Oiran/The Courtesan (after Kesai Eisen)

Oiran/The Courtesan (after Kesai Eisen)

"I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat."
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Painting Date
9th of October 1887
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Description:

By the Autumn of 1887, Vincent is enamored with his idealized vision of Japan and all things Japanese, especially their art.  He and his brother Theo have been collecting imported crepes from Samuel Bing’s shop in Paris and are frequent visitors to his attic where they sift through thousands of Japanese woodblock prints and haggle with Bing on a fair price.  Vincent hosts two restaurant “exhibitions” of works from his Japanese prints collection alongside his modern canvases and those of his friends and contemporaries in Paris in 1887.  He paints three reproductions of famous woodblock prints in late September and early October of 1887 – Hiroshige’s “Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake” and “Flowering Dragon Plum Tree“.

 

Vincent takes a page from the May 1886 issue of Paris Illustre magazine, dedicated to Japanese art that month, and brings Kesai Eisen’s woodblock print to life with his rendition of the original work.  First Vincent will create a tracing from the magazine illustration (which reversed the scene from the original woodblock print) and then enlarge that tracing on his 100 x 60 cm canvas.  The courtesan is before a background of crosshatched yellow as Vincent attempts to re-create the texture of the crepe paper many of his treasured woodblock prints use.  Maintaining the original proportions meant leaving blank canvas around the centered tracing so Vincent made a border of yellow, replicating the reeds in a background painting he creates.  He also includes a cloisson-esque touch with a bright red line framing the frame and demarcating the two images.

 

In the background painting of reeds lining a pond, Vincent will borrow from a couple of other woodblock prints in the brother’s collection to add a bullfrog at bottom and two cranes upper center left.  He uses Torakiyos “Geishas in a Landscape” as a model for the cranes – use Compare One – and Yoshimaru’s “New Prints of Insects” for the bullfrog – use Compare Two.  Frogs (grenouilles) and Storks (cigognes) were slang terms for prostitutes in the bohemian Paris of the 1880’s(Oiran in Japanese).  Vincent and Theo both used the brothels of Montmartre and both ended up suffering from syphilis and the doses of mercury they were prescribed to “cure” it in the days before penicillin.  This disease was probably a contributing factor in the mental breaks both brothers suffered before dying in their 30’s.

 

Van Gogh Museum:

‘I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has, Van Gogh wrote 1888. ‘Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat.’

The deft line of the courtesan illustrates the care with which Van Gogh studied Japanese prints. He based this painting on a woodcut by Kesai Eisen, which was reproduced on the cover of Paris illustré in 1886. He used a grid to copy and enlarge the Japanese figure, giving her a colourful kimono and placing her against a bright yellow background. We can tell the woman is a courtesan by her intricate hair-style and the obi or belt she is wearing, which is tied at the front of her kimono rather than at the back.

Van Gogh framed the central image by painting a pond with waterlilies, bamboo stems, cranes and frogs. The bright colours and bold outlines create the appearance of a woodcut.

 

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“Perhaps the idea of painting portraits and getting the sitters to pay for them by posing is a safer way. Because in the city it’s not like it is with the peasants. Anyway. One thing’s certain, Antwerp’s a very singular and beautiful place for a painter.
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.”
To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, Saturday, 28 November 1885


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The art critic Samuel Bing wrote in Le Japon Artistque in 1888: “The Japanese are poets moved and inspired by the great spectacle of nature and attentive observers of the familiar mysteries of a world of exceeding minuteness. They learn geometry from the spider’s web, take decorative motifs from the tracks of a bird across the snow and receive inspiration of curved designs from the ripples of the wind on the water…They believe that there is nothing in the world of creation that is not suited of the high ideals of art.”

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 Vincent writes his brother from Arles a year after painting the Courtesan, still seeking to recreate the light of Japan in the south of France…

 

“If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

 

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

 

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.

 

Isn’t it saddening that up to now Monticellis have never been reproduced in fine lithographs or vibrant etchings? I’d like to see what artists would say if an engraver like the one who engraved the work of Velázquez were to do a fine etching of them. Be that as it may, I believe it’s still more our duty to try to admire and to know things for ourselves than to teach them to others. But the two things can go together. I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat.

 

Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects. While I’ve been writing you this letter, I’ve drawn a good dozen of them. I’m on the track of finding it. But it’s very complicated, because what I’m after is that in a few strokes the figure of a man, a woman, a kid, a horse, a dog, will have a head, a body, legs, arms that will fit together. More soon, and good handshake.”

 

Ever yours,

 

Vincent

 

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Sunday, 23 or Monday, 24 September 1888

 

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Painting, Oil on Canvas – 100.7 cm x 60.7 cm
Paris: September – October, 1887
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 373, JH: 1298

Where Vincent Was:
Paris

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