The Convention of Kanagawa put an end to the 200-year-old Japanese foreign policy of Seclusion. and opened trade between Japan and the West. Artists like Manet, Degas and Monet, followed by Van Gogh, began to collect the cheap colour wood-block prints called ukiyo-e prints.
“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
Japan in Paris
In early 1886 Vincent moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo, eventually finding a small studio at the foot of the hill of Montmartre.
“Together… (Vincent and Theo) built up a sizeable collection of Japanese prints. Vincent soon began to view them as more than a pleasant curiosity. He saw the prints as an artistic example and thought they were equal to the great masterpieces of Western art history.” Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh shared these prints with his contemporaries and organized a Japanese print exhibition in Paris in 1887.[21
Hiroshige and Hokusai
The works of the Japanese ukiyo-e artists Hiroshige and Hokusai greatly influenced van Gogh’s subject matter and style — flat patterns of colors without shadow. In the two years from 1886 through 1888 he spent working in Paris, van Gogh explored the various genres, ultimately creating his own unique style.
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Characteristics of Ukiyo-e Woodprints
Characteristic features of ukiyo-e woodprints include:
- their ordinary subject matter
- the distinctive cropping of their compositions
- bold and assertive outlines
- absent or unusual perspective
- flat regions of uniform colour
- uniform lighting
- absence of chiaroscuro
- emphasis on decorative patterns
One or more of these features can be found in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings from his Antwerp period onwards.
Who is Julien Tanguy?
Julien Tanguy was a Parisian paint supplier, art dealer, and supporter of the Impressionists. He was one of the first to offer van Gogh’s paintings for sale. Nicknamed Père (“Father”) Tanguy, his art supply shop was popular because of his jovial demeanor, his enthusiasm for artistry and artists, and his acceptance of paintings as payment for paints .Émile Bernard said that entering Tanguy’s shop in Montmartre, full of Impressionist paintings, was like “visiting a museum”.[4
Three Portraits of Père Tanguy
Portrait of Père Tanguy, painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1887, is the last of his three paintings of Julien Tanguy. The three works demonstrate a progression in Vincent van Gogh’s artistic style after his arrival in Paris. The first painting is somber with simple composition. The second introduces van Gogh’s Japanese prints. The last and most advanced in style, skill, and color integrates Japanese, Impressionist, and other influences. This painting conveys a sense of serenity. (wikipedia)
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By the time Vincent arrived in Paris, Impressionists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro had already become successful. Their vivid use of colour and loose style of painting had a strong influence on other artists. In 1887, van Gogh began to experiment with brighter colors, such as red against green and orange against blue.[4
The brightly colored painting and confident subject represent a shift in Vincent’s attitude. Van Gogh called his use of bright colors “gymnastics” that through experimentation created great depth, harmony and balance in his work.
The Japanese paintings represent van Gogh’s search for serenity, which he describes in a letter to his sister during this period,
“Having as much of this serenity as possible, even though one knows little – nothing – for certain, is perhaps a better remedy for all diseases than all the things that are sold at the chemist’s shop.”
In an effort to capture serenity in his painting, Van Gogh paints Tanguy with a calm, contemplative nature. Historian of Symbolism Naomi Maurer describes him as having the “iconic tranquility of Buddha.”
The painting contains a background of van Gogh’s Japanese prints that were sold at Tanguy’s shop. On top of Tanguy’s hat is Mount Fuji; Kabuki actors share the wall with cherry trees in bloom. Most of the woodcuts in the painting can be readily identified and likely belonged to van Gogh’s own collection.
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“You may understand the change in painting when you think for instance of the colorful Japanese pictures one sees everywhere. Theo and I possess hundreds of these Japanese prints.”
“Vincent adopted these Japanese visual inventions in his own work. He liked the unusual spatial effects, the expanses of strong colour, the everyday objects and the attention to details from nature. And, of course, the exotic and joyful atmosphere.”
Van Gogh Museum
Vincent To Theo from Arles, 15 July 1888
“Japanese art is something like the primitives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael.”
“It doesn’t end.”
Exihibition at Van Gogh Museum
With some sixty paintings and drawings by Van Gogh and a large selection of Japanese prints, the exhibition explores the extent of Van Gogh’s admiration for this form of art and the fundamental impact it had on his work.” — Van Gogh Museum
The exhibition ‘Van Gogh & Japan’ is on view from 23 March until 24 June 2018.
Père Tanguy, Musee Rodin, accessed online June 13, 2018 at http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/collections/paintings/pere-tanguy
Jan Krikke, Vincent van Gogh: Lessons from Japan, Van Gogh Gallery, accessed online June 13, 2018, http://www.vggallery.com/visitors/018.
Wikipedia contributors, “Vincent van Gogh,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vincent_van_Gogh&oldid=845634731 (accessed June 13, 2018).
Wikipedia contributors, “Japonaiserie (Van Gogh),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Japonaiserie_(Van_Gogh)&oldid=842511509 (accessed June 14, 2018).
Wikipedia contributors, “Portrait of Père Tanguy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Portrait_of_P%C3%A8re_Tanguy&oldid=833019033 (accessed June 13, 2018).
Provenance of Painting
Following Tanguy’s death, his daughter sold the Portrait of Père Tanguy to sculptor Auguste Rodin. The Portrait of Père Tanguy, previously in Rodin’s personal collection, is in the permanent collection at Musée Rodin in Paris.