Tag Archives: Japoniserie

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“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? 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.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

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?

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. (…) 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. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.