thoroughly-researched, Reframing Japonisme: Women and the Asian Art Market in Nineteenth-Century France, 1853–1914, can be read as a stand-alone tale of the challenges one woman faced to establish her unique vision as a collector and reputation as a premiere expert of Japanese art in a culture dominated by men. Those with a more substantial background in the history of Japanese or French art will find it a necessary and refreshing refinement to the literature of 19th-century art collecting and history.
Gisette comes across as ambitious, savvy, flirtatious and affably zany.
Right from the start, Gisette is undoubtedly our protagonist. Brought to life by Emery, she comes across as ambitious, savvy, flirtatious and affably zany. Her success as a collector was somewhat unusual for a women in 19th-century France, and can be attributed (in part) to her substantial financial and legal freedom: born to wealthy parents, she received a dowry of over 95,000 francs upon her first marriage to Charles-François Xavier Desgranges in 1844, and made several successful investments in real estate and the stock market after the two became estranged. With finances secured, she combined her passion for art collecting with her keen business acumen and became a proprietor of a successful boutique for Asian antiques in Paris in the early 1860s.
This shop functioned much like a salon of the kind for which Paris had been renowned since the Enlightenment, a place of discourse and inspiration for the burgeoning bohemian japanophile community of France. She was a preferred source for antiques because ironically, despite the growing number of people claiming to be connoisseurs, it was difficult to find individuals who could definitively distinguish Japanese art from that of other Asian traditions. By contrast, Gisette had travelled extensively in the Far East, spoke Japanese, imported goods directly from Asia, communicated with Japanese dignitaries, and was known to educate her clientele about Japanese cultural activities.
While her boutique sold a wide variety of Japanese imports, her personal collection revealed a passion for objects depicting fantastical and fiendish beasts; when speaking about items in her own collection, she would often affectionately refer to them as “my monsters”. Her friend, the writer Jules de Goncourt, described them in wonderful detail in his diary:
In bronze, jade, porcelain, wood, rock crystal, tonkin, and kaolin, this is a world of animals seemingly taken from the rib of a plesiosaurus and a dragon, antediluvian animals and mythical animals, something hybrid like the world of beasts discovered by Buffon or told by Herodotus, like fetuses of lions and of female camels that resemble hippopotamuses or heraldic beasts, etc.
He was the first of many to visit her home to see her collection. Visitors enjoyed the sensational content and unique curation which did not conform to then usual methods (such as simulating full cultural immersion in a period-room, or placing objects categorically in cases for viewing). Many remarked on how the strategic placement of objects, and sensitivity to the effects of light on them, drew attention to the vivid colors and seemed to bring the collection alive.
Gisette, like many other women collectors in her day, was dismissed by her male contemporaries.
Despite the importance of her business and the popularity of her personal collection, Gisette, like many other women collectors in her day, was dismissed by her male contemporaries as collecting for fanciful, superficial purposes; in 19th-century France, women were commonly assumed to be drawn to pretty trinkets and home decor. Asia in general was associated with femininity (with the “West” being its masculine counterpart) and women’s sexuality, leading to many anecdotal misunderstandings related in Reframing Japonisme. For instance, when Gisette invited a friend to see her “monsters”, he was surprised upon arrival that she indeed intended to show him her growing collection, and her phrasing was not a sexual innuendo. These stereotypes surrounding Asia largely did not affect the public image of male collectors, as they were perceived to be above the superficiality of women: rather, through art collecting and analysis, they addressed more profound topics of history, linguistics, geography, the arts.
This is not to say that Gisette’s collection was overlooked by critics in her lifetime; she navigated gender stereotypes directed at her and the objects in her collection consistently and with good humor, satisfyingly smacking down those who tried to discredit her. If anything, she utilized the biased language of art criticism against them, often employing witty repartee and precise language to establish her expertise in Japanese art connoisseurship. In particular, she made sure to show her comfort in discussing the commercial value of art, and used what was considered the masculine language of classification, (such as bringing up series or families).
Some critics actually came to celebrate her inherently feminine perspective. In 1889, Art critic Marius Vachon visited the Musee d’Ennery and later gushed that Gissette’s choices were
inspired by a search for the most shimmering, most flavorful, and least-known colors. Her ideal as a collector was to delight the eye and the spirit… Without wishing to insult the male collecting clan, only a woman—and to a degree inaccessible to men— could so charmingly have created [this museum], with delicacy, imagination, a taste for passion, audacity, perseverance…
Her singular vision was preserved when her Parisian residence, housing a majority of her collections, was converted to a public museum in 1892, called the Musée d’Ennery. She additionally donated several thousand objects to the Musée Guimet, where they still reside.
Unfortunately for Gisette, her role in perpetuating japonisme has been largely expunged from history. This erasure began even before her death, one article crediting the erstwhile friend Jules de Goncourt, at that point a competing collector and seller of Japanese art, as the rock on which she built her collection, suggesting that his gift of “two Chinese chimeras” sparked her interests as a collector. The article went on to say that the gallery in her home (later to become the Musee D’Ennery) was constructed 10 years later than it was, subverting the fact her collection predates the bulk of the japonisme craze in the last decades of the 19th century. Even more frustrating, an article giving thoughts on the newly established museum backhandedly ascribes her success to her husband, saying:
Where there was no organization other than that provided by the lively instinct of a woman of taste, with no desire other than to treat herself to a spectacle of caressing charm, [Monsieur] Deshayes used his powerful erudition to classify it and thanks to him we know how many admirable and rare pieces are contained in the museum.
These events unfortunately fit into a larger trend of women being excluded from the literature of 19th-century art collecting. In the history of Japanese art collecting in particular, accounts of men moving in the same circles as Gisette were favored over their female peers. Their narrative, in which they credited themselves with having the discerning eye to recognize the value of Japanese art before later followers of japonisme, was the one that has had lasting traction in academia. They strategically used their influence in artistic circles and the media to disseminate this origin story of japonisme and the early days of Japanese art connoisseurship in Europe.
Reframing Japonisme’s aim is to credit Gisette for her considerable, if unusual, success as a collector and thereby revitalize the story of japonisme and Japanese art collecting in the 19th century. Its tight storytelling and dissection of myopic narratives embedded in historical canons make the truism that “women’s history is just history” apply just as much to the art world as anywhere else.
Fiona Collins is currently a postgraduate student researching Japanese art history and material culture at SOAS, University of London. She has a professional background in art preservation, and has worked in a variety of museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions.