Van Gogh & Japan: Part 2

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Julien Tanguy, 1887, Musée Rodin, Paris, source: wikimedia

‘Japonaiserie’ Begins

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.

Vincent and his brother Theo dealt in these prints, and they eventually amassed hundreds of them, now housed in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.[2]Vincent wrote to Theo from Antwerp, 28 November 1885:

“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.”

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Julien Tanguy, 1887, Musée Rodin, Paris, source: wikimedia

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.[1]

Click for enlarged view:

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.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Julien Tanguy, 1887, Musée Rodin, Paris (detail)

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[3][7] .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)

Click for enlarged view:

Color Gymnastics

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.[2][3] Van Gogh called his use of bright colors “gymnastics” that through experimentation created great depth, harmony and balance in his work.[3][4]

Search For Serenity

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.”[2][3]

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.”[3]

Click to view enlarged detail:

(couldn’t find higher quality image – sorry!)

Summary: Comparing Details

The painting contains a background of van Gogh’s Japanese prints that were sold at Tanguy’s shop.[3] On top of Tanguy’s hat is Mount Fuji;[3][4] Kabuki actors share the wall with cherry trees in bloom.[4] Most of the woodcuts in the painting can be readily identified and likely belonged to van Gogh’s own collection.


Click to enlarge details:

Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his sister, 1887:


“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.”

Click to enlarge details:



“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


Click to enlarge details:


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.”


Vincent van Gogh




Père Tanguy, Musee Rodin, accessed online June 13, 2018 at

Jan Krikke, Vincent van Gogh: Lessons from Japan, Van Gogh Gallery, accessed online June 13, 2018,

Wikipedia contributors, “Vincent van Gogh,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 13, 2018).

Wikipedia contributors, “Japonaiserie (Van Gogh),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 14, 2018).

Wikipedia contributors, “Portrait of Père Tanguy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 13, 2018)


Provenance of Painting

Following Tanguy’s death, his daughter sold the Portrait of Père Tanguy to sculptor Auguste Rodin.[5] The Portrait of Père Tanguy, previously in Rodin’s personal collection, is in the permanent collection at Musée Rodin in Paris.[6]

Thanks for Visiting 🙂


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Rowena says:

    This was fantastic. Thank you very much for sharing.
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your kind comment – thanks so much for stopping by! 🙂


  2. englepip says:

    Thank you for sharing your extensive notes on Van Gogh. I had not previously understood the extent of the Japanese influence on him, but now it is obvious. Monet, I believe befriended Hokusai and had him visit his home. The most famous painting of Hokusai’s in Monet’s home is The Wave. To have never seen this type of art before until Japan opened its doors, must have been astonishing to the new Impressionists who embraced it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had no idea about Monet and Hokusai!!! I look forward to learning more – thanks so much, englepip! ❤️😎

      Liked by 1 person

      1. englepip says:

        I am sorry I have misled you!! How embarrassing. Monet befriended Tadama Hayashi who was a Japanese art dealer who bought paintings from Monet and sold him Japanese art work. I remembered seeing The Wave at Monet’s house when I visited a few years back and have got the story mixed up. Many apologies!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. lolol…no embarrassment allowed, englepip! I find these names difficult to keep apart, and I did not even know the difference! Ever an opportunity to learn, though. I got to read about Tadama Hayashi on wikipedia. Thanks so much for adding to the story of Japan’s influence – I really appreciate your input! 🙂 ❤️


      3. englepip says:

        Thank you for your gracious response. Too many names beginning with H .but what wonderful art!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. cindy knoke says:

    I wish you could see all these individually signed, antique, and quite remarkable, Japanese woodblocks my grandfather bought in Japan, long ago.
    They are hanging on my walls.
    The monetary value doesn’t interest me.
    Never has.
    But the artistry interests me entirely.
    Always has.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow!!! I am sure they must be absolutely gorgeous – and gracious NO, I would never part with them either. You have works of art that are also an important part of history – ENJOY them! Thanks for adding to the conversation, Cindy! 🙂


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