Van Gogh Never Visited Japan, but He Saw It Everywhere

Van Gogh’s “Almond Blossom” (1890) shows a strong Japanese influence. But it is based on the trees he saw in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Credit Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — In the soft, clear light of Provence, France, Vincent van Gogh saw the crisp skies of Japanese woodcut prints. The almond blossoms, gnarled trees and irises that dotted the French landscape reminded him of nature scenes painted in Kyoto. And in the locals who drank in cafes of Arles, he saw resonances with the geishas and Kabuki actors of a country he’d never visited.

“My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan,” van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, on March 16, 1888, not long after he had settled in Arles, an ancient city built on Roman ruins by the Rhône River in France.

By June he was urging Theo and other Impressionist artists in Paris to join him in there. “I’d like you to spend some time here, you’d feel it,” he wrote. “After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel color differently.”

In Vincent van Gogh’s ”Self-Portrait” (1888) the artist depicted himself with a shaved head and slightly Asian eyes, to look like a Japanese monk, according to the exhibition catalog.Credit Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA

For at least a year, van Gogh lived in Provence in a kind of Japanese dream. It was not a delusion, but rather an imaginative projection of an idealized vision of Japan onto the French landscape, said Nienke Bakker, curator of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum. The painter had been bitten by the bug of “Japonisme,” a mania for Japanese aesthetics that swept Europe in the 19th century, and which also afflicted painters such as Claude Monet, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in collaboration with three Japanese museums, has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition to date to explore that inspiration, “Van Gogh & Japan,” which runs through June 24. It tracks the Dutch artist’s early fascination with imported Japanese “Ukiyo-e” prints — colorful woodblock prints on handmade paper that were very popular in Europe in the late 19th century — and shows how, little by little, van Gogh integrated elements of Japanese art into his own style.

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