Sign up

Van Gogh and Japan: the fascination that changed Vincent's style

To celebrate the 165th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in collaboration with three Japanese museums, organized the most comprehensive exhibition to date. "Van Gogh & Japan" explors the influence of Japanese art on the artist’s style. Running through June 24, 2018, the display tracks van Gogh’s early fascination with imported Japanese "Ukiyo-e" prints — colorful woodblock prints on handmade paper avidly collected by the artist — and shows how, step by step, the artist integrated elements of Japanese aesthetics into his own style.
The ongoing exhibition in Amsterdam is a larger version of a previous display that had been touring Tokyo, Sapporo and Kyoto since the Fall of 2017. It includes nearly all of the major van Gogh paintings that make either direct or indirect reference to Japanese art. Now, some 60 of his paintings and drawings hung near almost 50 Japanese prints that played a role in the development of the artist’s distinctive style. They are complemented by the Japanese lacquerwork and painted scrolls to provide the context of Japonism — a phenomenon of popular fashion for Japanese objects experienced by Western culture in the second half of the 19th century.
Japonism, or Japonisme is a term first used by French writers referring to the influence of Japanese culture on the Western art. In 1854, Japan re-opened trade with the west, following more than two centuries of its self-imposed isolation. And Japanese art works including fans, porcelains, bronzes, woodcuts, and screens were shipped in huge numbers to Europe, mainly France and the Netherlands. In 1862, they were in the forefront of public attention at the World’s Fair in Europe.
During the 1860s, ukiyo-e
Now it seems unbelievable but the Japanese did not regard the woodblock prints, which fascinated the fashionable European artists and inspired the Impressionists to adopt the new ways of expression. Read more
, Japanese woodblock prints, became very popular and were a source of inspiration to many Impressionist and Post Impressionist artists in the West including Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh. These avant-garde artists were seeking alternatives to the western dominate artistic styles of the time and took fresh inspiration from Japanese prints.

Utagawa Hiroshige. A sudden summer downpour over the bridge Okami in Atake. The series "100 famous views of Edo"
Vincent van Gogh. Bridge in the rain (inspired by Hiroshige)
  • Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo, 1857. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
  • Van Gogh, Bridge in the Rain (After Utagawa Hiroshige), 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Van Gogh first encountered Japanese prints in 1885 while living in Antwerp, whose docks he said were teeming with Japanese wares at the time. "Well, these docks are one huge Japonaiserie, fantastic, singular, strange,." he wrote to his brother Theo.

Vincent became one of the most avid lovers and collectors of ukiyo-e prints or Japanese pictures of the floating world, as well as of Japanese albums created for export. Having bought first stack of prints in Antwerp, van Gogh was fascinated by them studied them very carefully. A year later, when the artist moved into his brother’s apartment in Paris, he discovered that the German art dealer Siegfried Bing sold Japanese artworks and decorative objects at very reasonable prices in the Bing Gallery next to the place where Van Goghs dwelled. So, he and his brother immediately bought about 660 prints for just a few cents a piece.

Ms. Bakker, one of the exhibition’s four curators, said that van Gogh originally held an exhibition trying to resell the prints, but it wasn’t successful, and instead he hung onto them, tacked them to the walls of his studio and used them for inspiration. About 500 of them survive, and are now part of the Van Gogh Museum’s permanent collection.

At first, van Gogh just copied the works, making pencil sketches and oil paintings after Japanese masters (see two of them after Utagawa Hiroshige above). To make them look more exotic, he added sort of a border of arbitrary characters borrowed from other Japanese prints, because, of course, he did not know a word in Japanese. And even though he duplicated imagery of the prints, his every brush stroke added something of his own, regards Jonathan Jones, the art-critic of the Guardian.
Kaisay Aisen. The cover of the magazine Paris Illustré, may 1886
Vincent van Gogh. Tracing from the cover of the magazine Paris Illustré. Le Japon for may, 1886
Vincent van Gogh. Courtesan

In 1887, Van Gogh traced in pencil and ink the cover of an issue of the magazine Paris Illustré devoted to Japan and afterwards made a large-scale oil painting in the same fashion "Courtesan (After Eisen)," based on a piece by Japanese artist Kesai Eisen.

Similarly to the other copies he made, he gave this piece a border around the figure with motifs from other Japanese prints: the watery landscape with bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs, cranes and, in the distance, a little boat. Not accidentally did Vincent choose the animals for the frame: in 19th century France, prostitutes were often referred to as grues (cranes) or grenouilles (frogs); so, here we see depictions of animal metaphors referring to the woman’s profession.

Van Gogh copied and enlarged the figure by Kesai Eisen, tracing on a grid, giving her a colorful kimono and placing her against a bright yellow background. His colors are brighter and contrasts are more enhanced compared to the original piece.

Above: Vincent van Gogh, "Courtesan (After Eisen)," 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Like other impressionists, Van Gogh was tempted to portray models with Japanese prints from his collection in the background. "Van Gogh & Japan" shows several of them including Portrait of Pere Tangue (1887, Musee Rodin, Paris) and Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London).
Vincent van Gogh. Portrait Of Père Tanguy

Père Tanguy was rather important figure for Vincent van Gogh and other artists at the time. Julien-François Tanguy (1825−94) ran a small paint supplies shop in Montmartre and often took art works in exchange for the goods he sold. He was affectionately called "Père Tanguy" by artists and Van Gogh valued his friendship enormously.

At Tanguy’s shop the avant-garde met and artists could see sort of a latest art that was not accepted anywhere else. Here, Van Gogh could find paintings by Sezanne, Neo-Impressionists, and other Avant-garde artists.

In this portrait, with which the shopkeeper never parted, the pure colours, the use of contrasting complementary colours, and the flat picture space are all inspired by Japanese art. Van Gogh chose to represent the old man in a strictly frontal pose, immobile, lost in thought, with his hands clasped over his stomach, turning him into a sort of Japanese sage, placed against a background filled with some of the countless brightly coloured Japanese prints that the painter and his brother Theo collected.

Above: Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887. Musee Rodin, Paris

Left: Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Right: Geishas in a landscape, c. 1870−1880, Sato Torakiyo (Publisher).
The Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1889 at a very low ebb in the artist’s life, less than a month after having sliced off his ear following a violent quarrel with his friend the artist Paul Gauguin. On the wall behind him hangs a print of "Geishas in a landscape with Mount Fuji" by the publisher Sato Torakiyo (c.1870−1880). Once owned by Vincent van Gogh, this Japanese print was stolen from the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in 1981.

In this self-portrait the contrast between the graceful ideals Van Gogh saw in Japanese art and his own tortured reality is very painful. The man staring at us from behind blue eyes is far from the calm that the Japanese landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
on the print provides. "He is a harrowed modern saint, a Dostoyevskyan character on the edge of society and fighting to stay sane," says art critic Jonathan Jones about this art work.
Many scholars agree that Vincent van Gogh adopted Japanese traditions of woodcut block prints in his work that gradually changed his own style. He liked the unusual spatial effects in cropped compositions, the expanses of flat bright color and color contrasts, the use of black contours, the everyday objects and the attention to details from nature. And, above all, the exotic and joyful atmosphere.
Influenced by the Japanese flatness of composition, Vincent van Gogh made absolutely startling portraits in 1887−89. Decorative and bright, their colors were intended to be symbolic. Using contracting patterns and colors, he brought in an energy and intensity to his work. Instead of the shading and realistic modelling typical of traditional Western paintings and prints, Vincent van Gogh relied on solid areas of color and pattern adopted from Japanese prints.
Utagawa Hiroshige. Bird and Cherry Blossoms
Vincent van Gogh. Flowering almond
  • Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Cherry Blossoms, 1860
  • Van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Rhythmically arranged patterns of tree blossoms and flowers from Japanese prints influenced Western art and design drastically. Repeated motifs, like blossoms of the cherry tree in Hiroshige’s print (see left above), inspired similar experiments by Vincent van Gogh and other Western artists. Utugawa Hisoshigi radically enlarged compositional elements, presenting them flat against the picture plane. The same was done by Van Gogh, but his "Almond Blossom" is based on the trees he saw in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

After spending two years in Montmartre, Vincent van Gogh has fled to Provence for a new inspiration, away from hectic Paris. He was longing for an ideal place where he could define himself as a modern painter and dreamed to organize an artistic commune there. In this context, Japan and its art became of utmost importance for him, more so even than it had been in Paris. In rather unusual way, Van Gogh equated Arles and Provençal landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
with Japan and its landscape
The development of the genre from antiquity to the present day: how did religion and the invention of oil painting contribute to the development of the genre in Europe, and why was the Hudson River so important? Read more
. He never visited Japan, his knowledge of it was quite varied but he imagined it to be like Provence.
As soon as Vincent settled in Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: "I feel I’m in Japan."

He continued in his letter to his friend Emile Bernard: "I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. However, so far I’ve hardly seen this part of the world in its usual summer splendor… The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France."
Vincent van Gogh invented his own term "Japonaiserie" ("Japanesey" in English) to express the influence of Japanese art on his own style and on the art work of his contemporaries.

In a letter to his brother Theo from Provence he remarked: "Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — and we wouldn’t go to Japan, in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all."

A month later he wrote, "All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…"

Vincent van Gogh used Japanese art model in response to the call for a modern, more primitive kind of painting. In the essay prepared for the exhibition "Van Gogh & Japan", the Van Gogh Museum states that "Japanese prints, with their expanses of colour and their stylisation, showed him the way, without requiring him to give up nature as his starting point. It was ideal."
The exhibition 'Van Gogh & Japan' is on view from 23 March until 24 June 2018 at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Written on material from The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Van Gogh,, Asian Art Museum, Musee Rodin, The Guardian, New York Times, and other sources.

Title illustration: Left: Hiroshige’s The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, 1857; right, Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige) by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Composite: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
To post comments log in or sign up.