In the mid 19th century, trade began to open up between Western Europe and the United States with Japan. This brought in an influx of Japanese trades, such as kimonos, fans, and in particular, woodblock prints. Van Gogh himself amassed a huge collection of Japanese prints. Impressionists began to make works in the Japanese style, which the French dubbed as “Japonisme.” During this time in his career, van Gogh’s style shifted to incorporate key characteristics of Japnese art. These include: solid colors and non-descript, flat backgrounds. Van Gogh commented on Japanese art to his brother by stating “I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily.”
Portraitures of Vincent van Gogh
Portraiture remains as a constant feature throughout Vincent van Gogh’s prolific career. Despite changes in technique and styles, van Gogh routinely returned to the subject of capturing a sitter’s likeness. While van Gogh frequently created self-portraits, he often painted the portraits of people whom he knew or who were around him.
Who was La Mousmé?
In 1888, van Gogh read the novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. A thinly veiled autobiography, the protagonist is a naval officer who marries a Japanese woman while stationed in Nagasaki. In this novel, the term La Mousmé is used for describing a young girl. The portrait of La Mousmé represents the Japanese girl in the novel. However, van Gogh opted to paint the portrait of a young, Provançal girl from the town of Arles. By using a girl from his neighborhood, van Gogh emphasizes his desire to paint what was around him. Moreover, van Gogh likened the simplicity and a life based in nature of Japanese art and culture to that of Provence. The depiction of the Provençal girl is van Gogh’s way of blending his two interests: Japan and Provence.
Japonisme Colors and Pattern
Something that makes La Mousmé so striking is the vibrant use of colors and patterns. The Provançal girl wears a striped shirt with a polka dotted skirt – the colors, while different, provide a complementary tone that is nothing but pleasing. Her bright red ribbon ties the colors together. She holds a white oleander flower that is in bloom, further alluding to her youth and how she will blossom. The cool greenish blue tones of the background assist in showcasing not only the girl, but her vibrant garment. The background merely serves as a backdrop. But by creating a simple background, van Gogh once again draws inspiration from the simplicity of Japanese woodblock prints.