Japanese art was a favourite subject of discussions at the Café Guerbois, and none of the group failed to visit the Japanese section at the 1867 World's Fair. The discovery of Japanese prints counted for as much in the shaping of Impressionism as did negro sculpture in the shaping of Cubism. It was to Braquemond the engraver, a friend of Degas, that they owed their first contact (in 1856) with the art of Hokusai. Soon after, in 1862, Madame Soye, a lady who, with her husband, had lived in Japan, opened an oriental shop, "La Porte Chinoise," under the Rue de Rivoli arcades, and it promptly became a favoured resort of Degas, Manet, Mary Cassatt, Whistler, Renoir, and Monet, as well as Baudelaire and the Goncourt brothers. All things Japanese came into fashion, and apart from the superficial "Japonisme" in the manner of Whistler and Tissot, serious enquiries were made into the underlying technical issues: the use of the decorative arabesque, pure, unmodelled colour, two-dimensional perspective and flat tones--all of which played havoc with the traditional way of viewing the world, and indeed changed the whole course of aesthetics from Manet up to abstract art. Cézanne was, it seems, the only artist uninfluenced by Japanese art; Degas, Monet and Manet were profoundly affected by it (note the copies of Japanese prints in the Portrait of Zolahere reproduced), and, in the next generation, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Lautrec. In 1873 Theodore Duret returned, full of enthusiasm, from a trip to Japan. "The Japanese," he said "are the first, and the supreme Impresionists."
Here we certainly see the influence of Japanese art for which Manet had such enthusiasm that he included Japanese prints in some of his pictures. Debatable as always is the problem of "anticipation," one thing is certain: Manet must be regarded as a precursor of the developments in the handling of colour and composition which Gauguin, then Matisse (with "Fauvism") and, lastly, Abstract Art, were to press to their utmost limit. By way of Gauguin, it was Japanese art that most influenced Bonnard. After carefully studying Japanese colourprints, he tested for himself the efficacy of flat planes, modelling reduced to a minimum, composition in two dimensions, lines intersecting in such a way as to give the impression of a new kind of depth. The "Japanese Nabi" (as his friends came to call him) also experimented in the employment of drawing alone for condensing form -- in a somewhat decorative manner. He used flat tones and because he painted on cardboard his colours were low-keyed; also he mixed a good deal of turpentine in his pigment. He was always trying to attain that "dull, muffled yet mighty resonance" which Gauguin had sought and found. For the most part, however, in his early phase, Bonnard concentrated on drawing, poster-designing, and lithography; on black-and-white and the arabesque. In any case his palette was very subdued, in accordance with the anti-impressionist trend of the time, which he, too, followed, and he made much use of blacks and greys. In short, pending the day when Bonnard was to let his natural impulses take charge, colour with him was kept very much in the background. For there is a sort of pedantry in youth; fresh from the Schools, a young man often deliberately calls his temperament to heel.