Van Gogh and Japonisme

Van Gogh and Japonisme
Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th century art as a result of its vivid colors and emotional impact. Suffering from anxiety and increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness throughout his life, he died largely unknown at the age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Van Gogh did not begin painting until his late twenties, most of his best-known works dating from his last two years. In less than a decade, he produced more than 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. His work included self portraits, landscapes, portraits, and paintings of cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers.

The term japonisme was created by the French journalist and art-critic Philippe Burty in an article published in 1876 to describe the craze for all things Japanese. Van Gogh like so many other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists was one of the admirers of Japanese art. The Japanese influence is obvious in his art work.

For two centuries, Japan discouraged trade with the rest of the world. In the 1850s, however, the country finally bowed to outside pressure and opened its ports to foreign vessels and Western commercial interests. Japanese prints, lacquerware, and porcelains flooded into Europe, creating a craze for furniture and crafts of Japanese design. European artists were eager to abandon the staid conventions of academic art, and they freely imitated the bold, pure color, assertive outlines, and cropped compositions of Japanese prints. Japanese art created an indelible impression on Van Gogh. He, like many of his colleagues, avidly collected woodblock prints: "We like Japanese painting, we are influenced by it-all Impressionists have that in common."

The Fad For All Things Japanese

With the treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 between the American delegation headed by Navy commander Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) and the Japanese shogunate government, a period of 216 years of Japanese isolation ended. In the years following, huge numbers of Japanese artifacts and handicraft articles flowed to Europe, mainly to France and the Netherlands. The Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 had a Japanese stand and showed Japanese art objects to the amazed public.

All things Japanese were suddenly stylish and fashionable. Shops selling Japanese woodblock prints, kimonos, fans and antiquities popped up in Paris like mushrooms. The Impressionist painters and Post-Impressionists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec or Paul Gauguin were attracted and impressed by Japanese woodblock prints. In 1875 Claude Monet created his famous painting La Japonaise, showing his wife dressed in a Kimono and holding a Japanese fan. He later contemptuously called his own painting "trash".

The Shop of Samuel Bing

Van Gogh saw Japanese prints for the first time in 1885 in Antwerp and bought a few (Crépon). In the years ahead he should buy many more. Japanese prints were cheap at that time. Many were reproductions made only for export to Western countries.

In 1886 Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris. Van Gogh's brother Theo ran an art gallery in Montmartre. He too brought Vincent in contact with ukiyo-e. In Montmartre there was a little shop with Japanese prints, called the Bing Gallery after its owner Samuel Bing. Mr. Bing kept thousands of Japanese prints on stock. The Bing Gallery was next to van Gogh's apartment and Vincent spent days in the shop and became an avid collector of ukiyo-e.

Copying Japanese Prints

In 1887 van Gogh's admiration for Japanese art forms led him to paint copies of two famous designs of Hiroshige, the great Japanese landscape printmaker. One print is the Bridge in the Rain and the other shows a Plum Tree in Bloom. Hiroshige was one of the few artists who had used some Western elements in his print designs - the most obvious Western element was the use of perspective, visible in the Bridge in the Rain.

These two Vincent van Gogh paintings after Hiroshige are rather free transcriptions. Vincent added frames to the originals and decorated them with what he considered to be Japanese characters. And van Gogh's use of colors was not very close to the originals. Instead he used his concept of complimentary colors like the green against the red.

"I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such an unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one's waist-coat."

Van Gogh in Arles

In 1988 Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in Southern France. He arrived in springtime and the strong colors and the light of the landscape gave him new energies. He painted continuously - landscapes, still life and portraits of ordinary people. The influence of Japonisme is obvious in his paintings. The use of black contours is a typical element of Japanese woodblock prints. It reinforced the expressive power of the paintings of his last 4 years.

Van Gogh's health and mental stability deteriorated. He shaved his head to "look like a Japanese monk". In Arles he was feeling himself like being in Japan. He wrote to his sister:

"Theo m'a ecrit qu'il t'avait offert des estampes japonaises. C'est assurement le meilleur moyen pour reussir a comprendre la direction qu'a prise actuellement la peinture claire et coloree. Ici, je n'ai pas besoin d'estampes japonaises, car je me dis toujours que suis ici au Japon. Et c'est pourquoi je n'ai qu'a garder les yeux grand ouverts et peindre les impessions que je recois."

"Theo wrote that he offered you Japanese woodblock prints. That is certainly the best way to understand which direction the light and colorful painting has taken. Here I need no Japanese woodblock prints, because I am here in Japan. This is why I only have to open my eyes and paint the impressions that I receive.

In 1890 van Gogh shot a bullet into his chest and died several days later on October 29, 1890.