van Gogh and Japonisme

Introduction

The combination of Japan and the well-known Dutch postimpressionistic painter van Gogh may seem an odd one at first, but when looking more closely, an concrete association can be found. Apparently, van Gogh admired the Japanese style of life and art, and took this as an inspiration to amend and improve his own works of art and painting style. Because I noticed the gradual but apparent changes in colour, theme, and composition when I visited the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, this is a topic I have since then wanted to study more closely. Thus, I will base my research on the question; 'How can the influence of Japanese artwork be seen in several of van Gogh's works of art?'. To understand this topic better and reach a final conclusion, I believe it would be best to first take a closer look at van Gogh's personal life and the way in which he came into contact with Japanese artwork, before proceeding to elucidate what inspired him most; Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodcuts. In order to eventually analyse several paintings that were influenced by Japonisme, I will determine which elements he actually incorporated into his own work, and depict the influences and differences compared to his earlier work. Since nature has remained one of his foremost fascinations over the years, I have chosen to analyze four paintings portraying this topic, being;

  • Flowering Plum Tree (1887) after a painting by Utagawa Hiroshige (used as example)
  • The Bridge in the Rain (1887) after a woodcut by Utagawa Hiroshige(used as example)
  • The Courtesan (1887)
  • Small Pear Tree in Blossom (1888)
  • Almond Blossom (1890)
  • Irises (1890)

An outline of van Gogh's life

When van Gogh seriously commenced painting, around 1880, he still lived in the Netherlands. While living there, van Gogh lived in different cities, of which one was The Hague. In The Hague, in 1881, van Gogh started taking art classes for the first time in his life, by a teacher called Anton Mauve; this was the start of his career as an artist. Most of the work van Gogh produced during this time period was during these classes; it took him until the summer of 1882 to make his first independent piece of art. His use of colour was sombre, dark and mainly existed of greys, blacks, dark greens, and lighter colours to define shapes: the 'Dutch Palette'. At this period of time, the used subjects mostly ranged from houses to landscapes, and many studies of faces and hard working human beings; mostly farmers. His use of colour clearly portrayed what mood van Gogh wanted to convey to the observer of his work; that of difficulty, a hard work load, but also tranquillity and calmness of nature (van Gogh Museum).

In 1883 van Gogh still lived in the Netherlands, and was moving from city to city. At this time he started to develop a greater interest in using peasant workers, farmers and weavers as his main subjects; hard working, ordinary people. In 1884 he even completed a series of forty pieces with the peasant workers as subject. His use of colour was still dark and shadowy, and depicts a cheerless mood. In 1885 van Gogh created what is now known as one of his master pieces, the Potato Eaters. This was his first large painting, and contained multiple human beings enjoying a simple meal. Van Gogh worked together with his brother Theo who lived in Paris to sell his pieces, which did not really work out since the painting style in Paris was very different, and much more of impressionism; containing brighter colours than van Gogh's work. Soon he would adapt to this approach.

By the end of 1885, van Gogh decided to leave the Netherlands entirely, and move to Antwerp, Belgium. Here he had a greater access to works of other artists, and his own style gradually changed since he had the ability to buy better art supplies; his work would no longer consist of only the 'Dutch Palette' of dark colours. (van Gogh Museum). Before long, van Gogh would come into contact with a rather new approach to his own work, leading to apparent changes in his paintings; Japonisme.

How did van Gogh come into contact with Japanese art?

Antwerp was the city where van Gogh bought his first Japanese prints, which did not yet start to influence his art work. In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh wrote: "My studio is not so bad, especially as I have pinned a lot of little Japanese prints on the wall, which amuse me very much" (Brooks, David. Par 8). In the beginning of 1886 van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his brother, and together they started to truly collect these Japanese prints. In late 1886 his interest in Japanese art started to change, and moved from just being amusing, to being an inspiration for his artwork (Tilborgh, Louis van, page 7). In 1887 van Gogh commenced with copying some of his Japanese prints to gain the Japanese, artistic qualities he saw in the prints. He started to see the Japanese prints as being of great quality, also compared to many well-known artists: "Japanese art is a thing like the Primitives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruysdael. They never pass away" (Gogh, Vincent van, par 17). It is difficult to trace where van Gogh found all the Japanese prints, but it is certain that he bought many from an art dealer named Siegfried Bing. Bing opened a gallery for Japanese and Chinese art in 1878, and was the source of most of the Japanese work in that region; as well as for van Gogh and his brother. (Tilborgh, Louis van, page 16).

Ukiyo-e and famous Japanese art

Japanese art' is a very broad concept which consists of many different art movements, styles, techniques, artists and time periods. The main genre of Japanese art that relates to van Gogh's work is 'Ukiyo-e', a genre of Japanese art that was produced in the period between the seventeenth and twentieth century that consists of paintings, but more importantly of woodcut prints. Because primary production was by woodblock printing, it led to a mass-production causing low prices, making Japanese prints also a largely used form of advertisement (Johansson, Hans Olof). This type of art was a way to express the love and appreciation of nature and everyday life, as well as telling stories. These woodcuts feature "pictures of the 'floating world', motifs of landscapes, the theatre, and human figures" (Johansson, Hans Olof, par 1). Since Japan did not have many forms of trade with the outside world, their artwork was truly original, and inspired only by their traditions and culture. When eventually, due to the New Trade Agreements in 1850, travellers and goods started to pass the border 'Japonisme' evolved. Japonisme is the French term "to describe the interest in Japanese art in the West between 1865 and 1895" (Diane publishing company). Especially the poor townsmen were interested in the Japanese art, due to the good pricing and the wide offer. Many Japanese artists have produced well known Ukiyo-e work, but Hokusai's and Hiroshige's work stand out to most have inspired van Gogh. Hokusai, 1760 - 1849, produced many pieces which were well-known in the Western world, including the Great Wave of Kanagawa, and has written many books about Ukiyo-e. Hiroshige, 1797 - 1858, made two of the pieces which van Gogh copied in order to teach himself the Japanese art style (Anonymous, "Japonism" Wikipedia), including the Drum Bridge at Meguro.

Which elements of Japanese art did van Gogh incorporate in his own work?

To understand which elements of Japanese art van Gogh incorporated into his own work and how he did so, knowledge of these elements is required. The following have been found to have changed the most in his work during that period of time;

  • Themes
  • Dark outlines
  • Use of colour
  • Composition
  • Perspective

When van Gogh commenced with integrating Japanese elements, he primarily started to change the actual subjects of his work. He used to be very much into painting portraits and landscapes, but now diverted to themes often used in Japan, such as; animals, courtesans, everyday items, simplicity, and blossoming trees, which represent early spring and the beginning of new life. Van Gogh did still use his former topics for his paintings, especially nature since this was a major theme used by the Japanese also, but starting to use the new themes mainly to enrich his paintings.

The most conspicuous Ukiyo-e element van Gogh incorporated into his work was the dark outline. These contours used to emphasize the shapes of the objects, are usually bold and black lines. This contrasts with the softer colours van Gogh used, and gave his work a rather lucid but unnatural feel to it. Another change in the use of colours was the palette he used. Formerly, he used the so-called sombre 'Dutch Palette', but had started to adapt himself to the Impressionistic work of the Parisians, and after this to the Japanese colours. His outlook on the use of colours changed drastically, and he enjoyed experimenting with the new palette (van Gogh Museum). His use of colour then became lighter, brighter, and more vibrant. Finally, van Gogh started to paint flat areas filled with only a solitary strong colour, eliminating depth and texture. The images seemed rather flat, also due to the dark outlines, and the fictional depth disappeared by using flat, single colours as a background. Most of his painting now looked somewhat 2d, instead of the 3d compositions he used to strive for.

Van Gogh's use of composition was also affected by his new interest and examples, and became more asymmetric than before. To greaten the emphasis of his topics, he started placing the main objects enlarged and off centre in the foreground. They were also often cropped at the edge of the canvas, leaving room for imagination of what he could have left out. Another new technique was that of placing the subjects in diagonal lines appearing to go across the canvas, leading to implied movement (Tilborgh, Louis van. Page 23), for example with fields of flowers. This led to daring, interesting perspectives, and often forced the observer to look at the subject matter of the painting from a different level, causing a change in perception. Add to this the dark contours and the solid single colour backgrounds, and a lack of depth is created, as well as a different painting method and thus image.

A reflection of the influences on different works of art

Van Gogh wanted to make the Japanese techniques his own, for which he decided to plainly use the method of copying. He literally traced and copied Japanese artworks, of which the Flowering Plum Tree, made in 1887 after Utagawa Hiroshige's painting, is one example. The second example is a wood cut by Utagawa Hiroshige; The Bridge in the Rain, copied in 1887. Van Gogh mainly worked with these to improve his colouring techniques, since this was the first time he worked with non-blended colours making up large spaces, no shadows, and the pure colour black which the impressionists did not consider a colour. Also notice the borders with Japanese letters, a personal touch by van Gogh, and the perfectly and gently illustrated falling rain; an aspect considered unachievable for many artists in that period.

With creating these copies, van Gogh realized how much he truly appreciated Ukiyo-e and decided to make another painting by copying a Japanese print. This time, van Gogh used a print by Keisai Eisen, and created an even bigger piece than the two copies he made before; The Courtesan (1887). But because he did not own the original version of this print, he used a replication he found in the magazine 'Paris Illustr'. (Tilborgh, Louis van. Page 29). This painting portrays a courtesan, also known as a Japanese prostitute. The lady depicted in this painting is thought to be one of higher class, judging by her hair and rich kimono. As Eisens version had a blank background, van Gogh was able to fill it in with his own creativity. He filled the background in with a solid yellow colour, but decided to make the border extraordinary and came up with a clever use of word-play. He surrounded the courtesan with a pond filled with bamboo sticks and water lilies, but also a crane and a frog for which the French words are 'grue' and 'grenouille', which is considered slang for prostitute. (van Gogh Museum). In this painting van Gogh stayed faithful to his discovery of bright colours, while sticking to the use of complementary colours. Especially in the background and the bamboo sticks, van Gogh used simple brush strokes to create surfaces of solid colour. The bamboo sticks, frog, crane, and water lilies also contain strong outlines, which seem to exist out of a single brushstroke of a dark colour. These dark outlines, contrasting with the use of colour, were a new technique for van Gogh, which, from are from them on present in most of his works of art.

After living in Paris for two years, van Gogh decided to move to Arles, France in 1888. In Arles van Gogh felt like he was in Japan, and felt like his outlook unto the world started to change by now seeing the world the same as Japanese artists (van Gogh Museum). Van Gogh created many Japanese influenced pieces of art while in Arles, and slowly let go of the pointillism. One of these pieces was the Small Pear Tree in Blossom, part of a series of fruit trees he created in the spring of 1888. Trees in blossom were one of the most common subjects used in Japanese art, portraying the changing of seasons (van Gogh Museum). The roots of the tree are surrounded by strong, dark contours, and much detail is left from the trunk. The tree is placed slightly oblique in the middle and foreground of the painting, enlarging and emphasizing on this object. Also, since the tree runs oblique, implied movement is created since the eye will follow the tree from the root towards the top. This painting contains a lack of depth due to the simple brush strokes and lack of details, but does have a simple road and small fence in the back. Also note that compared to his previous work, this painting consists of a rather light palette with bright whites, yellow and blue.

On May 8th, 1889, van Gogh moved to Saint-Rmy, where he was admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum since he had suffered from paranoia and hallucinations. In the asylum van Gogh used the clinic and the garden as his main topics, and produced many famous works. When he received a letter from his brother Theo informing him of the birth of his son named Vincent, Van Gogh was so delighted that he painted the Almond Blossom (van Gogh Museum), 1890, where references to Japanese art can again be found. For him, the blossom portrayed the beginning of a new life, and one of the first signs that spring was coming, a topic often used in Ukiyo-e. The bright blue sky contrasts with the subtle colours of the tree, but does not create a feeling of depth since no branches are blurred into the background. The tree again contains strong, dark contours and the branches of the tree fill up most of the canvas. The placement of the almond blossom was also inspired by Japanese art, since it is enlarged and placed in the front. It is interesting to note that the branches seem to be floating around in the air, or even in the sea when looking at the bright blue colour. It is also a remaining question whether or not the blossom is set in a vase, or is planted outside; van Gogh leaves this up to the imagination of the viewer. Another painting that is rather similar to the Almond Blossom in terms of techniques, are the Irises, 1890, again portraying interest in nature. Yet again the background solely consists of a basic, simple yellow colour, very similar to the colour of the vase, making the irises stand out with their dark blues, purples, and even black tints and contours. Note that the green leaves consist of a single, flat colour. Furthermore, the irises seem to diagonally cut the frame, and the painting is not given much depth due to the plain background. This painting is part of a series of still live flower compositions van Gogh made, starting April 1890.

Conclusion

After analyzing several of van Gogh's paintings and relating them to the Japanese art style Ukiyo-e, I have come to find an answer to the research question of this paper, which was; 'How can the influence of Japanese artwork be seen in several of van Gogh's works of art?'. After van Gogh came into contact with the prints, he gradually adopted the techniques of the Japanese art into his own works of art. Judging by the pieces of art he has made since then, and in particular those which I have analyzed more thoroughly in this paper, it seems that his use of colour and dark outlines are the most significant changes in his art style. These changes can also be found in most of his paintings created after that time-frame. The Almond Blossom would have to be my favourite work of art made by van Gogh, which is mainly due to his use of colours and the strong contours of the trunk and stems. I really enjoy the fact that my favourite elements of this painting can actually be attributed to a completely different style and genre of art, making it even more special to be produced by a Dutch postimpressionistic artist. Of course the following depends on one's personal opinion, but I do believe that it can be stated that the Japanese influence made van Gogh's work to what it has become, and has attributed to the triumph van Gogh created with his work, which is currently still growing on a worldwide scale.

Works cited

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  • Gogh, Vincent van. "Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh." van Gogh's Letters. 15 july 1888. WebExhibits. <http://webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/18/511.htm>. (15 January 2010).
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