Tag Archives: 1880s

Arnold Böcklin – Isle of the Dead

14 Jun

The title of this painting was apparently coined by the art dealer, while the artist himself referred to the painting only as “a picture for dreaming over”. A fascinating detail to be aware of because the morbid and mysterious allure of the painting lies half in its symbolist-laden title. I didn’t know for the painting before I discovered Rachmaninov’s composition of the same name a few years ago. The title is bewitching, and yet the painting itself looks like the world of nightmares which I inhabit in my slumber. I am drawn and repulsed by it, I fear being engulfed in its darkness, and yet I crave to unravel the mystery of those tall cypress trees.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, ‘Basel’ version, 1880

“Under ancient cypress trees, weeping dreams are harvested from sleep.” (Georg Trakl, tr. by Jay Hopler, from “Year,” published c. October 1912)

The painting shows a seemingly uninhabited little island, composed from strange massive yellowish rocks and built in classical style architecture, the purpose of which is unclear. The centre of the isle is occupied by tall and shadowy cypress trees which look, to me, as if they are corpses standing upright and decaying slowly. Their darkness exudes a nauseating scent and the way they loom over the isle silently gives their presence an ominous character. This is a place from the artist’s imagination, and all elements are subordinated to the mood which is one of dreams and death, some even say the mood is that of ‘withdrawal, of rejection of reality’ which makes sense in the context of Symbolism. Death dreamily hangs over the isle as a dark cloud heavy from rain; death hides in the soft trembling of the tired cypress trees; death lingers in the air in the rich and heavy scent of the Mediterranean. But the isle is not alone; a little rowboat is slowly gliding through the dark and still waters. On the boat we see an oarsman, a figure shrouded in white veils, resembling a statue or a mummy, and a coffin. Now, just when you thought things couldn’t get more symbolist if they wanted to! There are dozens of interpretations of this painting and its every detail offers many explanations. Some suggest the oarsman represents Charon, the boatman from Greek mythology who led souls to the underworld over the river Acheron. Perhaps defining the painting would mean stealing its richness of vague dreaminess and confining it to the genre of mythological scenes, and it’s much richer than that because its layers and layers of mystery serve to awaken the subconsciousness.

Island of Saint George

This painting is one of three versions or variations of a same theme that Böcklin painted. Even though the isle is the artist’s little fantasy, a dream-world and not a real place, it was inspired by a real place, and again, there are a few possibilities. One of them points to the islet called “Sveti Đorđe” (“Island of Saint George”) in Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. The only building on the islet is a Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and the abundance of tall and dark cypress trees are reminiscent of Böcklin’s paintings. It really is a dead isle; no one lives there apart from the wandering souls of the dead, and tourists are not allowed. Böcklin could have seen the islet on one of his travels to Italy. I am certain that in twilight it holds the same eerie spell on the observer as the isle in the painting does. Another possible inspiration is the Pontikonisi islet in Greece, again with plenty of cypress trees and a Byzantine chapel from the 12th century. I personally feel that there is a clear resemblance between the Island of Saint George and the third version of the painting “Isle of the Dead”, from 1883, where the rocky formations are sharp and grey, almost enveloping the isle, and the colour of the sea blends with that of the sky.

Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, The Third Version, 1883

What draws us to the painting is the eerie atmosphere, the irrational composition of the isle and its dazzling dream-like beauty, and the mystery which doesn’t have an answer. Surrealists such as Giorgio de Chirico loved the painting, precisely because of those qualities, and the similar mood of silence, eeriness and mystery pervades many of his paintings. A reference to the past might be the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich which have the same mute stillness and a spiritual mystique.

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John Singer Sargent’s Watercolours – Ladies with Parasols

9 Apr

It so happens that most of the paintings I talk about here on the blog are oil on canvas, but deep down in my heart I am an ardent lover of watercolours. I think it’s a medium full of spontaneity and feelings. So, let’s take a look at some beautiful watercolours with a mood of spring and indolence by an American Impressionist John Singer Sargent.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911, detail

A beautifully dressed woman with a parasol, in nature, enjoying the sunshine and summer breeze; not quite a foreign subject to the artists, especially not to the Impressionists; Claude Monet for one painted plenty of such scenes. Still, I feel that John Singer Sargent’s explorations of this theme are particularly interesting. Firstly because they are made in watercolours, and secondly they were made in moments when Sargent was taking a break from his highly appraised oil-on-canvas portraits of Victorian and later Edwardian nobility, therefore they are more experimental and more intimate. These show Sargent’s heart, not his business.

John Singer Sargent, The Lady with the Umbrella, 1911

In “The Lady with the Umbrella”, a beautiful woman dressed in a beautiful white gown is lying on the grass; her umbrella has just rolled over and she has to hold it gently with her hand, lest the summer’s breeze might blow it away. There is an air of sweetness and delicacy about her, she looks like a large white anemone flower, but there is a hint of sensuality as well; her flushed cheeks and direct gaze, the way her little hand is holding the umbrella, the S-silhouette of her body, so typically Edwardian, clad in soft whiteness. The sitter is actually Sargent’s niece Rose-Marie Ormond. I like how closely cropped her body is; look how her dress and the umbrella are delightfully ‘cut-off’. The artist hesitates to show us all of her charms, but rather invited us to daydream of the nature surround this beauty and makes us believe her dress is indeed a flowing sea of white silk that goes on and on, lavish and soft. The painting reminds me of a scene you’d find in Merchant-Ivory films such as “A Room with a View” (1985) or “Howards End” (1992) with the beautiful Helena Bonham-Carter. Also, because of the woman’s gaze, pose and the way she’s closely-cropped, it almost reminds me of fashion photography, from the sixties and seventies as well as now. Example of what I mean is right below:

John Singer Sargent, Madame Roger-Jourdain, 1883-85, watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 55.8

Still, “The Lady with the Umbrella” isn’t the first painting of this kind that Sargent made. After 1900, Sargent often used the motif of woman lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but when he painted Henriette, this was a new thing for him. His watercolour portrait of Madame Roger-Jourdain made decades earlier is perhaps the painting that started it all. Henriette Roger-Jourdain was a daughter and the wife of two artists; her father was Henri Moulignon, and her husband was the artist Joseph Roger-Jourdain. Henriette was not just a society hostess but also a friend and a muse to many artists; composer Gabriel Fauré dedicated his composition “Aurore” to her in 1884, Paul Albert Besnard and Sargent both painted her. Sargent became acquainted with the Roger-Jourdain family because they were neighbours in the boulevard Berthier in Paris.

The painting is similar to the one we’ve seen above; a lady lying on the grass with her parasol near her, but here her body isn’t closely cropped and she is surrounded by grass; freedom all around her. One can imagine her laughing when tickled by the grass, stretching her arms and breathing in the fresh air, laughing at the tree tops that open before her eyes, wishing she could fly with the birds and be one with the baby blue sky… Dressed in a white dress, lying on that dark green grass she looks like a lotus flower on the flickering emerald green surface of a lake. The portrait oozes that fantastically indolent and sensuous “dolce far niente” mood.

John Singer Sargent, Woman with Parasol, 1888, watercolour on paper, 17.2 x 24.1 cm

Now, this third example is a tad different; the colours are darker and the woman appears more demure. She is depriving the viewer of her coquettish gaze, choosing rather to stay hidden underneath her gauzy white scarf. I really appreciate the sketch-like brushstrokes here; look how the parasol was painted with its taupe brown shadings and details in white, then the grass in a strange moss-green colour, perhaps it was an autumn day. Again, the woman’s hat and her parasol are slightly closely-cropped which helps us imagine that we are there with her, it gives an immediacy to the scene.

All painting/drawing techniques have their strengths and beauties. Drawings with pencil exude sincerity, those with charcoal possess the gloom and the strength of a tall oak. Pastels are raw pigments and their vibrancy is so psychedelic and childlike. All yet, I adore watercolours! Painting with them is such a thrill; you dip your brush in that watery paint, press is gently to the paper and let is either sink in or mingle freely with the colour next to it… and you feel like a magician, like a witch over her cauldron creating a love potion. Pure magic! Everyone should try it, it’s really therapeutic, it feels like travelling on a rainbow and making friends with each colour. I feel that, with watercolours, the painting almost creates itself; you can make a brushstroke in blue and add a mere drop of red, when water touched the two, you’ll see purple. You can play with it and see where it takes you.

Julie Daydreaming by Berthe Morisot

15 May

“They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

Berthe Morisot, Julie Daydreaming, 1894

A portrait of a wistful round-faced girl in a loose white gown, with large heavy-lidded dreamy eyes, pouting and gazing in the distance, supporting her face with a delicate white hand; it’s Julie Manet, portrayed here in the sweet state of daydreams in the spring of her life, aged sixteen, by her mother Berthe Morisot.

I have been loving this portrait of Julie, it’s charming and subject of daydreams is very well known to me, but this is just one out of many portraits of Julie that Morisot has done. Julie was her mother’s treasure and her favourite motif to paint since the moment she was born on 14 November 1878, when Morisot was thirty-seven years old. Morisot comes from a wealthy family with good connections and this enabled her the freedom to pursue her artistic career. Another interesting thing is that her mother, Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas was the great-niece of the Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Berthe had art flowing her veins.

Berthe Morisot, Julie with Her Nurse, 1880

Berte Morisot was part of the Impressionist circles, and married Eugene Manet, younger brother of Edouard Manet. Very early on, she had shown interest in painting children and made lots of portraits of her sisters with their children, so the arrival of little Julie enriched both her personal and artistic life, and she was known to have always tried mingling the two together, as explained by the poet Paul Valéry, her niece’s husband: “But Berthe Morisot singularity consisted in … living her painting and painting her life, as if this were for her a natural and necessary function, tied to her vital being, this exchange between observation and action, creative will and light … As a girl, wife, and mother, her sketches and paintings follow her destiny and accompany it very closely.

When Morisot painted other children, those were just paintings, studies, paint-on-canvas, but with Julie it was more than that, it was a project, one we could rightfully call “Julie grows up” or “studies of Julie” because since the moment Julie was born to the moment Morisot herself died, in 1895, she painted from 125 to 150 paintings of her daughter. Degas had his ballerinas, Monet his water lilies and poplars, and Berthe had her little girl to paint. It’s interesting that Morisot never portrayed motherhood in a typical sentimental Victorian way with a dotting mother resembling Raphael’s Madonna and an angelic-looking child with rosy cheeks. She instead gave Julie her identity, even in the early portraits she emphasised her individuality and tended to concentrate on her inner life. This makes Julie real, we can follow her personality, her interests and even her clothes through the portraits. Also, Morisot didn’t hesitate to paint Julie with her nanny or wet nurse, showing her opinion that the maternal love isn’t necessarily of the physical nature, but artistic; she preferred painting over breastfeeding her baby girl.

Édouard Manet, Julie Manet sitting on a Watering Can, 1882

As a lucky little girl and a daughter of two artists, Julie received a wonderful artistic upbringing. She was educated at home by her parents, and spent only a brief time at a local private school. Morisot, who saw her nieces Jeannie and Paule Gobillard as her own daughters, taught all three girls how to paint and draw, and also the history of art itself. Morisot took Julie to Louvre, analysed sculptures in parks with her and together they discussed the colour of shadows in nature; they are not grey as was presented in academic art. Morisot also started an alphabet book for Julie, called “Alphabet de Bibi” because “Bibi” was Julie’s nickname; each page included two letters accompanied by illustrations. (Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of that online)

Still, Morisot wasn’t the only one to capture Julie growing up, other Impressionist did too, most notably Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Julie’s uncle Edouard Manet who made a cute depiction of a four year old Julie sitting on a watering can, wearing a blue dress and rusty-red bonnet. Julie’s childhood seems absolutely amazing, but her teenage years were not so bright. In 1892, her father passed away, and in 1895 her mother too; she was just sixteen years old and an orphan. The famous symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who died himself just four years later, became her guardian, and she was sent to live with her cousins.

Berthe Morisot, The Artist’s Daughter Julie with her Nanny, c. 1884.

Berthe Morisot, Young Girl with Doll, 1884

Like all Impressionist, Bethe Morisot painted scenes that are pleasant to the eye and very popular to modern audience, but what appeals me the most about her art is the facture; in her oils it’s almost sketch-like, it’s alive, it breaths and takes on life of its own, her bold use of white, her brushstrokes of rich colour that look as if they are flowing like a vivacious river on the surface of the canvas, and her pastels have something poetic about them. Just look at the painting The Artist’s Daughter Julie with her Nanny above, look at those strong, wilful strokes of white and blue, that tickles my fancy! Or the white sketch-like strokes on Julie with Her Nurse.

It was Renoir who encouraged Morisot to experiment with her colour palette and free both the colour and brushwork. It may not come as a surprise that Julie loved her mother’s artworks, in fact the lovely painting of a girl clutching her doll was Julie’s favourite, and she had it hanged above her bed. Imagine waking up to this gorgeous scene, knowing that it was painter by your dearest mama.

Berthe Morisot, The Piano, 1889

Both Renoir and Morisot fancied portraying girl playing piano, and this is Morisot’s version of the motif, made in pastel. The girl painted in profile, playing piano and looking at the music sheet is Julie’s cousin Jeannie, while the eleven year old Julie is shown wearing a light blue dress and sporting a boyish hairstyle. She is here, but her thoughts are somewhere else, her head is leaned on her hand and she’s daydreaming… Oh, Julie, what occupies your mind?

Berthe Morisot, Portrait of Julie, 1889

And here is a beautiful pastel portrait of Julie, also aged eleven but looking more girly with soft curls framing her round face, and a pretty pink bow. There’s something so poetic about her face; her almond shaped eyes gaze at something we don’t see, her face is always tinged with melancholy, even in her photo. Playful strokes of white chalk across her face, her auburn hair ending in sketch-like way…

Berthe Morisot, Portrait of Julie Manet Holding a Book, 1889

Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet with a Budgie, 1890

As you can see, in all the paintings from the “Julie series”, Julie is presented in an individualised way, not like typical girl portraits of the time with golden tresses and clutching a doll, looking cheerful and naive, rather, Morisot painted her reading a book, playing an instrument, daydreaming, lost in her thoughts, or sitting next to her pets, the budgie and the greyhound. Morisot wanted more for Julie that the role of a mother and a wife which was the typical Victorian ideal of womanhood, because as a prolific artist with a successful career, Morisot had also chosen an alternative path in life. There’s a distinct dreaminess and slight sadness about Julie’s face in most of these portraits, which only becomes emphasised as she grows older.

Now the “Julie grows up” element comes to the spotlight. We’ve seen Julie as a baby with honey-coloured hair, we’ve seen her with her pets, playing violin or listening to her cousin playing piano, but Julie is growing up so quickly… almost too quick to capture with a brush and some paint! My absolute favourite portrait of Julie is one from 1894, Julie Daydreaming, which reveals her inner life and her dreamy disposition the best. I love her white dress, her gaze, the shape of her hands, I love how every lock of hair is shaped by a single brushstroke. There’s a hint of sensuality in it as well, and it has drawn comparisons to Munch’s “sexual Madonnas”, which seems unusual at first since it was painted by her mother. I don’t really see it that way though, I see it simply as a portrait of a wistful girl in white wrapped in the sweetness of her daydreams.

I can’t help but wonder what she is daydreaming about. Tell me Julie, whisper it in my ear, I won’t tell a soul; is there a boy you fancy, would you like to walk through the meadows full of poppies, or watch the dew as it catches on the soft petals on roses in some garden far away, do you dream of damsels and troubadours, would you like to fly on Aladdin’s magical carpet, or listen to the sea in Brittany, what fills your soul with sadness Julie? And please, do tell me where you bought that dress – I want the same one!

Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet and her Greyhound Laerte, 1893

Berthe Morisot, Julie Playing a Violin, 1893

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Julie Manet, 1894

This portrait of Julie Manet by Renoir is particularly interesting to me; Julie is shown with masses of long auburn-brown hair, flushed cheeks, large elongated blue eyes with a sad gaze, in a sombre black dress against a grey background. The melancholic air of the portrait reminds me of one portrait from 1857 of Millais’ young little model and muse Sophy Gray; the same rosy cheeks, the same melancholic blue eyes and brown tresses.

John Everett Millais, Sophy Gray, 1857

And now Julie is a woman! In May 1900 a double wedding ceremony was held; Julie married Ernest Rouart and her cousin Jeannie Gobillard married Paul Válery. Her teenage diary, which she began writing in August 1893, is published under the name “Growing Up with Impressionists”. What started as just a bunch of notes, impressions and scribbles turned out to be a book in its own right, one which shows the art world and fin de siecle society through the eyes of a teenage girl. Julie died on Bastille Day, 14th July, in 1966.

Photo of Julie Manet, 1894

She looks so frail and sad in the photo, but I can’t help but admire her lovely dress and hat. Sad little Julie, you just keep on daydreaming….

John A. Grimshaw – Dreary Victorian Streets

19 Nov

John Atkinson Grimshaw is the painter of the industrialised late Victorian Britain who captured the beauty of wet pavements, rainy cobble streets, gas lamps, hustle of carriages, grey facades and docs under moonlight. His romanticised portrayals of urban cities still possess a slight dose of dreariness, a mood of a cold and gloomy night of November when everything is damp, wet and mist descends.

1881. Shipping on the Clyde, by John Atkinson Grimshaw,John Atkinson Grimshaw, Shipping on the Clyde, 1881

In his painting ‘Shipping on the Clyde’, Grimshaw perfectly captured the atmosphere of a cold and gloomy November twilight. Beautiful night sky that seems to have been woven from teal and sea foam shades of blue and green stretches above the docs of Glasgow, carriages are passing, wet pavements are glistening on the light of gas lamps, vivid sulfate yellow shines through the shop windows, and occasional figures that ventured into this damp night are opening their umbrellas and leaving in a hurry. All of his paintings have an intoxicating nocturnal beauty about them, but I’d dare say this one is my favourite.

Grimshaw is the master of moonlight scenes, portraying cold and wet Autumn eves, and nocturnal townscapes in a style that combines realism and romanticism at once. Subject of his art are mostly grim cities of the North; Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool, whose landscapes had been greatly changed as a result of the Industrial revolution. Some might perceive the appearance of these modern cities as dehumanising, cold and dangerous, but Grimshaw saw a certain beauty in moonlit nights over the docs, grey facades with large and luminous shop windows, damp days and misty mornings, and wet cobble streets of the North. Grimshaw’s townscenes are charmingly lyrical because he portrayed them in a romanticised way, ignoring the dirty and depressive aspects of a late Victorian city; dirt, prostitutes, poor children, thieves, bad working conditions, smog, tall chimneys of many factories.

View of Heath Street by Night 1882 Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893 Purchased 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00626

John Atkinson Grimshaw, View of Heath Street by Night, 1882

Same bleak industrial landscape would later inspire a string of Northern bands, most notably Joy Division. Their guitarist, Bernard Sumner admitted he found Manchester ugly, adding: ‘I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine.’ Their song ‘Exercise One‘ has a specially brooding, grim sound which is a pure product of the grey concrete wasteland that surrounded them. Still, Grimshaw’s way of presenting things reminds me more of The Smiths; while Morrissey sang of loneliness and feeling like a misfit, Johnny Marr coated in it whimsical, jolly tunes.

1887-canny-glasgow-john-atkinson-grimshawJohn Atkinson Grimshaw, Canny Glasgow, 1887

Grimshaw (1836-1893) was completely self-taught, having left his regular job as a railway clerk at the age of twenty-four to fully devote himself to painting. His parents weren’t really impressed, but who cares what anyone thinks as long as the world of art benefits. As you can see, his style is vivid in details, almost photographic in quality, and that is all due to the Pre-Raphaelites which were his main inspiration. His early work shows us that he was always fond of moonlight, but initially he portrayed lonely country lanes with a few tall trees whose bare branches remind us of the changing seasons. Still, his reputation rests on his townscapes with gas-lit streets of late Victorian England. Another Victorian artist, Whistler, praised Grimshaw, saying: ‘I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.’

Not much is known about him because he left no letters and documents, so it’s hard to explain why he painted what he painted. I believe his cityscapes weren’t painted to symbolise urban isolation and loneliness, but rather served to indulge his love for painting light which is present in all his paintings, whether it’s the street lamps, the moonlight, light from the carriages or the shops, he was simply fascinated with it. The introduction of gas lamps was surely a life-changing moment for many.

Renoir – The Umbrellas

10 Mar

‘Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.’ – Bob Marley

1883. Pierre Auguste Renoir - Umbrellas1881-86. The Umbrellas

This afternoon, while casually listening to the song Motorcycle Emptiness by Manic Street Preachers for the hundredth time, the opening scene with James Dean Bradfield singing in the rain, under neon loneliness, in a Tokyo street crowded with people and umbrellas reminded me of Renoir’s painting The Umbrellas. Bustling street, in the rain, dark coloured umbrellas permeated with melancholy, and the feeling of alienation in the city, themes the painting and the song share in common,  have all alluringly drawn me into the story that lies behind Renoir’s magnificent painting The Umbrellas.

This paintings is very interesting for many reasons. Firstly, it was painted in two different stages, the right part indicating the Impressionistic style with its loose brushstrokes and slightly brighter colour palette, while the left portion, featuring a lady dressed in a dreary grey dress, was painted around 1885-86, the dress style indicating the precise years. In the middle of the 1880s Renoir became disillusioned with the Impressionism and sought inspiration in the works of Courbet and Manet, admiring their realistic approach, and also in the works of old masters such as Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher, the sentimentality of whose paintings had always been deep-rooted into Renoir’s works. That so intriguing female figure on the left is actually a modiste or a milliner’s assistant, modeled by Renoir’s lover Suzanne Valadon, a very rebellious, passionate and seductive young lady, not even twenty years old when the painting was started. Bleak grey shades of her dress and those realistically sad brush strokes are the best legacy of Renoir’s change of style. The figure that he had so unhesitatingly repainted originally wore a white dress with lots of lace and frills and a lavishing hat. By changing her dress, Renoir changed her position in society, from an upper class lady, this figure became a grisette; a coquettish and flirtatious working class girl. The composition is quite unusual too; instead of a central composition one would expect, Renoir emphasised the left part of the canvas giving the figure of modiste even more depth and meaning. Behind the lady we see a vigorous young gentleman, a student or a dandy perhaps, that is about to engage her, maybe offer her shelter under his umbrella. She is not even remotely interested, instead she gazed longingly at the viewer. While her face appears rosy and innocent, her eyes are filled with melancholy, despair, and wistful reconciliation.

Renoir in general wanted to capture the mood of modern Paris; the bohemianism, the nonchalance, the laughter; an aim he fulfilled in works such as ‘Le Moulin de la Galette‘, but in the painting The Umbrellas, Renoir presented a rather different view on modern Paris, emphasising its isolation. The scene itself is very dynamic, the sky is almost hidden away by all the umbrellas, but the crowd of people are barely having any contact with each other. Apart from the gentleman on the left, all the other characters are rushing in their own ways, fairly uninterested for one another. It’s a rainy day and Parisian streets are busy, who has time for chatter!?

Essentially, isn’t it the same, the feeling of estrangement in the city, whether it is the 19th century Paris seen through the eyes of Renoir or the late 20th century alienation that Richey Edwards has so eloquently expressed, the feeling of being lost, isolated and trapped in a big city is universal.

Van Gogh – Japonaiserie

16 Aug

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.

1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) - van Gogh1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) – Vincent van Gogh

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.”

van gogh1On the left: Plum Park in Kameido (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

van gogh 2

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

1875. claude monet- Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume1875. Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume – Claude Monet

1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain

1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

1894. George Hendrik Breitner - Girl in a White Kimono1894. George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in a White Kimono

1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster