Van Gogh Never Visited Japan, but He Saw It Everywhere


“It’s hard to imagine what his works would have looked like without this source of inspiration,” said Ms. Bakker, one of the exhibition’s four curators, referring to the influence of Japanese prints. “It really helped him to find the style that we all know,” she added. “He really chose that as the way to go.”

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“The Bedroom,” one of the most famous items in the Van Gogh Museum’s collection, uses a color scheme of contrasting purples, blues and yellows that was popular in Japanese woodcut prints.

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Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The sprawling exhibition in Amsterdam — which is larger than a previous version that toured Tokyo, Sapporo and Kyoto — includes nearly all of the major van Gogh paintings that make either direct or indirect reference to Japanese art. These are hung near some 50 Japanese prints that played a role in the development of van Gogh’s distinctive style, as well as Japanese lacquerwork and painted scrolls.

Van Gogh first encountered Japanese prints in 1885 while he was working in the Belgian port city of Antwerp, whose docks he said were teeming with Japanese wares: They were “fantastic, singular, strange,” he wrote.

The Van Gogh Museum exhibition begins about a year later, when he moved into his brother’s apartment in Paris and discovered that the German art dealer Siegfried Bing — who sold Japanese artworks and decorative objects — had an attic full of Japanese woodcut prints at very reasonable prices.

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“Courtesan (After Eisen),” is based on an image van Gogh traced from a cover of the magazine Paris Illustré.

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Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

He immediately bought about 660 prints for just a few cents a piece. Ms. Bakker said that van Gogh originally held an exhibition trying to resell the prints, but it wasn’t successful, and instead he hung onto them, tacked them to the walls of his studio and used them for inspiration. About 500 survive, and are now part of the Van Gogh Museum’s permanent collection.

At first, van Gogh simply copied the works in both sketches and oil paintings: For example, in 1887 he traced in pencil and ink the cover of an issue of the magazine Paris Illustré devoted to Japan and also made a large-scale oil painting, “Courtesan (After Eisen),” based on the image.

The Japanese art he pinned to the walls of his studio also appears in the backgrounds of a number of his portraits, such as his “Portrait of Père Tanguy,” who sits in front of a wall of prints. (This is the only major painting with Japanese influences that the Van Gogh Museum could not get for the exhibition; it belongs to the Musée Rodin in Paris, and according to Ms. Bakker was too fragile to travel.)

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Van Gogh’s “Bridge in the Rain (After Hiroshige)” is based on a print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

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Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

By the time the artist moved to Arles a year later, he was fully in the thrall of Japan. On the train from Paris, he repeatedly checked out the window, he wrote to his friend Paul Gauguin, “to see ‘if it was like Japan yet’! Childish, isn’t it?’”

“The first year in Arles, everything is Japan,” said Bakker. “Later, after his breakdown, that changes, and he still refers to it but it’s less important. The nature of his admiration had changed. It has become integrated into his style but it’s no longer his artistic model.”

The impact was more subtle, more buried in his technique: For instance, he sometimes divided the canvas using diagonal lines, rather than using horizontal perspective planes, as was the norm in western painting, and he would streak his paintings with diagonal rain, as he had seen in Japanese prints.

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“Woman Rocking the Cradle (Augustine Roulin),” makes direct reference to a Japanese woodcut print by Toyohara Kunichika. Van Gogh was inspired by this and other Japanese prints that employed flowers as a backdrop.

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The Art Institute of Chicago

The Japanese dream was over, perhaps, but the fascination with Japan was not. Tsukasa Kodera, a Japanese curator who worked on the exhibition, has studied van Gogh’s interest in his country for more than 30 years, and spent the last six researching the final phase of van Gogh’s life.

He discovered that when van Gogh moved to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, outside of Paris, in 1890, he pursued friendships with two artists with direct ties to Japan: Louis-Jules Dumoulin, a Frenchman who had traveled to the country, painting and taking photographs there, and Edmund Walpole Brooke, an Australian-born artist who had lived in Yokohama in his youth.

“He didn’t try to make contact with other painters in Auvers — only these two,” said Mr. Kodera in a telephone interview. “His dream was broken but he still was interested in Japanese art,” he added.

Following van Gogh’s death in 1890, Japanese artists and art-lovers read van Gogh’s letters, which were translated into Japanese in 1915. They made pilgrimages to his grave in Auvers-sur-Oise in the 1920s and ’30s. The home of van Gogh’s friend Paul Gachet, who was also his doctor and sometime model, became a destination for these kindred souls; more than 140 Japanese names can be found in the guest books.

“He was interested in our culture and that says something to Japanese people,” said Mr. Kodera. Even though van Gogh’s art wasn’t widely reproduced and accessible in Japan until decades later, he added, “They had also Van Gogh visions, van Gogh dreams. Just as van Gogh imagined Japan as a country, they imagined him. It was a kind of two-way imaginary vision.”

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