T he impact of Japanese woodcut prints on the development of art in France in the second half of the 19th century, by helping forward-thinking artists to liberate themselves from the chains of academic conventions and tradition, cannot be overstated. After Japan had formally resumed its direct trading relations with the West in 1858, Japanese artefacts quickly flooded European shores.
The hugely popular and regularly staged World Fairs, where Japanese prints were exhibited, initiated a craze for Japanese art and culture which quickly spread from connoisseurs and artists to the wider public. Until then, Japanese art had been relatively unknown in Europe, owing to the country’s isolationist policy, which had lasted for more than two centuries during the Edo period (1603–1867). In the 1870s important collections were formed, by influential writers as well as by public institutions and by artists, namely Degas, Whistler, Monet and Rodin, and later Gauguin and van Gogh.
“One could not stop admiring the unexpectedness of the compositions, the understanding of form, the richness of tone, the originality of the picturesque effect, together with the simplicity of the means used to obtain such results.”
Van Gogh’s first profound assessment of Japanese prints coincided with his very productive and experimental period in Paris. Within a short period of time he built up a collection of around 600 prints, exhibiting them in the spring of 1887 in the Café du Tambourin, a popular meeting place for avant-garde artists.
In 1888 he decided to leave Paris for Provence, a region he perceived to be most comparable to Japan, where – according to him – art and spirit flourished and artists could live and work in harmony with nature without the constraining conventions of academic tradition. Van Gogh had developed these ideas after having read novels by Edmond de Goncourt, Émile Guimet and Félix Régamey who sketched highly idealised images of Japan. Most contemporary French authors understood Japan as frozen in a timeless, “premodern” purity, and saw the perfect remedy for the diseases of Europe’s urban modernity in Japan.
Van Gogh worked extensively with his Japanese prints, initially tracing them and producing relatively close copies. In 1887 he incorporated several of them as painted backdrops in the portrait of the paint dealer Père Tanguy whom he depicted in a pose similar to a seated Buddha. The image of Mount Fuji positioned above Tanguy’s head was very likely inspired by Utagawa Hiroshige’s print The Sagami River (Sagami gawa) from the series The Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. The other prints in the background were selected by van Gogh to show the breadth of different genres depicted in Japanese prints, namely landscapes, flower studies, geishas, and several of them can be identified in his large collection.
The following year, van Gogh, now living in Arles, had become more independent in his work with Japanese prints. In terms of composition, several of his paintings depicting trees in blossom resemble Hiroshige’s The Sumida River Embankment in Edo (Tôto Sumida-zutsumi), another print from the above-mentioned series. As a result of learning from Japanese art van Gogh gained his own distinctive style. This encounter with his Japanese “role models” would prove to be the most important and decisive encounter of his whole artistic life.
“Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing — but in his case with his lines, his drawing, […] these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it. Ah well, if we made the colour very correct or the drawing very correct, we wouldn’t create those emotions.”
Recently it was convincingly suggested by Martin Bailey that van Gogh could have drawn visual inspiration from Hokusai’s print of the crushing Great Wave for the swirling of the sky in Starry Night, one of his most iconic landscapes, painted during his time at the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy.