Learn about the influence of traditional Japanese prints on the painter’s art
The fascination of the western world for eastern tradition is not new. At the end of the XIX century, the western art community showed a growing interest in anything oriental. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a great lover of Japan’s aesthetic and traditional art, which had a big influence on his work.
Van Gogh was particularly attracted to ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints made famous in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries. The influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh and other western artists is known as Japonisme.
In Van Gogh’s case, it was reflected in his techniques, motifs, and colors. Other followers of Japonisme were Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Rodin.
Quickly, Van Gogh became an avid collector of Japanese prints. Within a couple of months in 1886, he had acquired 660 woodcuts. His favorite pieces were not the priciest, but those with eye-catching colors and motifs.
Van Gogh used to place these artworks in his studio and observed them constantly. With time, he assimilates certain stylistic features in his own work. He incorporated brighter colors and included decorative patterns in his painting. In a letter to his brother Theo he wrote:
After some time, your vision changes; you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel color differently.
Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo, 5th June 1888
To Van Gogh, the study of traditional Japanese art was in clear contrast to modernity, the metropolis, and industrialization. Without even visiting the country, he had drawn an idealized vision of Japan as a utopian place at odds with modernity: a symbol of purity and connection to the natural world. When he moved to Arlés, he claimed that his life would look more like that of a Japanese woodcut printer, being closer to nature.
And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.
Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo, 24th September 1888
During his Japonisme period, he reproduced images from Japanese prints, adding to them his own interpretation and more color. See below one of the pieces he interpreted:
A key piece is Père Tanguy’s portrait. He was one of the art dealers who introduced Van Gogh to Japanese art and with whom he discussed utopic ideas inspired by Japanese culture. Some critics compare the pose of the subject to a smiling Buddha, complementing the Japanese print on the background.
In 1888, he painted a self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin. In it, his facial features appear modified to resemble a Japanese monk.
In time, and perhaps through Gauguin’s influence, Van Gogh stopped writing about Japanese art, at a time when his mental health started to deteriorate. You can access Vincent van Gogh’s Japanese art collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam here.
– Janet Al. Walker. Van Gogh, Collector of “Japan.” The Comparatist, 2008.
– Clive You. Looking East: Vincent Van Gogh and Japan. Australian National University, 2016.