Last year, I was able to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and revel in the paintings of Vincent that I had seen only in books, online or as prints.
One section of the museum that fascinated me was devoted to the influence of Japanese art on Vincent’s paintings.
In the self-portrait at the top of this post, you see Vincent with his easel and a Japanese print on his wall.
You can see the influence of Japanese art in places like his group of paintings of spring tree branches, such as the paintings of almond branches and blossoms he painted around 1890. This was when he was in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.
He also reproduced Japanese artwork that he saw in books and as prints, such as Bridge in the Rain. a version of a famous painting by Hiroshige.
“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”
―Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo, July 15, 1888
I bought a book at the museum, Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, and learned that Vincent first encountered Japanese printmaking while working in Paris and he and his brother Theo bought more than 600 Japanese prints which they lived together there. Vincent often displayed these prints in his studio as inspiration.
What he found appealing were the strong colors and use of everyday subjects. Japanese artwork used unusual spatial effects which you can see in some of his paintings that have odd angles. The details taken from nature were very delicate. This was at a time when he was just beginning to develop his own style as a painter.
The winter of 1887-88 was holding on into early spring when Vincent arrived in Arles in Provence and he painted budding almond branches that he had brought inside and put in a glass to force blooms. He loved painting the twisted trees and branches and also used the orchards outside of town as subjects.
He painted the almond tree branches in bright daylight, at night and with backgrounds of bright pinks and reds.
Vincent is often looking up at the branches into the sunlight or moonlight. Up close, I could see in a painting done as a gift for his nephew (at bottom) that the branches are blue-striped with shades of green, complimenting the reds of the blossoms. Some of the petals are bare canvas, some shades of whites and grays with center pistils of yellow.
Besides books about Vincent’s love of Japanese art, the museum also had books that I have found in libraries since I returned. One rarer book that I haven’t found shows the influence Japanese art had on other painters of that time and after including Monet. Van Gogh. and Klimt.In February 1890 in St. Remy, Vincent painted an almond tree in blossom against a blue sky background for his newborn nephew, who Theo and his wife named Vincent. He brings the painting to Paris for them and they hang it in their living room. When Vincent leaves Paris for Auvers, he will have only six months to live and so that painting becomes very special to the family.
Perhaps symbolic of this new life, Vincent painted the branches of an almond tree. It is a variety that blossoms as early as February in the south of France and is one of those signs of spring we look for in nature. It is one of more obviously Japanese -influenced paintings there.
At the museum, I was told that the white blossoms were originally more pink than white but have faded on exposure to light. Still, it is a beautiful example of his late work.