The influence of Japanese woodblock prints on the trajectory of 19th–century European art is well documented and visually evident in the tendencies of Impressionists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt. Less understood is the history of trade that underpins this sudden evolution of art. Beginning in about 1860, the art movement coincided with the increased flow of goods from Japan, which had ended its 220-year-old policy of national seclusion in 1855 with the Kanagawa Treaty, the result of American Commodore Matthew Perry’s aggressive use of gunboat diplomacy to force trade relations with East Asia.
For almost two centuries prior, the Dutch had maintained exclusive European trading rights with Japan, negotiating the settlement of a small outpost on an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki called Dejima. That special relationship between the two nations contextualizes artist Vincent van Gogh’s lifelong adoration and appropriation of Japanese woodblock imagery into his paintings.
Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh documents the extent to which the famed Dutch artist looked to his collection of some 660 Japanese works for inspiration. By juxtaposing the artist’s impasto masterpieces with items from his personal collection of Japanese art, the book’s authors, Chris Uhlenbeck, Louis van Tilborgh, and Shigeru Oikawa, illustrate the clear influence of the East Asian aesthetic on van Gogh.
“We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful,” wrote van Gogh to his brother, Theo, in 1888. Such quotes pad the pages of Japanese Prints, exploring just how committed the artist was to giving credit where credit was due. “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art,” he continued in another letter to his brother.
The quality of van Gogh’s many prints has been compromised in the 150 years since he started acquiring them, due to the damaging effects of light while hanging on the walls of the artist’s house. Scholars presume that the prints were originally the vibrant, bold colors we see in van Gogh’s own paintings — a testament to the painter’s affection for his collection. Often, dealers of Japanese prints would soak their wares in tea to obtain subdued colors that the market preferred at the time. Buying his prints for about three sous or about 15 centimes — a trifle compared to the costs of daily necessities at the time — it’s doubtful that his dealer would have gone through the ordeal.
Admittedly, van Gogh’s collection of prints belonging to the kachōga genre (flowers and birds) is limited, despite his expressed appreciation of nature. Landscape prints are noticeably absent within the collection, which may be explained by their high price tag and van Gogh’s meager budget.
There are clear parallels between one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings, “Almond Blossom” (1890) and the various images of flowered trees within his Japanese print collection. For example, the delicate and interlacing branches in his blossom painting closely mirror those seen in Togaku’s “Cranes and Cherry Blossoms” (1875–1900). Although the flower buds are technically different, their visual similarity suggests that van Gogh drew some inspiration from the Japanese print.
Van Gogh’s collection also reveals an interest in femininity. Some 40% of his Japanese prints are, in fact, images of female beauties. If one includes images depicting onnagata (male kabuki actors who played female roles onstage), then that number is even higher — although it’s doubtful that the artist would have made such distinctions.
His drawings and paintings provide considerable evidence that van Gogh was also inspired by Japanese prints outside his own collection. In Arles, he created large pen drawings that took a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding landscape. “It does not look Japanese,” the artist remarked, “and it’s actually the most Japanese thing that I’ve done.” These panoramas, mixed with his interest in more playful renderings of insects, birds, and flowers from prints comprise what the artist once called the “Japanese dream,” a utopian fetish for the elegance of unfettered nature and agrarian life he saw in many of those prints.
As one of the most famous artists on the planet, it’s impractical to think that any one book can become a paradigm-shifter in the study of van Gogh. Still, Japanese Prints succeeds by championing the prints above all else. It cherishes the appeal these prints held for van Gogh while also explaining the artist’s appraisal of this alluring art form.
Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent Van Gogh is published in English by Thames & Hudson (London/New York). Price: £29.95/ $45.00.
Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor
The artist-performer’s career undulates, ever so gracefully, across multiple mediums and registers of generational pain, healing laughter, and Indigenous joy.
Rare 19th-Century Silhouette Album’s Secrets Unlocked
Traveling portrait artist William Bache’s album depicts famous figures like Thomas Jefferson as well as people whose identity was previously unknown.
Nevada Museum of Art Presents Adaline Kent: The Click of Authenticity
For the first time in nearly 60 years, the innovative yet under-recognized artist is the subject of a retrospective exhibition. On view in Reno, Nevada.
Artists Show What They Can Do With a Google Phone’s Camera
Works by 20 photographers are now on view in Manhattan for the seventh season and 100th project coming out of the Google Creator Labs.
Met Museum Kicked Me Out for Praying to My Ancestral Gods
My danced prayer to looted Cambodian antiquities was too much for the New York museum.
The Public Theater in NYC Presents Plays for the Plague Year
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s theatrical concert chronicles the 2020 lockdown and the hope and perseverance that emerged from it.
A Museum Guard’s Ode to the Healing Power of Art
In All the Beauty in the World, Patrick Bringley revisits the many ways that art meets life, and life art, and how death is often the bridge between them.
UK Extends Export Ban on Coveted “Portrait of Omai”
London’s National Portrait Gallery was given a few months to acquire the work, which depicts the first Polynesian visitor to the UK.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
The Sculptor Making Art With Loved Ones’ Ashes
Inspired by the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julian Stair’s exhibition honors the lives of eight people with cinerary jars.
Art Institute of Chicago Under Scrutiny Over Sacred Nepali Necklace
The 17th-century object remains on display at the Chicago museum despite Nepal’s calls for repatriation.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.