Van Gogh's Obsession With Japanese Woodblock Prints

May 09, 2023

Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, remains one of the most celebrated artists in history. His works, characterised by vibrant colours and expressive brushwork, continue to captivate audiences worldwide. Works like “Starry Night” are recognisable to almost everyone on the planet, and its bold composition and colour palette are quintessentially his revolutionary style.

What is sometimes lesser known, however, is Van Gogh's fascination with Japanese art, particularly ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. This passion had a significant impact on Van Gogh's creative trajectory and aesthetic, as he sought to incorporate the style of Japanese printmakers into his own work, and when we approach his work through this lens, we can start to see how he formed his original, unique and legendary technique.

Van Gogh's affinity for Japanese art began during his stay in Paris in the late 19th century. After centuries of isolation during the Edo period, Japan finally opened its borders to the Western world in the 1850s and sparked a wave of enthusiasm for Japanese culture throughout Europe, referred to as “Japonisme”. The influx of Japanese goods from textiles, ceramics, literature and artwork, alongside the sharing of new ideas and culture, brought a whole new perspective to the artists, writers, designers and thinkers of the day, particularly in the busy metropolis of Paris, where Van Gogh discovered this great new movement.

In a series of letters to his brother Theo, an art dealer who introduced him to the Impressionists, Van Gogh expressed his admiration for Japanese art. In one letter, Van Gogh wrote:

"I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring, and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such an unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one's waistcoat.”

Amongst these Japanese artists, Van Gogh was particularly drawn to the works of Hokusai (1760-1849), an ukiyo-e master known for his landscapes and vivid colour palettes. Van Gogh not only admired Hokusai's work but also studied and collected various ukiyo-e prints, using them as both inspiration and educational material for his own artistic endeavours.

Since these woodblock pieces could be easily and cheaply mass-produced, even the great contemporary works were accessible to the public at a very low price. This allowed Van Gogh to start collecting these pieces he loved so much. He amassed numerous ukiyo-e prints and displayed them in his studio as a constant source of inspiration. Part of his collection can be seen in his "Portrait of Père Tanguy" (1887), where an array of ukiyo-e prints are depicted in the background.

Père Tanguy, a close friend and paint supplier to Van Gogh, served as the subject of this portrait. By incorporating these prints in the backdrop, Van Gogh not only acknowledged the rich world of Japanese art that he revered, but also visually demonstrated its influence on his own work. The portrait offers a rare glimpse into Van Gogh's personal collection, highlighting the importance of ukiyo-e prints in shaping his artistic identity.

Van Gogh's commitment to learning from and incorporating the Japanese tradition into his art went beyond mere admiration; he actively made studies and copies of Japanese pieces that he found inspirational. Pieces such as "Courtesan (after Eisen)” and “Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)” show the artists dedication and adoration to the Japanese greats that were finally reaching the Western world. Van Gogh faithfully reproduced the original compositions, while adding his distinct touch with bold colours and strong brushwork, translating these woodblock prints from paper to canvas. These studies allowed Van Gogh to gain a deeper understanding of the Japanese aesthetic and refine his own artistic style, while paying homage to the greats he admired so much.

A few of Van Gogh's studies of Japanese woodblocks

The impact of Japanese art on Van Gogh's paintings is especially evident in the striking similarities between two powerhouses of art history: Hokusai’s "Great Wave off Kanagawa" and Van Gogh's "Starry Night". Both pieces employ vivid colours and dramatic contrasts, as well as the unique use of lines and brushstrokes that convey movement and energy. The undulating waves in Hokusai's print find their parallel in the swirling sky of Van Gogh's painting, attesting to the profound influence of the Japanese aesthetic on Van Gogh's work.

Another excerpt from a letter to his brother Theo shows Vincent’s deep connection with Hokusai’s ubiquitous work: “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”

Hokusai's "Great Wave off Kanagawa" and Van Gogh's "Starry Night" share more than just stylistic similarities; they also hold the distinction of being two of the most reproduced artworks in history. The "Great Wave" stands as the most reproduced artwork ever, while "Starry Night" follows closely behind in second place. This remarkable feat highlights the enduring appeal of both masterpieces and the transcultural connection between them.

Several key elements of the Japanese artistic tradition can be identified in Van Gogh's work. The use of bold, flat areas of colour, a strong emphasis on lines, and the unique flattened perspective often found in Japanese prints all left their mark on Van Gogh's paintings. The harmony and simplicity he admired in Japanese art inspired him to experiment with more vivid, contrasting colours, leading to the creation of some of his most iconic works, such as “Sunflowers" and "Almond Blossom". Additionally, the Japanese focus on nature and the beauty of everyday life resonated with Van Gogh, who frequently incorporated these themes into his own work.

Vincent Van Gogh's fascination with Japanese woodblock prints, as demonstrated through his letters, studies, and personal art collection, played a pivotal role in his artistic development. By embracing and incorporating the aesthetic principles and techniques of ukiyo-e, Van Gogh not only revolutionised his own approach to painting, but also created a unique fusion of Eastern and Western art that continues to captivate audiences to this day.

See more from Vincent Van Gogh here.