Vincent van Gogh and his Japanese Prints

In 1887, Vincent van Gogh purchased a large number of Japanese prints. His goal was to sell them. This did not pan out. Instead, these ukiyo-e prints opened Van Gogh’s mind up to new ideas about both life, and art. Today we will look at Van Gogh’s love affair with Japan, a country he never traveled to, but a country that still changed his life.

Defining Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints

Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art Woodblock Printing form from the Edo Period (1615-1868). Prints, from
this period, often focused on the everyday life of Japan’s burgeoning middle class. Common themes were Edo (now Tokyo) landscapes, popular kabuki actors, and courtesans. In the late Nineteenth Century, Japanese woodblock prints took Europe by storm. Many artists integrated the new styles, and techniques they learned into their work. Vincent van
Gogh devoured information on Japanese culture and art. He read books like “L’Art Japonais,” a French book that explained the different Japanese art forms, and Pierre Loti’s novel, “Madame Chrysanthème.”

Japanese Woodblock Print
A Fashionable Genji, A Set of Piled-Up Pictures, right sheet of triptych from Vincent van Gogh's Collection courtesy Vincent van Gogh Museum

How Vincent van Gogh Aquired His Collection

In 1887, Vian Gogh was living in Paris. He decided to purchase a batch of Japanese prints to resell and make a profit.  He found a dealer that sold him 660 prints for 100 Francs. Vincent placed a down payment of ten Francs with the dealer. He then tried to sell the prints at Café du Tambourin, a café that belonged to his lover, Agostina Segatori. It was a common gathering spot for artists where they could sell their work. He tacked pieces of ukiyo-e on the walls to give customers a good view. Everyone was enamored by the prints, but no one bought any of the prints.  He became fascinated by the ukiyo-e woodblock prints and wanted to study them more in depth. He persuaded Theo to pay the dealer for his purchase.

The First Japanese Inspired Portraits

He references these prints in at least two of his portraits around this time. One is of Agostina Segatori at her café.

Agostina Segatori sitting in the cafe du tambourin by Vincent van Gogh c. Courtesy of www.VincentVanGogh.org

The other is a portrait of Julien Tanguy, a widely respected Parisian art supplier. In “Père Tanguy,” 1887

Portrait of Pere Tanguy Art Dealer by Vincent van Gogh c. 1887 courtesy wickepedia.org

We know that Vincent Van Gogh had covered his walls of his studio with his newly acquired Japanese Art Prints Collection through his letters to Theo.  He spent time studying and using the prints as inspiration. Many of the prints still have small holes from the tacks. The prints in the painting are integral to the work. Images of courtesans, Mt. Fuji, and even a tree with cherry blossoms on a riverbank are clearly rendered.

How Vincent van Gogh Created the Courteson

On the cover of the May 1886 edition of Paris Illustré was a print of a Japanese courtesan, or Oiron. This figure can be identified as a courtesan by how her Obi (belt) is tied, as well as the very elaborate hairstyle and kanzashi (lacquered hairpins) she wears. The design was by the artist Kesai Eisen. Van Gogh set out to copy the image. Van Gogh’s copy wanted to make a precise copy, so he used a grid to maintain the courtesan’s dimensions while enlarging the work for the canvas

He does a few things to put his own spin on the painting. You can see the thick impasto brushwork he used to give the work extra dimension. He also used a vibrant, bold palette. Van Gogh filled the rest of his canvas with a water scene that incorporated water lilies, bamboo, cranes, and frogs. Van Gogh probably chose his animals as a not too subtle clue to the woman’s profession. In French, grue, and grenouille (crane, and frog) are also slang for prostitute. Van Gogh would similarly copy two other images from his collection of ukiyo-e. Instead of creating a picture in the background of these works, he would add Japanese characters and symbols, so the copied image was drawn to scale on his canvas.

Vincent van Gogh Inspired by Japanese Prints Natural Scenes

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book by Vincent van Gogh c. 1888

Van Gogh left Paris for Arles on February 19, 1888. In the South of France, Van Gogh focused more on the area’s natural surroundings. During the spring of 1888, he painted several budding orchards full of delicate limbed trees. Nearly everything he saw reminded him of Japan. 

Previously he wrote to Theo on June 5, 1888, his feelings about the countryside and how it connected to Japanese Art.

 “I’d like you to spend some time here, you’d feel it — after some time your vision changes, you see with a more      Japanese eye, you feel color differently. I’m also convinced that it’s precisely through a long stay here that I’ll bring out my personality.”

We can see a strong Japanese influence in, “Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book,” 1888 (private collection, Japan). Van Gogh used large blocks of color in the painting. The pink of the almond branch almost disappears into the similarly colored book. While there is a background, the two-tone wall almost gets lost
as our attention focuses on the book, and branch that are so large they push off the edges of the canvas.

His Reason to Stay in the South the Love of Japanease Prints

From that same June 5, 1888 letter , we know that Van Gogh wanted to form an artist colony in Arles filled with like minded creatives. He wrote 

“About staying in the South, even if it’s more expensive — 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.”

Unfortunately, this dream of creating an artist colony was never fully realized. The only artist who came to Arles was Gauguin, and he only stayed 63 days. Eventually Van Gogh wrote less, and less about his Japanese prints. But, the techniques he learned remained with him, and show up in many of his later works.

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Kristin Johnson

I love art, and writing. One is deeply personal, the other helped me get my BA in journalism from IU. I am passionate about storytelling. My greatest professional compliment came from a business owner who said, “Your profile piece captured everything I believe about my business.”
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