Lately I’ve been interested in Japanese culture and van Gogh’s paintings inspired by Japanese art instantly came to my mind. Still, the Impressionists were influenced by the Japanese culture even before van Gogh which shows how the Japanese art and culture was thrilling and inspirational for western world, that is, western artists.
Vincent van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art flourished when he came in contact with Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints which previously inspired many Impressionists including Monet, Manet and Degas and some Post-Impressionists as well, such as Gauguin. During the centuries Japan was a secluded country but in 1854. Japan re-opened trade with the west and Japanese arts including fans, porcelains and woodcuts became available to the west market, especially France and the Netherlands. In 1868. Japan ended a long period of isolation and started importing products from the west as well such as photography and printing techniques. It was at that time that other Japanese products were imported as well, and all the sudden, gorgeous textiles, bronzes, cloisonne enamels and other arts came to Europe where they soon became popular. Japanese art proved to be a whole new world for the artists, and as early as the 1860s, painters such as James Tissot and James McNeill Whistler were seen painting ladies dressed in lavishing kimonos in vibrant colours that simply evoke the enchanting eastern spirit.
Van Gogh first became interested in Japanese art in 1885. when he used some ukiyo-e print to decorate the walls of his studio in Antwerp. Particular Japanese prints can be seen in the background of his paintings such as Portrait of Pere Tanguy. In 1886. Vincent arrived in Paris and soon embraced Japonism, which was, at that time, a fashion among artists as the Impressionists were greatly interested in ukiyo-e prints. Although van Gogh was initially influenced by great masters in Netherlands, coming to Paris meant that he’d be exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism and Japanese art as well. His circle of friends in Paris included many other Post-Impressionist artists; Camille Pissaro, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Paul Signac and others.
Japanese artists that particularly interested van Gogh were Hiroshige and Hokusai, both for the subject matter and the flat style of colour. He loved the vibrant colours, the distinctive cropping of their composition, bold and assertive outlines, absent or unusual perspective and flat colour application. He wrote in a letter to his brother in 1888. ‘‘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 — [so why not 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.” adding ”All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…” Van Gogh studied Japanese ukiyo-e print in detail, making the copies of two of the Hiroshige prints. He also admired not only the art, but Japanese culture and natural and simple approach to life and things around them. What a beautiful, poetic thing he said “Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?” Adding how studying Japanese art makes him cheerful and happier person “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.”
On the left: Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right: The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh