Western artists of the mid-19th century were both entranced and distracted by their turbulent times. Many sought fresh ways to see the world around them, "savoir voir" as distinct from "savoir faire."

So the startling new images that began to arrive in the 1850s, from a remote and mysterious land, were extremely exciting. The land, of course, was Japan, and the artists who welcomed the new arrivals were as diverse as Monet, van Gogh and Whistler. With perfect though unconscious timing, Japanese art introduced a vibrant alternative to the academic style, and offered the growing middle classes novel ways to decorate their homes.

The first dalliance with cherry blossoms, fans and so on quickly gave way to a serious interest in the unique qualities of Japanese art. The term "Japonisme" was first used in 1872 to describe the study of Japanese art, culture and history. Today, the phenomenon still keeps academics busy round the world, tracing the complex trade of ideas and images between East and West.