Famous Collections: The collection of Vincent Van Gogh

by: Caroline Moore

"All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art." - Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo in 1888 while living in Arles, France.

In recent times, the art world has brought to bear discourse regarding the artistic synergy of the Eastern and Western worlds. The East and West may have myriad differences based on culture and education, but in modern and contemporary times, globalization and vast networks of communication have spawned interwoven societies as a result. Some of the West’s greatest modern painters like Vincent Van Gogh looked toward like Japan, the Empire of the Rising Sun, as a utopian plethora of the magical and mystical. In 2016, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam recently held an exhibition titled Van Gogh and Japan, which showed Japan’s influence over Vincent and his artwork. Additionally, the book titled Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh displays Vincent’s renowned collection of some 500 Japanese prints. Vincent’s interest was like many other 19th century Westerners during the Japonisme movement, which became a tour de force in Western art and culture. Arts and crafts like porcelain and lacquer had already become a popular commodity in Europe, but a sudden influx of trade between Japan and Europe brought new insight of the unknown and exotic East. The Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 between American Navy commander Matthew Calbraith Perry and the Japanese shogunate lifted a 216-year period of isolation between the East and West. Photographs and woodblock prints from Japan became a desirable glimpse into a world that had previously been inaccessible to many.

The Dutch-born, French painter Vincent Van Gogh had indulged the Japonisme bandwagon after moving to France and became a vehement collector of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, most of which he bought at a reasonable price from the German art dealer, Siegfried Bing. His Dutch homeland had imported a great variety of prints and objects from Japan where Van Gogh had begun his collection in Antwerp. In 1886, ­­­­Vincent moved to Paris and lived with his brother, Theo. A year later in 1887, the Paris Exposition Universelle showed Japanese art objects to the amazed public. In Paris, Japonisme was at it’s height in popularity and craze. Shops sold kimonos, screens, parasols, fans, antiques, and reasonably priced ukiyo-e prints. The new and interesting world of Japan through the lens of Japanese art also influenced and grasped the imagination of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Mary Cassatt, Paul Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas.

Vincent had a collection of over 660 prints, some of which he tacked onto the walls of his studio flat. Works by Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and Kunisada became pivotal sources of inspiration for Vincent. Vincent copied and incorporated aspects of the work in his sketches and oil paintings. He made a large-scale oil painting titled Courtesan (After Eisen) (1887), based on an image from the cover of an issue of the magazine Paris Illustré, which featured works from Japan. Similarly, the oil painting Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887) features Japanese prints tacked on the wall behind a man, a direct inclusion by Vincent. The artist Émile Bernard, a friend of Vincent, was also an influential figure in Vincent’s artistic development. Bernard took key elements from Japanese prints like bold outlines and painting large areas with simple colors, a practice Vincent adopted. Vincent began to reform his style of painting and focused more on creating space with color and brushstroke and opposed visual depth, natural perspective, and contrast. Vincent’s paintings became an ode to flatness and a new wave of modernism shaped by the influence of the Japanese woodblock prints. Japanese artists usually left out the middle ground in their compositions and enlarged objects in the foreground. The prints neglected a focal point or horizon line to balance out the image and displayed unusual cropped edges, all techniques Vincent had studied and appropriated in his work. Nature was the defining inspiration for Vincent’s most awe-inspiring work, as was for Japanese ukiyo-e printmakers. Vincent wrote to his brother, “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 work in a world of convention.” In Arles, Vincent alluded to the “Japanese dream” of springtime irises and cherry blossoms, depicted in one of his most famous works Almond Blossom (1890). Additionally, Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear (1889) is a remarkably significant painting by Vincent that depicts the artist in his own expression of self-identity seated in front of two Japanese-style prints – one print revealing a snowy mountain and the other featuring a geisha.

Over time, Vincent became so engrossed in his quest to emulate Japanese art and escape his own life in the bustling city that he opted for the serene countryside of southern France. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote, “Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence - all the Impressionists have that in common - and we wouldn’t go to Japan, in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south [of France]? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.” In February of 1888, Vincent set off for Arles, to seek the “clearness of the atmosphere and the gay color effects” of Japanese prints. Vincent hoped that the primitive countryside would act as a retreat as it did for Buddhist monks living a similar life in Japan. Arles, an ancient city by the Rhône River and built on Roman ruins, became Vincent’s Japan of France. Vincent reported back to his brother Theo about the countryside, “After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel color differently. I’m also convinced that it’s precisely through a long stay here that I’ll bring out my personality.” Living in the French countryside near Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent became one step closer to Japan when he met painters Louis-Jules Dumoulin (1860-1924), a French photographer and painter who had traveled all over Japan, and Edmund Walpole Brooke (1865-1938), an Australian born artist who grew up in Yokohama. Both Dumoulin and Brooke were convinced by Vincent to reach out to Japanese artists through letters, many of which were traced on and were on display in Japanese museums in recent times through Japan’s current interest and rave for Vincent’s work. Vincent wrote to his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin about his pursuit to find Japan in the countryside once stating that he had looked through the train window to see “if it was like Japan yet! Childish, isn’t it?” Gauguin, too, was looking for a life similar to Japan and joined Vincent in Arles. However, Vincent and Gauguin could not work alongside each other and Gauguin returned to Paris after a few months. Around the same time, Vincent was first experiencing his bouts of mental illness. He was later admitted to a psychiatric ward and lost his functioning ability to paint.

Vincent wrote to his sister in 1888 while still living in Arles, “I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here.” Although Vincent never had the opportunity to travel to Japan, his artwork has generated widespread interest, including the country he longed to visit. The 2016 exhibit, Van Gogh & Japan, organized and curated by the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, traveled to Tokyo, Sapporo, and Kyoto. The show celebrated Vincent’s legacy and work, as well as unified two diverse cultures and worlds.