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My favorite van Gogh paintings have always been those which feature obvious Japanese influences in terms of subject matter (Branches of an almond tree in blossom –pictured here, Oiran, etc). Until recently, I did not seriously question why it was that these particular pieces appealed to me the most. However, a class reading addressing the powerful influence of Japanese art on the Impressionist movement caused me to revisit this issue. Upon first thought, I decided that it was that I find Japanese-inspired subjects, such as an almond tree or a woman in kimono, attractive and that (Western) Impressionist techniques portray these subjects particularly beautifully. However, I have discovered that the Western interest in Japanese style during the 19th century, called Japonisme, revolutionized what we call the Impressionist movement. Those characteristics we typically associate with it, such as the angle from which a scene is painted, the use of brushstrokes, and color, are in fact also inspired by Japanese art. Tsukasa Kōdera, in an article in the Catalogue of the Van Gogh Museum’s Collection of Japanese Prints, aptly states that “by taking the form of copy after totally different works [Japanese works], he [Vincent van Gogh] could create a new style more freely” than if he had been copying Western models (17). This is because as a Western artist it was difficult to create a radically new style if inspired only by the Western art tradition. Approaching art from an entirely new, Japanese perspective allowed van Gogh to understand those elements of his painting which actually limited his ability to paint how he sought to most, which was “with a sort of passion” (The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to His Brother and Others, abridged by Elfreda Powell, 198). I used to think that while Impressionism presented the art world with a radical change, it nonetheless emerged from the Western tradition. However, Japanese art and technique deserves much credit for inspiring the most famous of the Impressionists like van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne, to name only a few.

vanessah — Last modified Mar 30 2011 8:01 p.m.

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