When Vincent van Gogh made his momentous decision to leave Paris behind and move to Arles in February 1888, he was determined, at age thirty-four, to remake his art, his personal relationships, and himself, body and soul. Central to this midlife dream of self-transformation was the artist’s surprising conviction that Provence was just like—or as he expressed it, was “the equivalent of”—Japan. As he neared his destination, he peered eagerly out of the train window to ascertain “if it was like Japan yet.” Snow covered the fields when he arrived, not quite what he expected in the sunny South, and yet, as he told his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who was bankrolling the trip along with everything else in Vincent’s feckless life, “the white peaks against a sky as bright as the snow” resembled, in his wishful view, “the winter landscapes the Japanese did.” He rented shabby rooms in what he grandly called the Yellow House and painted the shady denizens of the night café nearby. Every detail of his new life confirmed his conviction: “I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here.”
Of course, Arles was nowhere near Japan, a country that Van Gogh never visited. Nor, for that matter, did any of the other advanced painters of his time who were enthralled with Japanese art—Degas, Monet, Pissarro, and Cassatt, among others. For these artists, Japan meant primarily the world depicted in Japanese woodblock prints: the ukiyo-e or “floating world” images of the pleasure districts of great cities, or the colorful series, by Hokusai and Hiroshige, of famous sights along well-traveled routes, with Mount Fuji or a stylized waterfall in the distance. Van Gogh had first bought such prints in Antwerp, and augmented his collection during his frustrating years in Paris, when he failed to get a foothold in the burgeoning art scene there, either as a painter or as a sometime merchant of the Japanese prints he had accumulated.
Before his departure for Arles, as though revving himself up for his Japanese dream, Van Gogh had painted three arresting imitations of such prints: a lovely reworking of Hiroshige’s popular image of peasants caught in a sudden shower on a bridge; another of blossoming plum trees, also after Hiroshige, in close-up; and most striking of all, an intense reinvention of a floating world courtesan by Eisen. The muted colors of Eisen’s original—quiet greens and mauve exemplifying the discreet chic known in Japan as shibui—undergo a hothouse transformation into Van Gogh’s feverish gold and red. So roughly is the paint applied that the canvas looks more carved than the original woodcut. Van Gogh surrounds the luridly dressed courtesan with a tropical border of water lilies and cranes (or grues—French slang for prostitutes). A fat frog at the bottom looks like a…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.