Van Gogh and Japan: an intimate love affair

Van Gogh and Japan

"Van Gogh and Japan" is the name of the exhibition in which the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam deals with the influence Japanese art had on the painter. The exhibition runs from 23. March to 24. June 2018. If you don't want to wait so long, you can read the story here.

At the beginning of 1888 Van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France. Here he wanted to found an art colony. He believed that painting could be reinvented through the genre of portraiture. Therefore he encouraged other painters to paint themselves. The cover image of this post is one such self-portrait. Van Gogh dedicated it to Paul Gaugin and sent it to him. Shortly thereafter, however, his friendship with Gaugin deteriorated and Gaugin eventually sold it for 300 francs.

Van Gogh and Japan

Van Gogh described what was special about this self-portrait to his brother Theo in several letters: it was a reaction to Japanese prints that fascinated Van Gogh. He changed his facial features, altered the contours of his jacket for a coloristic effect, and painted the background "pale Veronese green" with no shadows. Already in this self-portrait Van Gogh's veneration for Japan becomes abundantly clear: As can be seen well, he had shorn his hair short, because he wanted to appear like a Japanese monk.

With his fascination for Japan Van Gogh was not alone. Like many Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh was strongly influenced by Japanese art. "Japonism" was the name given to a veritable movement in France at the time. Painters such as Claude Monet, Degas and Paul Gaugin studied the Japanese art of representation and responded to it in their works. Monet, for example, created the painting "La Japonaise" in 1875: it shows his wife in a kimono with a fan in her hand. (Later, however, the artist was not very enthusiastic about it.)

Van Gogh and Japan Vincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890 Van Gogh Museum

1854: Japanese art conquers the world

For a long time, Japan had opted for isolation. It was not until 1854 that this changed. There was the Kanagawa Agreement, in which the Japanese shogun government agreed with the U.S. delegation to end its self-imposed isolation after 216 years. The result was that Japanese art now reached foreign countries, where it was enthusiastically received.

Van Gogh first came into contact with Japanese art in Antwerp in 1885. Here he bought some Japanese woodblock prints. But it was not to stop there. Over the years, he accumulated more and more Japanese prints. This was not a problem because these prints were cheap reproductions of the originals. The artist also spent hours (some say days) in the Bing Gallery, where Japanese woodblock prints were exhibited.

"I envy the Japanese artists for their incredible clarity," Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. "It is never boring and you never get the impression that they are working in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing. They paint a figure with a few strokes with such unfailing ease as if it were as simple as buttoning a jacket."

Van Gogh and Japan

Van Gogh and Japan: found in Arles

Eventually, Van Gogh even moved to Arles because he thought it would be like Japan here. To his sister, he explained it in a letter like this:

"Theo wrote that he had offered you Japanese woodblock prints. This is certainly the best way to understand in which direction the bright and colorful painting is developing. I do not need Japanese woodblock prints here. I am here in Japan. That's why I just have to open my eyes and paint the impressions I get."

You can learn more about the relationship between Van Gogh and Japan in spring 2018 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The museum has gathered more than 60 paintings and drawings to illustrate Van Gogh's love of Japanese art. The highlight of this exhibition is Van Gogh's "Self Portrait for Gauguin" (1888, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge), the cover image of this article.

Image source: the images in this article were provided by the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge and the Netherlands Bureau of Tourism & Convention.