Vincent van Gogh and Japonisme - Street Art Museum Tours

The Intersection of Van Gogh's Art with Japanese Aesthetics

Japonisme Example 1
Almond Blossoms 1890 Van Gogh Museum

In the latter half of the 19th century, a significant cultural exchange began between Western Europe, the United States, and Japan, heralding a new era in the world of art. This period was characterized by the introduction of various Japanese goods into the Western market. These items included elegant kimonos, delicate fans, and, most notably, woodblock prints, which were particularly admired for their unique aesthetic and craftsmanship.

Among the enthusiasts of these Japanese imports was the renowned artist Vincent van Gogh. He became an avid collector of these exotic woodblock prints, and their distinctive style and technique profoundly influenced his artistic work. This influence marked a pivotal point in van Gogh's career, as he began to incorporate elements of Japanese art into his own creations.

Van Gogh's Evolution Through Japanese Influence

Vincent van Gogh began to amass an impressive collection of Japanese woodblock prints, often purchasing them from art dealers and shops specializing in Japanese art. Van Gogh was known to frequent the shops of Paris, where he resided for a time, seeking out these prints which were becoming increasingly popular among European artists and collectors. His collection grew not only out of a personal admiration for the art form but also from a desire to understand and incorporate its techniques and stylistic elements into his own work. This collection played a pivotal role in van Gogh's artistic evolution, as he began to experiment with the bold use of color and the simplification of forms, hallmarks of Japanese art that deeply influenced his subsequent creations.

Vincent van Gogh purchased his collection in Paris around 1886 to 1888. During this time, Paris was a hub for Japanese art, largely due to the growing trend of Japonism, which was the European fascination with Japanese culture and art.

Van Gogh frequented various art dealers and shops in Paris that specialized in Japanese works. One notable location was the shop of Siegfried Bing, a German art dealer who played a significant role in introducing Japanese art to the European audience. Bing's gallery, known as "L'Art Nouveau," was a prominent source of Japanese prints and artifacts in Paris.

Additionally, van Gogh might have acquired some prints from other art dealers and shops in the area that were capitalizing on the Japonism trend. These shops often sold Japanese prints at relatively affordable prices, making them accessible to artists like van Gogh, who was not financially well-off. The influence of these prints on van Gogh's work was profound, leading to a significant shift in his artistic style and the incorporation of elements characteristic of Japanese art, such as bright colors and clear outlines.

Van Gogh's artistic journey was notably marked by his encounter with Japanese art. This influence is evident in the evolution of his style, which began to echo the distinct characteristics of Japanese aesthetics. He adopted the use of bold, unblended colors and simplistic, unembellished backgrounds, a stark contrast to his earlier works. Van Gogh himself expressed admiration for the clarity and deliberate nature of Japanese artwork, noting its never-dull and carefully crafted appearance.


Portraiture: A Constant in Van Gogh’s Repertoire

Japonisme Example 2
La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin) 1889 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Throughout his artistic career, Vincent van Gogh exhibited a profound and enduring interest in the genre of portraiture. This fascination was evident whether he was painting self-portraits or capturing the likenesses of those around him. Van Gogh's approach to portraiture was not static; his style evolved over time, yet he consistently aimed to delve beyond the surface, seeking to capture the intrinsic essence and spirit of his subjects. His portraits are a testament to his ability to convey not just the physical appearance but also the emotional and psychological depth of the individuals he painted.

One of the most notable examples of van Gogh's prowess in portraiture is "La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin)" created in 1889. This work exemplifies his skill in this domain, showcasing his unique ability to portray character and emotion through his use of color, brushwork, and composition. In this portrait, as in many others, van Gogh transcends mere representation, imbuing the canvas with a sense of the subject's inner life and personality. This painting, among others, stands as a clear indication of van Gogh's enduring commitment to and mastery of the art of portraiture.

"La Mousmé": A Fusion of Far East and French Countryside

In 1888, Vincent van Gogh found inspiration in Pierre Loti's novel "Madame Chrysanthème," which led to the creation of one of his notable works, "La Mousmé." The novel narrates the story of a French naval officer who, during his stay in Nagasaki, Japan, enters into a temporary marriage with a Japanese woman. The term 'La Mousmé,' within the context of the novel, refers to a young Japanese girl. This cultural backdrop provided van Gogh with a rich source of inspiration, allowing him to explore themes of cultural intersection and identity in his painting.

However, in his rendition, van Gogh did not depict a Japanese girl as one might expect given the novel's setting. Instead, he chose to paint a young girl from Arles, a town in Provence where he was residing at the time. This decision reflects van Gogh's unique approach to his art, where he often blended elements from various influences. In "La Mousmé," he merges his fascination with Japanese culture, as seen in the novel, with his love for the simplicity and rustic charm of life in Provence. The young girl in the painting, therefore, becomes a symbol of this cultural fusion, embodying the essence of both the East and the West.

"La Mousmé" is more than just a portrait; it is a testament to van Gogh's ability to intertwine inspirations from different cultures and create something uniquely his own. The painting showcases his skill in capturing the innocence and simplicity of the young Provençal girl, while also hinting at the exotic allure of the East. This blend of influences is evident in the style, color palette, and overall composition of the work, making "La Mousmé" a significant piece in van Gogh's oeuvre that highlights his continuous exploration and integration of diverse cultural elements into his art.

The Vibrancy of Japonisme in "La Mousmé"

La Mousme

La Mousmé (

Japonisme Color and Pattern

"La Mousmé" is not just a portrait but a vivid tableau of color and pattern, illustrating Vincent van Gogh's exceptional ability to blend these elements into a harmonious and visually striking composition. In this painting, the subject, a young Provençal girl, is depicted wearing a boldly striped shirt paired with a polka-dotted skirt. This combination of patterns is unconventional in traditional Western art but resonates with the Japanese aesthetic, which often embraces a mix of patterns and textures. The bright red ribbon that adorns her hair serves as a focal point, drawing the eye and adding a vibrant contrast to her attire. This use of bold, contrasting colors is reminiscent of the vivid hues often found in Japanese prints.

The girl is holding a blooming white oleander, a detail that is laden with symbolism. The oleander, in full bloom, represents youth and the potential for growth and beauty, mirroring the young girl's own stage in life. This inclusion of symbolic flora is a common motif in Japanese art, where flowers and natural elements often carry deeper meanings and are used to convey subtle messages.

The background of "La Mousmé" is notably simplistic, a deliberate choice by van Gogh to emulate the minimalist nature of Japanese woodblock prints. In traditional Japanese prints, backgrounds are often subdued or even absent, focusing the viewer's attention on the main subject. Van Gogh adopts this technique, using a muted, non-distracting backdrop that accentuates the vibrancy of the girl's clothing and the delicate beauty of the oleander. This simplicity in the background contrasts with the complexity and richness of the patterns and colors used for the subject, creating a balanced and focused composition. Through these elements, van Gogh demonstrates not only his admiration for Japanese art but also his skill in integrating its principles into his own unique style.

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