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.