How Did Japanese Prints Inspire Vincent van Gogh?

One of the biggest influences for Vincent van Gogh was Japanese art. He collected hundreds of prints and studied them when developing his work.

May 20, 2024By Lisa Barham, MA & BA Fine Art

japanese prints inspire vincent van gogh


The art of Japanese printmaking was one of Vincent van Gogh’s biggest sources of inspiration. Like many of his contemporaries, he collected popular woodblock prints when they came into vogue in the latter half of the 19th century. The images were like nothing he, or other artists working at the time, had ever seen. Van Gogh was intrigued by their unusual composition and strong colors. The Eastern influence had a lasting impact that helped shape his unique style.


Van Gogh Encounters Japanese Art: Japonisme in 19th Century Paris

van gogh bridge in the rain painting
Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


In the second half of the 19th century, the West became enamored with all things Japanese. In 1859 Japan had opened up to the world and overseas trade boomed with Japanese art and household items flooding into Europe. The World Fair in London in 1862 and Paris in 1867 introduced goods such as kimonos, parasols, and screens to a European audience. The new art that was arriving from the East made waves among the artistic community. Woodcut prints, known as ukiyo-e, were especially popular. The bright colors and unique conception of space gave a fresh perspective and influenced the work of countless Western artists.


This huge interest in Japanese art and design became known as Japonisme. It was particularly strong in Paris. By contrast, few Dutch artists studied Japanese art, and Van Gogh did not pay much attention to the craze at first. When he left the Netherlands for the French capital, Van Gogh discovered the impact that Oriental art was having on his contemporaries and he began to take an interest. Before long, Van Gogh’s art underwent a dramatic evolution in style and Japanese art became one of his biggest inspirations and something that influenced his art for the rest of his career.


Japanese Woodblock Printing

hokusai under the wave japanese print
Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830-32. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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Woodblock printing in Japan was first used to disseminate texts, including religious scriptures, from around the 8th century. In the 17th century, almost a millennium after their first use, designer and painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu started to use wood stamps to print designs on silk and paper. Early printmakers worked in monochrome and then painted colors in by hand. Then, in 1765, a new technology made it possible to produce single-sheet prints using a range of colors. Artists began producing polychrome images to dazzling effect.


The first woodblock prints, created in the Edo period (1615 – 1868), usually depicted courtesans and actors. Over time the subject of the prints expanded to include sweeping vistas, and finally historic events. Famous print masters such as Suzuki Harunobu and Utagawa Hiroshige stand out in history. However, producing a woodblock print was a team effort. Four experts, a designer, engraver, printer, and publisher, all had to collaborate to produce a print. They were usually conceived as a commercial venture and it was the publisher who decided on the theme, rather than the designer.


The mass production of ukiyo-e prints made them relatively cheap and affordable, meaning that they could be enjoyed by a wide audience. In contrast, only the wealthy Japanese could afford to buy paintings by contemporary artists. One of the most famous printmakers was Katsushika Hokusai, whose iconic Under the Wave off Kanagawa is perhaps the best-known example of the art form.


New Perspectives

van gogh flowering plum orchard painting
Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige) by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


The composition of Japanese prints was vastly different from the traditional format being used by Western artists. The middle ground was often left empty and foreground objects were enlarged. It was also not unusual to omit the horizon or crop elements at the edge of the picture. Van Gogh began experimenting with the Japanese style and created a number of copies of prints and paintings that borrowed elements of Japanese works.


The figure in Courtesan (1887) is taken from the cover of the May 1886 issue of Paris Illustré magazine. Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige) (1887) is a copy of Utagawa Hiroshige’s Plum Garden in Kameido, and Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) is Van Gogh’s version of another of Hiroshige’s prints. Van Gogh liked the unusual spatial effects and large areas of bright colors that were typical of Japanese prints. He also identified with the importance of nature in these works and the joyful atmosphere they exuded. He took these elements and began working them into his own works.


Van Gogh’s Collection

vincent van gogh pere tanguy painting
Père Tanguy by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Source: Musée Rodin, Paris


Van Gogh’s brother Theo, who was an art dealer, also had an interest in Japanese art. Together, they built a collection, amassing more than 600 Japanese prints. Most were bought from the art dealer Siegfried Bing, whose attic Van Gogh would peruse in search of inspirational prints. Van Gogh preferred the cheaper, more recent prints over the more expensive ones from the late 18th and early 19th centuries favored by Japanese art connoisseurs. The attractive motifs and bright colors of the modern prints were appealing to his eye.


In 1887, Van Gogh organized an exhibition of his prints at Le Tambourin café, a place popular with avant-garde artists. The owner, Agostina Segatori, was Van Gogh’s lover. He painted a portrait of her with his own prints in the background. He hoped to sell the prints at the exhibition, but it was not a success. He also created a portrait of Julien-François Tanguy, known affectionately as Père Tanguy, with a background of his prints. Tanguy ran a paint supplies shop in Paris and often accepted paintings in exchange for the goods he sold. Van Gogh valued his friendship and made three portraits of him. In Père Tanguy, the prints Van Gogh chose to include demonstrate the variety of genres in Japanese woodcuts, with landscapes, flower studies, and portraits of geishas all identifiable.


Searching for Japan in Provence

vincent van gogh the sower painting
The Sower by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


After two years in Paris, Van Gogh set out for Arles in the South of France, in February 1888. There he hoped to find calmness and nature along with the light and warmth of sunnier climes. He was also searching for a landscape akin to Japan. In a letter to Theo, he wrote: “Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence—all the Impressionists have that in common—and we wouldn’t go to Japan, in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south.”


He also wrote to Paul Gauguin about his journey to Provence, saying that he kept looking through the train window to see if it was like Japan yet. During his time in Provence, Van Gogh continued to associate the region with Japan and frequently mentioned this in his letters. In September 1888, he wrote to his sister: “I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here.” He also wrote to his brother: “The weather’s still fine here, and if it was always like that it would be better than the painters’ paradise, it would be Japan altogether.”


The Lasting Influence of Japanese Art on Van Gogh’s Work

van gogh madame ginoux painting
L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux by Vincent van Gogh, 1888-89. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Van Gogh spoke of seeing “with a more Japanese eye,” and much of the work he produced during his stay in Arles bears the hallmarks of the influence of Japanese prints. He began experimenting with blocks of strong color and flattening the perspective of the image. Examples of these techniques can be seen in The Bedroom, a representation of the artist’s room in the Yellow House, and his portrait of Madame Ginoux. One of Van Gogh’s numerous self-portraits is also heavily influenced by his love of Japanese art. In Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh depicts himself as a Japanese monk (a bonze). The painting was a response to the self-portraits he had received from his friends Gauguin and Emile Bernard upon his request. Van Gogh believed that Japanese artists often exchanged works and this inspired him to do the same with his artist friends.


vincent van gogh the bedroom painting
The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Almond Blossom, which Van Gogh painted to celebrate the birth of his nephew, has characteristics of a Japanese print. The close crop of the branches, expansive pane of color, and flattened plane are reminiscent of the Japanese style. Blossom is also a plant closely associated with Japan.


The importance of Japanese prints to Van Gogh’s working practice is clearly evident in Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. He painted the likeness following a severe mental health episode during which he sliced off his own ear. The work signifies his determination to continue working in the face of hardship. As well as being ill, he was struggling with the departure of Gauguin and facing the fact that his dream of a Studio in the South was over. In the background of the self-portrait he included a Japanese print, highlighting it as an important source of inspiration. Perhaps the most telling expression of the importance of Japanese prints in his art is a line in a letter to Theo: “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.”

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By Lisa BarhamMA & BA Fine ArtLisa is a contributing writer with a background in art. She holds a BA and MA in Fine Art from the University of Kent, and has worked at Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London. She now writes full time whilst travelling and exploring new countries and cultures across the globe.