Japonisme, or Japonism, is a French term that was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais en 1872. It refers to the influence of Japanese art on Western art. In 1854, Japan re-opened trade with the west and Japanese arts including fans, porcelains, woodcuts, and screens were introduced in huge numbers to Europe, mainly France and the Netherlands. The 1862 World’s Fair in Europe brought even more attention to Japanese art. During the 1860s ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, became very popular and were a source of inspiration to many impressionist and post impressionist artists in the west including Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Japanese art, especially Japanese woodcuts, became a great influence on Van Gogh. When Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 he was introduced to impressionism and also explored Japonism. Van Gogh admired the bold designs, intense colors, and flat areas of pure color and he also appreciated the elegant and simple lines.
Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre where Vincent was brought into contact with ukiyo-e. His apartment was also next to the Bing Gallery where owner Samuel Bing had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh spent a great deal of time in the gallery admiring and studying the characteristics of Japonaiserie and he became a collector of ukiyo-e.
In 1887, Van Gogh made copies of two designs of Hiroshige, a Japanese landscape printmaker. One print was The Bridge in the Rain. Van Gogh copied the scene from a woodcut by Hiroshige. He filled the borders with calligraphic figures that he borrowed from other Japanese prints. Flowering Plum Tree is the other print by Hiroshige which Van Gogh copied. Another print that Van Gogh created in the same fashion is The Courtesan based on a piece by Japanese artist, Kesai Eisen. Van Gogh also gave this piece a frame with motifs from other Japanese prints. The difference between the originals and Van Gogh’s copies can be seen in the use of color. Van Gogh used brighter colors with more enhanced contrasts.
The influence of Japonaiserie and specifically Japanese prints is still evident in Van Gogh’s later works reflecting the Japanese culture and tradition with his strong outlines; the use of black contours is an element typical of Japanese woodblock prints. Also his use of color contrasts and cropped compositions reveals the Japanese influence on his work.