Japonaiserie (Van Gogh)

The Courtesan (after Eisen)
An Oiran courtesan dressed in a colourful kimono placed against a bright yellow background framed by a border of bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs, cranes and a boat
Artist Vincent van Gogh
Year 1887 (1887)
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 105.5 cm × 60.5 cm (41½ in × 23¾ in)
Location Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Curator Leo Jansen of the Van Gogh Museum about Japonaiserie

Japonaiserie (English: Japanesery) was the term the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh used to express the influence of Japanese art.[1]

Before 1854 trade with Japan was confined to a Dutch monopoly and Japanese goods imported into Europe were for the most part confined to porcelain and lacquer ware. The Convention of Kanagawa put an end to the 200-year-old Japanese foreign policy of Seclusion and opened up trade between Japan and the West.

Artists such as Manet, Degas and Monet, followed by Van Gogh, began to collect the cheap colour wood-block prints called ukiyo-e prints. For a while Vincent and his brother Theo dealt in these prints and they eventually amassed hundreds of them (now housed in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).[2]

In a letter to Theo dated about 5 June 1888 Vincent remarks

About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.[3]

A month later he wrote,

All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art...[4]

Influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh

Van Gogh's interest in Japanese ukiyo-e prints dates from his time in Antwerp when he was also interesting himself in Delacroix's theory of colour and where he used them to decorate his studio.

One of De Goncourt’s sayings was ‘Japonaiserie for ever’. Well, these docks [at Antwerp] are one huge Japonaiserie, fantastic, singular, strange ... I mean, the figures there are always in motion, one sees them in the most peculiar settings, everything fantastic, and interesting contrasts keep appearing of their own accord.[5]

During his subsequent stay in Paris, where Japonisme had become a fashion influencing the work of the Impressionists, he began to collect ukiyo-e prints and eventually to deal in them with his brother Theo. At that time he made three copies of ukiyo-e prints, The Courtesan and the two studies after Hiroshige.

Van Gogh developed an idealised conception of the Japanese artist which led him to the Yellow House at Arles and his attempt to form a utopian art colony there with Paul Gauguin.

His enthusiasm for Japanese art had however waned by July 1888 in favour of Impressionism

Fortunately, we know more about the French Japanese, the Impressionists. That’s definitely the essence and the main thing.
So Japanese art, properly speaking, already with its place in collections, already impossible to find in Japan itself, is becoming of secondary interest.[6]

Van Gogh's dealing in ukiyo-e prints brought him into contact with Siegfried Bing who was prominent in the introduction of Japanese art to the West and later in the development of Art Nouveau.[7]

Characteristic features of ukiyo-e woodprints include their ordinary subject matter, the distinctive cropping of their compositions, bold and assertive outlines, absent or unusual perspective, flat regions of uniform colour, uniform lighting, absence of chiaroscuro, and their emphasis on decorative patterns. One or more of these features can be found in numbers of Vincent's paintings from his Antwerp period onwards.

The Courtesan (after Eisen)

 an old looking squared up tracing of a Japanese woman
Vincent's tracing of the courtesan figure
 the front of an old French magazine showing a courtesan or oiran or 'geisha girl' in a colourful kimono her hair fantasically done up with cherry or almond blossom to the left
Title page of Paris Illustré "Le Japon' vol. 4, May 1886, no. 45-46

The May 1886 edition of Paris Illustré was devoted to Japan with text by Tadamasa Hayashi who may have inspired van Gogh's utopian notion of the Japanese artist:

"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." [8]

The cover carried a reverse image of a colour woodblock by Keisai Eisen depicting a Japanese courtesan or Oiran. Vincent traced this and enlarged it to produce his painting.

Copies of Hiroshige prints

Plum Park in Kameido (1857) by Hiroshige
Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh
The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh made copies of two Hiroshige prints. He altered their colours and added borders filled with calligraphic characters he borrowed from other prints.[9]

Example ukiyo-e prints


Illustrative Van Gogh works


See also


  1. "Search result". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  2. "Japanese prints: Catalogue of the Van Gogh Museum's collection". Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  3. "Letter 620". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  4. "Letter 640". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  5. "Letter 545". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  6. "Letter 642". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  7. "Search result". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  8. "Letter 686 note 21". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
  9. 'Utagawa, Japonaiserie and Vincent Van Gogh' in: Forbes, Andrew; Henley, David (2014). 100 Famous Views of Edo. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. ASIN: B00HR3RHUY
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