“…good artists copy but great artists steal…”
This was a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso and one supposes that his utterance referred to the fact that every artist is influenced by what has been done before or during their lifetime. I suppose in some way we all borrow because it has all been done before and we are not the originators but to make an artistic element your own, you have to interpret it your own way with your own approach and in my next two blogs I am looking at an artist who did just that.
My Daily Art Display today looks at three works by Vincent van Gogh which he completed during the latter years of his life. When we think of van Gogh we think of his Sunflower series or works depicting life at Arles but my blog today looks at some of his works which were based on paintings by Japanese artists. They are not exact copies of the actual paintings but they are his versions of them and the likeness between Vincent’s works and the originals is clearly observable and in the title he gives them he always attributes them to the Japanese printmaker. In a way the copies were his translation of the originals. Through his use of colour and technique, which often incorporated his trademark “swirls”, he made them his own and for many, including his brother Theo, they were his finest works. So why did Van Gogh decide to make his own copies of other artists’ works? I suppose to find the answer to this question one has to understand what was happening at the time and the situation Vincent found himself when he made these “copies”.
Around the time Van Gogh was born there was a fashion known as Japonisme emerging in Western Europe. The term Japonisme, or Japonism, was a French term that was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais en 1872, and it referred to the influence of Japanese art on Western art. The Japonisme trend became very popular in France and the Netherlands. One has to remember that up until the mid nineteenth century there was no trade between Europe and Japan as the political and military power of Japan was in the hands of the shoguns, and the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. It was not until 1854 that the Japanese rulers sanctioned trade with the West and it was then that Japanese art with its woodcuts, ornamental fans, and delicately painted screens became available to the people in the likes of France and the Netherlands. This love of Japanese artwork became even more fashionable following the great World’s Fair in 1862, which was held in London, where such Japanese art was on display. At around this time the Japanese woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e became popular. They featured many motifs from those of landscapes and the Japanese love of nature to those illustrating the pleasures of city life such as theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans and were often simply used as posters advertising theatre performances and brothels. Sometimes they featured portraits of popular actors and beautiful teahouse girls. They became very popular in Europe and a source of artistic inspiration for the artists of the time, whether they were Impressionists, Post Impressionists or Cubists.
Vincent van Gogh loved Japanese art. His brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre and it was here that Vincent first came into contact with ukiyo-e. He was also fortunate that his apartment was situated next to the Bing Gallery where the German owner Samuel Bing, an art dealer and importer of Japanese artworks, had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh would spend hours there studying and admiring this “new” form of art and he soon became an avid collector of ukiyo-e and built up a collection of hundreds of prints. He even organized an exhibition of his own collection in the spring of 1887 at the Café du Tambourin, a popular meeting place of artists.
Van Gogh especially liked the works by Utagawa Hiroshige and in 1887 completed his version of Hiroshige’s Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge, which was part of his collection. Van Gogh simply entitled his work The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige). With his version, van Gogh filled the border of his painting with a number of calligraphic figures which he had copied from other prints in his collection. In van Gogh’s version, he used different colours which were far brighter than those used by Hiroshige and van Gogh spent more attention to colour contrasts which he used to enhance his version.
Another of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints which van Gogh copied as a painting was 亀戸梅屋舗 Kameido Umeyashiki (Plum Park in Kameido), which was published in November 1857. It was number 30 in a series of 119 ukiyo-e prints made by Utagawa Hiroshige and Hiroshige II. Hiroshige II was Utagawa’s student and adopted son. Utagawa Hiroshige died in 1858 and his adopted son completed the series. This series of woodcut prints was published in serialized form between May 1856 and April 1859 and was entitled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Edo was the former name of Tokyo, and it was a series of depictions of famous sights around the Japanese city. In 1887, Van Gogh rendered his own version of this print under the title Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).
My final example of Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodcut prints and his desire to produce his own version is his copying of Keisai Eisen’s print entitled A Courtesan, Nishiki-e, which was made around 1820. Van Gogh probably came across this print when it appeared on the front cover of the May 1886 special edition of the Paris Illustré with the front page title of Le Japon. It was this print which Van Gogh used for his painting entitled The Courtesan (after Eisen). Vincent’s painting is another fine example of his interest and love of Japanese art.
To produce a copy of Eisen’s work van Gogh actually traced the picture on the magazine’s front cover and then enlarged it. He then set about giving the courtesan Nishiki a colourful kimono and placed her against a framed bright yellow background. The framed painting of the woman is then surrounded by a watery landscape along with water lilies, a frog on a lily pad and a pair of cranes wading in the water and in the centre top of the background we can just make out two men in a boat. It is not unusual to have frogs depicted sitting serenely on lily pads or wading birds such as cranes in watery scenes but van Gogh’s choice of these two types of creatures was not purely accidental as in France, during his time, prostitutes were often referred to as grues which is the French word for cranes, and grenouilles, which is French for frogs, and therefore van Gogh could be reminding us that Nishiki was a courtesan, an escort or mistress of a wealthy client, a euphemistic term for a prostitute.
In my next blog I will look at some of the European painters whose work inspired van Gogh to render his own version of their paintings.
I suppose you may wonder why I should choose van Gogh for the Christmas edition of my blog when a more seasonal painting by Thomas Kincaid would have been more appropriate. Actually there is a connection between van Gogh and this Christmas and that is because for my Christmas present to myself. I bought myself the six-volume edition of Van Gogh’s letters. Very expensive, totally inexcusable but then, maybe I deserved the present!!!!!
Happy Christmas to you all.