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Japan as Primitivistic Utopia: Van Gogh's Japonisme Portraits

Author(s): Tsukasa Kdera

Source: Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 14, No. 3/4 (1984),
pp. 189-208
Published by: Stichting Nederlandse Kunsthistorische Publicaties
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Japan as primitivistic utopia: van Gogh's japonisme portraits*

Tsukasa Kodera
J'ai toujours encore presente dans ma memoire l'emotion que m'a cause le trajet cet hiver de Paris a Aries.
Comme j'ai guette si cela etait deja du Japon! Enfantillage quoi.1

In a letter from Aries, van Gogh wrote to Theo: "The

ponisme, namely as an expression of his utopian thought,

weather here remains fine, and if it was always like this,

nor have they given an adequate explanation for his ex-

it would be better than the painter's paradise, it would

traordinary enthusiasm for Japan in his Arles period.

His japonisme portraits, in particular, have not been in-

be absolute Japan."2 Those who have read van Gogh's

letters from Aries cannot fail to have noticed that Japan

terpreted properly by this iconographic and stylistic

is regarded as a utopia. He identified the Midi with Ja-


pan,3 and himself with a Japanese bonze in his Selfportrait as bonze (fig. I). When van Gogh first showed an

interest in Japanese prints, in 1885, his japonisme was

nothing but an exoticism, but later, at Arles, it developed into a synonym for his utopian ideal. In this sense his

japonisme was not just an artistic device, but a more

serious existential problem.
The literature on van Gogh's japonisme is now quite
extensive, and many of the stylistic and iconographic
influences on his works have been identified.4 Those

studies, however, have not explained the core of his ja-

My first aim in this article is to reconstruct the con-

notation of the words "Japon" and "japonais" in van

Gogh's letters, and secondly to interpret his japonisme
portraits as an expression of his utopian ideal. Japonisme literature of the period-the Goncourts, Loti and

S. Bing's periodical Le Japon Artistique-and van

Gogh's reaction to it, offer us new keys for interpreting
hisjaponisme portraits,5 namely the portraits of Tanguy,

Portrait of mousme, Self-portrait as bonze and Self-portrait with a Japanese print.

In I885, during his stay in Antwerp, van Gogh first

* I am grateful to Prof. E. van Uitert, the late Prof. H.L.C. Jaff6, and

in Japan); and "...on aime la peinture japonais on n'en a subi l'in-

Sophie Pabst for their valuable suggestions, encouragement and assistance during the preparation of this article and throughout my period
of study in the Netherlands. I would also like to thank the Kashima Art
Foundation for supporting my research, and Michael Hoyle for editing my original manuscript.

fluence, tous les impressionistes ont qa en commun, et on n'irait pas au

I Letter nr. B22 (to Emile Bernard). The numbers refer to the
letters in Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
& Antwerp 1974. The translations of letters written in Dutch and
French are taken from the English edition (with occasional corrections): The complete letters of Vincent van Gogh, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1966. The dating of the letters is based on J. Hulsker, Van Gogh

door van Gogh, Amsterdam I973. "F" numbers are the catalogue
numbers of J.B. de la Faille, The works of Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam 1970.

2 "Le temps ici reste beau, et si c'etait toujours comme cela, ce

serait mieux que le paradis des peintres, ce serait du Japon en plain"

3 See, for example, letters 469, 500: "Mais mon cher frere-tu sais
je me sens au Japon;" (But, old boy, you know, I feel as though I were

Japon, c.a.d. ce qui est l'6quivalent du Japon, le Midi?" (We like

Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the impressionists
have that in common; then why not go to Japan, that is to say to the

equivalent of Japan, the Midi?)

4 Three contributions to the literature on this question which de-

serve special mention are M.E. Tralbaut, "Van Gogh's Japanisme,"

Mededelingen van de Dienst voor Schone Kunsten der Gemeente 's-Gra-

venhage 9 (I954), 1-2, pp. 6-40; F. Orton, "Vincent van Gogh in Paris
1886-I887, Vincent's interest in Japanese prints," Vincent: Bulletin of
the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh I (I971), pp.2-i2; and exhib. cat.
Japanese prints collected by Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh) I978. For the bibliography onjaponisme in
general, see: S. Wichmann, Japonismus, Hersching 198o; and K. Berger, Japonismus in der westlichen Malerei i860-I920, Munich 1980.
5 By "japonisme literature" I mean writings of all kinds-novels,
articles, monographs-on Japan. "Japonisme portraits" are portraits
which the painter related to Japan in his letters, or in which Japanese
objects are depicted.

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I Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait as bonze (F476), Aries, September i888. Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits


announced his interest in Japonaiserie. He already own-

second half of the Paris period. Van Gogh painted Tan-

ed some Japanese prints at the time, but his interest in

guy with Japanese prints in the background, as well as an

them was primarily for their exotic content. "One of

the Goncourts' sayings was 'Japonaiserie forever.' Well,
those docks are an extraordinary Japonaiserie, fantastic,
peculiar, unheard of-at least one can take this view

pattern (figs. 2, 3). The three copies of Japanese prints

(F37I, F372, F373) were also painted at this time. The

Italian woman (Segatori?) with a Japanese decorative

earliest letters from Arles show us this change more

clearly: "Having promised to write you, I will begin by

of it-but above all-Japonaiserie. I mean, the figures

are always in action, one sees them in the queerest sur-

telling you that this country seems to me as beautiful as

roundings, everything fantastic, and at all moments in-

Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the

teresting contrasts present themselves."6 In the same

gay color effects are concerned."1l Such an image of

Japan as a luminous country was not van Gogh's own
invention. In the Goncourts' novels, Manette Salomon

letter, he writes that the Japanese prints which he has

pinned on the wall "amuse" him very much.7 He shows

an interest in various motifs such as "little women's

and Maison d'un artiste, which van Gogh would have

figures, flowers, knotty thorn branches." His interest in

read in Paris, we find a similar image of Japan. In Ma-

Japonaiserie was stimulated by Edmond de Goncourt's

Cherie, which he had read in Nuenen,8 but it is worth

nette Salomon the Goncourts describe the atelier of a

stressing that in Antwerp van Gogh showed no interest

Coriolis takes an album of Japanese prints, and imagines

painter Coriolis de Naz in Paris. Tired with his work,

in the color of the prints which was later to attract him so

the unknown luminous country. "And those Japanese

strongly. He was mainly concerned with their exotic and

albums gave birth to a day in that enchanting land, a day

expressive character.9
It was in Paris, where he saw and studied numerous

without shadow, filled with light... The winter, the gray

Japanese prints and read far more about Japan, that the

them all, forgot them there by the side of those seas as

country took on a more serious meaning for his artistic

limpid as the heavens, ...then those visions of Japan were

career as well as for his existence as an artist. Unfor-

cut through by the light of reality, by the wintry sun of

tunately it is almost impossible to trace the transforma-

Paris, and by the lamp brought into the studio."12

tion of van Gogh's image of Japan during his stay in

Paris, for he wrote few letters in this period.10 We can
only presume that it changed radically, especially in the

6 "Een van de spreekwoorden van de Goncourts was: 'Japonaiserie

outside, the poor shivering sky of Paris, he banished

Later, in Maison d'un artiste, Edmond de Goncourt

recollects his collaboration with his brother Jules on
Manette Salomon and their interest in Japonaiserie. "It

for ever.' Wel die dokken zijn een fameuze Japonaiserie, grillig, eigen-

d'expression, ce petit masque-la" (W7). (Have you seen a very little

mask of a smiling fat Japanese woman at Theo's? It is surprisingly

aardig, ongehoord-ten minste men kan 't zoo zien...-maar vooral-

expressive, that little mask.)

Japonaiserie's. Ik bedoel, de figuren zijn er altijd in beweging, men ziet

io For a detailed account of this period see B. Welsh-Ovcharov,

Vincent van Gogh, his Paris period i886-i888, Utrecht & The Hague
1976; and exhib. cat. Vincent van Gogh and the birth of Cloisonism,
Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario) & Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh) 1981.
i "Ayant promis de t'ecrire, je veux commencer par te dire que le
pays me parait aussi beau que le Japon pour limpidite de l'atmosphere
et les effets de couleur gaie" (B2).
12 E. and J. de Goncourt, Manette Salomon, Paris 1864, ch. 47
(pp. 171-74 in the 1915 edition): "Et un jour de pays feerique, un jour
sans ombre et qui n'etait que lumiere, se levait pour lui de ces albums

ze in de zonderlingste entourage, alles grillig, en er ontstaan vanzelf

telkens interessante tegenstellingen" (437).
7 "Mijn werkplaats is nogal dragelijk, vooral omdat ik een partij
Japansche prentjes tegen de muren heb gespeld, die mij erg amuseren.
Ge weet wel van die vrouwen figuurtjes in tuinen of aan het strand,
ruiters, bloemen, knoestige doorntakken" (437). (My studio is not bad,
especially as I have pinned a lot of little Japanese prints on the wall,
which amuse me very much. You know those little women's figures in
gardens, or on the beach, horsemen, flowers, knotty thorn branches.)
8 E. de Goncourt, Cherie, Paris 1884. Van Gogh frequently mentions this book in his letters, particularly the preface (447, 451, 453).
For Japonaiserie in French literature, see W. L. Schwartz, The imaginative interpretation of the Far East in modern French literature 80ooz925, Paris 1927.
9 For van Gogh's interest in this aspect see a remark on Hokusai in
letter 533, and in a letter to Wil: "As tu vu chez nous un tout petit
masque de femme japonaise souriante et grasse ? I1 est bien surprenant

japonais... L'hiver, le gris du jour, le pauvre ciel frissonnant de Paris, il

les fuyait et les oubliait au bord de ces mers limpides comme le ciel...,

quand tombait, dans ces visions du Japon, la lumiere de la realite, le

soleil des hivers de Paris, la lampe qu'on apportait dans l'atelier." Van
Gogh first mentions the novel in letter 604 (September 1889), but he
had probably read it before then.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait ofTangy (F363), Paris, 887-88. Paris, Muse Rodin

2 Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Tanguy (F363), Paris, 1887-88. Paris, Mus6e Rodin

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits


Mfsf WRI'li B B I


3 Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of an Italian woman

(Segatori?) (F38I), Paris, 1887-88. Paris, Louvre

is there that you will find those books of sunny prints in

of the Goncourts. Like-Coriolis de Naz and the Gon-

which, on the gray days of our dreary winter, with its

cold, grimy skies, we made Coriolis (ourselves, in fact)
seek some of the agreeable light of the empire of the

miere riante de l'Empire" under the gray sky of Paris.

courts themselves, he would have experienced the "lu-


PORTRAIT OF TANGUY The image of Japan as a lumi-

These passages cannot be overlooked, coming as they

do from one of the most influential novelists andjaponisants of the day, who also happened to be one of van

nous land, however, does not offer us enough for a con-

Gogh's favorite writers. In the Parisian atmosphere of

japonisme van Gogh would have come to share the view
13 E. de Goncourt, La maison d'un artiste en XIXe siecle, vol. i,
Paris I88I, p. 194: "La sont ces livres d'images ensoleilles, dans lesquelles, par les jours gris de nbtre triste hiver, par les inclements et
sales ciels, nous faisons chercher au peintre Coriolis, ou plut6t nous
cherchions nous-meme, un peu de la lumiere riante de l'Empire du
LEVER DU SOLEIL." Quoted in Schwartz, op. cit. (note 8), p. 70. A

vincing interpretation of the Portrait of Tanguy (fig. 2,

F363).'4 Why is the old tradesman depicted with Japanese prints? What is the connotation of those prints?
First let us examine the character of the sitter, Pere
14 There are in fact four portraits of Tanguy by van Gogh (F263,
F I4I2, F363, F364). The first, painted early in 1887, has no Japanese
prints in the background. The other three versions were painted about
a year later. For the identification of the prints see Orton, op. cit.
(note 4), and F. Orton, "Vincent van Gogh and the Japanese prints,

similar expression, "I'Empire de soleil levant," had been used by

an introductory essay," in exhib. cat. cit. (note 4), pp. 14-23. H.

Tanaka interprets the choice of prints in "Hokusai, Hiroshige and

Zacharie Astruc in his article "Beaux Arts, l'Empire de Soleil Levant,"

van Gogh" (in Japanese), Bulletin du Musee National d'Art Occidentale

L'ttendard, 27 February and 23 March I867.

(Tokyo) 5 (I97I), PP. 14-24).

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Tanguy, as described by his contemporaries, Emile Bernard and van Gogh himself. The following passage by
Bernard is the most vivid account. "Julien Tanguy, who
read Le Cri du Peuple and L'Intransigeant assiduously,
believed in that absolute love which brought all mankind together and destroyed the individual struggles of
ambition, always so bitter and cruel. Vincent only differ-

ed from that ideal in his artistic nature, which impelled

him to view this social harmony as a sort of religion and
system of aesthetics... I am sure that Julien was won over
more by Vincent's socialism than by his painting, which
he nevertheless venerated as a sort of visible manifes-

tation of inner hopes. But in the meantime, before this

era of happiness dawned, both of them were extremely

poor, and each gave what he had-the painter his canvases, and the tradesman his colors, his money and his
table-to friends, to laborers, or to prostitutes who,
when they received paintings, sold them for nothing to
junk shops. And all this was done without the slightest
self-interest for people they did not even know."15

According to Bernard, Tanguy was a naive utopian

socialist, and he shared van Gogh's faith in a utopia, an


t{Bo s ptIt} Je t coitecalle de M. {ht. surtM)

4 "Statuette de bonze," illustration in: L. Gonse, L'Art

japonais, vol. 2, Paris 1883, p. 60

the ideal society of both Tanguy and van Gogh. Here

"ere de felicite." The following passage from one of van

then, the image of the Japanese is tinted by van Gogh's

Gogh's Aries letters provides a link between this utopian

ideal of primitive socialism, and that image overlaps with

socialist and Japan. "Here my life will become more and

Tanguy.17 In other words, the juxtaposition of Tanguy and the Japanese prints was not mere whimsy. The
prints represented a shared utopia, and were thus per-

more like a Japanese painter's, living close to nature like

a petty tradesman. And that you well know, is a less

lugubrious affair than the decadent's way. If I can live
long enough, I shall be something like old Tanguy."16
Here a Japanese painter is regarded as an inhabitant of

15 E. Bernard, "Julien Tanguy, dit le 'Pere Tanguy'," Mercure de

fectly appropriate for this naive tradesman.

Another interesting point concerning the Portrait of

Tanguy is the unusual symmetrical pose, which John

cela est moins lugubre que les decadents. Si j'arrive a vivre assez vieux,

detruirait les luttes individuelles de l'ambition, toujours si ameres et si

je serai quelque chose comme Pere Tanguy" (540).

I7 The passage from letter 540 is also used by John House in his
brief commentary on Tanguy's portrait in exhib. cat. Post-Impressionism, London (Royal Academy) 1979-80, p. 8i. House's interpreta-

sanglantes. Vincent ne differait de cet ideal que par sa nature d'artiste,

tion of the portrait of Tanguy is similar to mine, but his characteriza-

qui voulait faire de cette harmonie social une sorte de religion et

tion of Tanguy as "contemplative" strikes me as irrelevant. It is true

that van Gogh compared Tanguy to Socrates in letter 504, but from
other letters it is obvious that he did not regard either Tanguy or

France, i6 December I908, p.6o6: "Julien Tanguy, qui lisait assiduiment Le Cri du Peuple et l'Intransigeant, ayant pour doctrine l'uni-

que amour qui pencherait tous les etres les uns vers les autres et

d'esthetique... Julien fut seduit, j'en suis certain, beaucoup plus par le

socialisme de Vincent que par sa peinture, qu'il venerait cependant

comme une sorte de manifestation sensible des esperances con,us. En
attendant cette ere de felicite, tous deux etaient tres pauvres, et tous
deux donnaient ce qu'ils avaient, le peintre ses toiles, le marchand ses
couleurs, son argent et sa table; tant6t a des amis, tant6t a des ouvriers;
tant6t i des filles publiques, lesquelles, quant aux tableaux, allaient les
vendre pour rien a des brocanteurs. Et tout cela etait fait sans nul
inter&t, pour des gens qu'ils ne connaifaient meme pas."

I6 "Ici j'aurai de plus en plus une existence de peintre japonais,

vivant bien dans la nature en petit bourgeois. Alors tu sens bien que

Socrates as "contemplative." The postman Roulin is also likened to

Socrates in letters W 5 and 572: "Moi j'ai rarement vu un homme de la
trempe de Roulin, il y a en lui enormement de Socrate, laid comme un
satyr ainsi que le disait Michelet." (As for me, I have rarely seen a man
of Roulin's temperament, there is something in him tremendously like

Socrates, ugly as a satyr, as Michelet called him.) The image of Socra-

tes as a satyr comes from J. Michelet, L'Amour, Paris i858, p.345.

Bernard, op. cit. (note 15), p. 615, also compares Tanguy to the Greek

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits


5 Vincent van Gogh, sketch in letter 492.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh

House believes may have been borrowed from a Buddha

figure.18 Emile Bernard states in his article on Tanguy:
"Vincent painted Tanguy's portrait around I886. He
showed him seated in a room lined with Japanese crepons, wearing a large planter's hat and in a symmetrical

frontal pose like a Buddha."19 Tanguy's symmetrical

pose is indeed an unusual one in the history of modern
portraiture, and Bernard's and House's comparison with
a Buddha figure is not altogether irrelevant. One of the
illustrations in Louis Gonse's L'Artjaponais, "Statuette
de bonze, par Hissatama Oukousou" (fig. 4), is remarkably similar to the portrait in its frontality, and especial-

ly in its clasped hands.20 Gonse's book (in the edition of

1883) is preserved today at the Rijksmuseum Vincent

van Gogh as part of the former collection of the van
Gogh family. This, together with the similarity of the
i8 Exhib.'cat. cit. (note 17), p.8I.
I9 Bernard, op. cit. (note 15), p.615: "Vincent a fait un portrait de

Tanguy vers 1886. II l'a represente assis dans une salle tapisse de
crepons japonais, coiffe d'un grand chapeau de planteur et symetriquement de face comme un Bouddha."
20 Louis Gonse, L'Artjaponais, vol. 2, Paris 1883, p. 6o. The wood
sculpture was in the collection of Philip Burty, and is probably cat.
nr.559 in Collection Ph. Burty, catalogue de peintures et d'estampes
japonaises... et de livres relatifs a l'Orient et au Japon, Paris 1891. The
statue, which is i8 cm high, was made in the eighteenth century.
21 The image of Japan as a luminous and colorful country does not
appear to have been van Gogh's only reason for making the identification with the Midi. The following passage from Ary Renan, "L'Art
japonais," Nouvelle Revue 29 (1884), p. 723, is quite interesting in this
respect: "Sur cette terre volcanique, a c6te de lagune marecageuse, on

pose, suggests that van Gogh did indeed base his composition on this reproduction.
By depicting Tanguy in the pose of a Japanese bonze
against a background of Japanese prints, van Gogh was
expressing his utopian ideal. And in his mind that utopia
was probably overlapping with another luminous land,
the Midi.21

PORTRAIT OF MOUSMI In February I888 van Gogh

arrived at Aries with great expectations of seeing his
Japan. In his letters from Aries he frequently described
the motifs and his paintings as being "like Japan" or
"like a Japanese print." He made drawings with a reed
pen, and was planning to make an album of drawings
"like a Japanese album" for Gauguin and Bernard (fig.
5).22 At Aries his image of Japan chrystallized further,
trouve les aspects d'une Savoie ombragee, le pin et le meleze a quelques metres au-dessus des basses rizieres, une Hollande orientale et
une Provence nuageuse, battues par les vagues du Pacifique." (On this
volcanic land, by a swampy lagoon, one finds features of a shady Savoie, the pine and the larch a few metres above the low-lying rice field,

an oriental Holland and a cloudy Provence, pounded by the waves of

the Pacific.) In letter R4 van Gogh mentions an article of the same year

by Ferdinand de Lesseps, "Souvenir d'un voyage au Soudan," Nouvelle Revue 26 (1884), pp.491-516, so it seems likely that he also read
Renan's article.

22 See letter 492, with drawing. "Sais'tu ce qu'il faudrait en faire de

ces dessins-des albums de 6 ou 10 ou 12, comme les albums de

dessins originaux japonais." (You know what you must do with these
drawings-make sketchbooks with 6 or o0 or 12 like those books of
original Japanese drawings.)

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6 Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of mousme (F43i), Aries, July i888. Washington, National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits

a process in which Loti's Madame Chrysantheme and

Bing's monthly magazine Le apon Artistique played an
important role. Van Gogh read Madame Chrysantheme
in June I888 and mentioned it frequently in his letters,
and from them we know that Portrait ofmousme (fig. 6,
F43 ) was inspired by this exotic novel.23 The somewhat
curious features ofmousme in the portrait can be explain-






















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vious that van Gogh adopted the feature of the mouth of

mousme as described in Loti's novel. If he had seen the

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little moue they have), and above all "frimousse" (that

impish little face of theirs)."24 From all the versions of
Portrait of mousme (especially fig. 7, FI503), it is ob-

image of Japan. His further reading accelerated this pro-


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young woman. It is one of the nicest words in Japanese,

published in I888, he would have had a visual source in

Rossi's portrait of Madame Chrysantheme (fig. 8).25
Although Loti's book is full of distorted images of
Japanese life, and although it did not change van Gogh's
japonisme radically, it did give him a vivid impression
of the Japanese and helped him to chrystallize his own

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7 Vincent van Gogh, Portrait ofmousme (F 1503), Aries, August

i888. New York, Paul M. Hirschland

8 Rossi, Portrait of Madame Chrysantheme, illustration

in: P. Loti, Madame Chrysantheme, Paris I888

23 Cf. letters B7, 505, 509, 511, 51 4, 519. Van Gogh made one oil
painting and three drawings of mousme (F43I, F 1503, F I504, F I722).
24 P. Loti, Madame Chrysantheme, Paris 1973, p.76: "Mousme est
un mot qui signifie jeune fille ou tres jeune femme. C'est un des plus
jolis de la langue nippone: il semble qu'il y ait, dans ce mot, de la moue
(de la petite moue gentille et drole comme elles en font) et surtout de la
frimousse (de la frimousse chiffonne comme est la leur)."

25 P. Loti, Madame Chrysantheme, dessins aquarelles de Rossi et


- 1%,hr

Myrbach, Paris i888. It is not known whether van Gogh had seen this
illustrated edition before he painted the portrait, but from letter 561
we do know that Milliet possessed one, which he gave to Gauguin in

exchange for his drawings in November. Since van Gogh became

acquainted with Milliet in August at the latest (see letter 525), it is
possible that he had seen Milliet's copy.

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SELF-PORTRAIT AS BONZE At the end of September

i888, van Gogh painted a self-portrait, which he dedicated to Gauguin (fig. i). In it he overtly identified him-

self with a Japanese monk. He wrote to Gauguin: "But

as I also exaggerate my personality, I have in the first
place aimed at the character of a simple bonze worshipping the Eternal Buddha."26 The features of this portrait, the round head, slanted eyes and the nose, are
unmistakably those of a Japanese bonze. Here too, one

.-.r :I

-.1.. . . ..=

of the illustrations in Madame Chrysantheme might have

given him a physiognomic model for his self-portrait

(fig. 9).27 He probably had little chance of seeing or stu-

dying the features of a Japanese, so illustrations and

reproductions in a book would have been important
sources for him. The clasped hands of the bonze in the
reproduction in Gonse's L'Artjaponais are not typical of
a Japanese bonze, but to van Gogh it would have been
the pose of a bonze. Loti's description of the mouth of
mousme ("moue" and "frimousse") is not true, but for
van Gogh it was the first and only description of a Japa-

9 Myrbach, Funeral procession, illustration in: P. Loti, . ladame

Chrysantheme, Paris 1888

nese girl. A lack of knowledge of a foreign country is no

disadvantage for one drawn to the exotic; rather it is one

of the preconditions for utopian thought.

"JAPONAIS" AS PRIMITIVIST Much more important

studies a single blade of grass [un seul brin d'herbe]. But

than such "source" problems are van Gogh's reasons for

identifying himself with none other than a Japanese
bonze. In this connection we should also recall the por-

this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and

,hen the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside [les

traits of Tanguy. Why did he paint Tanguy in the pose

of a bonze and himself with the features of a bonze ? The

grands aspects des paysages], then animals, then the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to
do the whole.

first clue, I believe, can be found in his letter of 25 or 26

Come now, isn't it almost a true religion which these

September I888, which contains a very interesting and

simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though

they themselves were flowers?
And you cannot study Japanese art, it seems to me,
without becoming much gayer and happier, and we must

peculiar interpretation of the Japanese. "If we study

Japanese art, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise,
philosophic and intelligent who spends his time doing
what? In studying the distance between the earth and
the moon? No. In studying Bismarck's policy? No. He

return to nature in spite of our education and our work in a

world of convention" (my italics).28

26 "Mais exagerant moi aussi ma personnalite j'avais cherche plut6t

le caractere d'un bonze simple adorateur du Bouddha eternel" (553a).
27 See note 25.
28 "Si on etudie l'art japonais, alors on voit un homme incontesta-

ainsi sa vie et la vie est trop courte a faire le tout.

blement sage et philosophe et intelligent, qui passe son temps a quoi ? a

etudier la distance de la terre a la lune? non, a etudier la politique de
Bismarck ? non, il etudie un seul brin d'herbe. Mais ce brin d'herbe lui
porte a dessiner toutes les plantes, ensuite les saisons, les grands aspects des paysages, enfin les animaux, puis la figure humaine. II passe

Et on ne saurait etudier l'art japonais, il me semble, sans devenir

beaucoup plus gai et plus heureux, il nous faut revenir a la nature

Voyons, cela n'est-ce pas presque une vrai religion ce que nous
enseigne ces Japonais si simple et qui vivent dans la nature comme si
eux-memes etaient des fleurs ?

malgre n6tre education et n6tre travail dans un monde de convention"


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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits


Such an image of the Japanese-primitive, religious

grass, which does not deserve a place in the elevated con-

l'homme de la nature-is not to be found in Madame

ceptions of art. There, if I am not mistaken, lies the great

Chrysantheme, but nor was it a product of van Gogh's

and salutary lesson to be distilled from the examples he

imagination. Such a concrete image of the Japanese

must have been stimulated by some literary source.

offers us" (my italics apart from "nature").30

There were, in fact, two: an article by Bing in Le Japon

Artistique, and A. Leroy-Beaulieu's article on Tolstoy

in Revue des Deux Mondes.29 Van Gogh was undoubtedly stimulated by these articles, but it does not follow that

he derived his image of the Japanese from them. The

Van Gogh was not content with Bing's article, because it was "rather dry, and leaves something to be
desired,"31 but he obviously borrowed some of Bing's
words, such as "brin d'herbe" and "grands spectacles de
la nature" (in van Gogh's letter 542, "grands aspects des
paysages"). He took these fragments from Bing's article

contents of the two articles are very different from van

and used them to formulate his own vision of the Japa-

Gogh's letter, and Leroy-Beaulieu does not even mention Japan. Nevertheless, some passages do clarify the


formative process that was going on in van Gogh's mind.

van Gogh's primitivistic interpretation of Japan. Dis-

Similarly, Leroy-Beaulieu's article is also reflected in

It is obvious that the excerpt from his letter quoted

cussing Tolstoy's thoughts on society and religion,

above is based on the following passage in Bing's article.

"But the constant guide whose directions he [the Japanese painter] follows is called nature. She is his sole

Leroy-Beaulieu wrote: "What is the political and social

ideal of this mystic [Tolstoy], who would like to make

mistress, an adored mistress, whose precepts form the

inexhaustible well-spring from which he draws his in-

man live a life so contrary to all the appetites of Adam ?

What it comes down to is a return to a state of nature,

although only after having extinguished in natural man

spiration... He is, at one and the same time, the enthu-

the most deep-rooted of his natural instincts. Mankind

siastic poet moved by the grand spectacles of nature, and

must renounce everything productive of honor, beauty,

and security of life. Tolstoy revives Rousseau's paradox,

the attentive, keen-eyed observer with the ability to cap-

ture the intimate mysteries concealed in the infinitesimal... In a word, he is convinced that nature contains

with the difference that the abstract being of eighteenth-

the primordial elements of all things, and believes that

has taken on the appearance of the moujik. Tolstoy, like

there is nothing in creation, not even the smallest blade of

Rousseau, believes that all man has to do to be happy is to

29 S. Bing, "Programme," Le Japon Artistique i (i888); A. Leroy-

Beaulieu, "La religion en Russie: les reformateurs-le Comte Leon

Tolstoi, ses prcurseurs et ses emules," Revue des Deux Mondes 15
September i888, pp.414-43. Van Gogh read these articles at the end
of September i888; see letters 540 and 542.
30 Bing, op. cit. (note 29), p. 7: "Mais le guide constant dont il suit
les indications s'appelle la nature: c'est elle son seul maitre: un maitre
venere, dont les preceptes constituent la source intarissable oi il puise
ses inspirations... II est a la fois le poete enthousiaste imu par les grands
spectacles de la nature et l'observateur attentif et minutieux qui sait
surprendre les mysteres intimes que recele l'infiniment petit... En un
mot, il est persuade que la nature renferme les eeiments primordiaux
de toutes choses et, suivant lui, il n'existe rien dans la creation,fiut-ce
un infime brin d'herbe, qui ne soit digne de trouver sa place dans les

conceptions eleves de l'art. Voilh, si je ne me trompe, la grande et

salutaire lecon que nous pourrons degager des exemples qu'il nous
offre." The words in italics are echoed in van Gogh's letter 542 and are

reminiscent of the following passage on Millet's father in A. Sensier,

La vie et l'oeuvre deJ. F. Millet, Paris i88I, p. 6: "I1 aimait a observer

century Enlightenment has come alive. 'Natural man'

les plantes, les arbres et les animaux. Prenant des brins d'herbe, il

disait a son fils Francois: 'Vois donc comme c'est beau, vois donc
comme cet arbre est grand et bien fait; il est aussi beau a voir qu'une
fleur."' (He [Millet's father] loved to observe plants, trees and animals. Taking some grass he would say to his son Franqois: "Look, isn't
it beautiful? See how large and well-made that tree is, it's as lovely a
sight as a flower.") There is a not dissimilar description of the Japanese
in Gonse, op. cit. (note 20), vol. i, Paris 1883, pp. I38-39.
Van Gogh was enthusiastic about the reproduction of an anonymous Japanese drawing, Brins d'herbe, in the first issue of Le Japon
Artistique. It is reproduced in M. Roskill, Van Gogh, Gauguin and the
Impressionist circle, London I970, fig. 65.
3i Letter 540. It is hardly surprising that van Gogh was unhappy
with Bing's text. The purpose of Bing's publication was to revitalize
the decorative arts by introducing Japanese influences, and that was
not at all what van Gogh expected of Japan. The idea of innovation
through the study of nature probably did not originate with Bing.
Interestingly enough, Michelet had already made the same proposal in
his L'Insecte, Paris I857, pp. 187 ffand 384.

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rid himself of the artificial needs of civilization" (my ita-

against, nature, as the true civilization, which I respect

as such. I ask, what will make me more completely hu-


We have already seen that a similar primitivism, the

man ?"35 When he wrote this letter he had the painters of

achievement of happiness through a "return to nature"

the Barbizon School in mind. As George Levitine has

and a rejection of civilization were attributed to the Ja-

pointed out, van Gogh belonged to a tradition of nine-

panese in the letter quoted above: "And you cannot

teenth-century primitivism, beginning with the group

study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming

much gayer and happier, and we must return to nature
in spite of our education and our work in a world of

of Barbus, the Nazarenes and succeeded by the PreRaphaelites, Barbizon and Pont-Aven, and finally the
Nabis.36 These primitivistic painters shared a longing
for a non-conventional utopia, and they projected their
ideal on a certain historical period or on an "earthly

convention."33 These two articles clearly stimulated van

Gogh's peculiar interpretation of Japan. The words are

used not only to describe the Japanese, but Tanguy and

Roulin as well. Tanguy was likened to the Japanese and

It is worth noting that Leroy-Beaulieu's article is also

described as a "petit bourgeois living close to nature" in

tinted by primitivism. Discussing Tolstoy's religious

the letter quoted above. Speaking of the Roulin family,

van Gogh used the word "Russians": "But I have made

thought and its background, he interprets that thought

portraits of a whole family, that of the postman whose

sage quoted above, the article contains many other Rous-

head I had done previously..., all characters and very

French, though they have the look of Russians."34 The

seauesque ideas, for example: "Industrial work, which

word "Russians" is probably used here to signify primi-

tive people. Without Leroy-Beaulieu's article the comparison between Roulin's family and Russians would
seem quite curious.

However, the articles by Bing and Leroy-Beaulieu

were not the sources of van Gogh's primitivistic image
of the Japanese. They merely stimulated and clarified
it. Van Gogh had already expressed a Rousseauesque
primitivism in much earlier letters. As early as 1883
he wrote on culture, civilization and nature: "...I look

from the context of primitivism. In addition to the pas-

saps the soul as well as the body, should be abolished,

and cities done away with... Do not speak to him [Tolstoy] of progress, industry, the sciences, art-they are
merely so many grand, empty words."3'
Belonging to the primitivist tradition, and stimulated

by the two articles, van Gogh interpreted the Japanese

painter from the context of a European primitivism
which had its origins in the eighteenth century. However, such an interpretation of Japan was not specific to

van Gogh. As Elisa Evett has pointed out in her recent

dissertation and article, Japan was regarded as an ideal

upon the real human feelings, life in harmony with, not

primitivistic land by many contemporary critics, such as

32 Leroy-Beaulieu, op. cit. (note 29), p.435: "Quel est l'id6al politique et social de ce mystique (Tolstoy) qui pretend imposer aux hommes une vie si contraire a tous les appetits du vieil homme? C'est, a
bien des egards, le retour a l'ftat de nature, apres avoir, il est vrai,
extirpe de l'homme de la nature les plus inv6eters des instincts natu-

wat maakt mij 't meest tot mensch?" (336).

36 For the tradition of primitivism see George Levitine, The dawn
of bohemianism: the Barbu rebellion and primitivism in Neoclassical
France, University Park & London 1978; exhib. cat. Search for innocence: primitive and primitivistic art of the I9th century, College Park
(University of Maryland Art Gallery) I975. Levitine gives van Gogh a
brief mention on pp. 133-34. For the late nineteenth to the twentieth
century see R. Goldwater, Primitivism in modern art, New York 1967.

rels. L'humanite doit renoncer a tout ce qui fait l'honneur, la beaute, la

securite de la vie. Tolstoi reprend le paradoxe de Rousseau. Seulement, chez lui, l'etre abstrait des philosophes du XVIIIe siecle est
devenu un etre vivant: 'l'homme de la nature' a pris corps dans le
moujik. Comme Rousseau, Tolstoi croit que, pour etre heureux, les
hommes n'ont qu'a s'emanciper des besoinsfactices de la civilisation" (my

33 See note 28 for the original French text.

34 "Mais j'ai fait des portraits de toute unefamille, celle du facteur
dont j'ai deja precedemment fait la tete... tous des types et bien francais quoique cela aie l'air d'etre des Russes" (560). For the comparison
between Tanguy and the Japanese, see note I7.

35 "...ik het echt menselijke, het leven met de natuur mee, niet
tegen de natuur in, als beschaving beschouw en respecteer. Ik vraag:

Maurice-Ary Leblond's L'Ideal du XIXe siecle, le reve du bonheur

d'apres Rousseau et Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, les theories primitivistes
et l'ideal artistique du socialisme, Paris 1909, should also be added to the
list. Although written at the beginning of the century, it contains many

suggestions for further study of the primitivistic ideal in art which are

still valid today.

37 Leroy-Beaulieu, op. cit. (note 29), pp.435-36: "Le travail industriel, non moins malsain pour l'ame que pour le corps, devrait etre

aboli, et les villes supprimees... Ne lui objectez pas le progres, l'industrie, les sciences, l'art: autant de grands mots vides."

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits

Teodor de Wyzewa, Louis Gonse, Ary Renan and Gustave Geffroy.38 It is not clear how far van Gogh was


read. It seems probable that he was projecting his own

ideal onto Japanese painters. As with the two articles

influenced by their writings, but we can at least say that

mentioned above, he may have been stimulated by very

the view of the Japanese as "l'homme de la nature" did

fragmentary passages in some literary sources.

not originate with van Gogh. His contemporaries, who

were tired of the conventional, industrialized society
and longed for the "return to nature," more or less shar-

ed his primitivistic view.

GEMEINSCHAFTSIDEAL Van Gogh's image of the Japanese is more original in that he envisioned them from

Like "l'homme de la nature," a brotherhood or com-

munity of artists had been van Gogh's ideal since his

earliest years. "It must have been a pleasant time when
there were so many artists in the Alsace-Brion, Marshall, Jundt, Vautier, Knaus, Schuler, Saal, van Muyden and a great many more-together with many authors who worked in the same line, like Chatrian and

his Gemeinschaftsideal, which was another important as-

Auerbach."40 The collaborative ventures of the Gon-

pect of primitivism in the nineteenth century. When van

courts, Erckmann-Chatrian, the illustrators of the Eng-

Gogh was painting his Self-portrait as bonze to exchange

lish art magazine Graphic and the painters of Barbizon

it with a self-portrait by Gauguin, his mind was occu-

were already present in van Gogh's mind as early as

pied with the idea of establishing a community of artists

in Aries which he called the "atelier du Midi." The

his long letter from Drenthe he tried to persuade Theo

following passage from a letter to Emile Bernard reveals

to become a painter so that they could work together,

his conception of the Japanese as a people living in

an ideal community: "For a long time I have thought
it touching that the Japanese artists used to exchange

but Theo was not prepared to give up his work as an art

I882.41 As his first partner he chose his brother Theo. In

dealer, and instead remained Vincent's financial supporter. In the next four or five years van Gogh's ideal of

quite naturally, and not in intrigues. The more we are

community seems to have made no conspicious headway. In a letter to H.M. Livens written in his Paris
period he first expressed the ideal of the "atelier du
Midi,"42 and when he arrived at Aries in February 1888
he had a very strong desire and a concrete plan to esta-

like them in this respect, the better it will be for us."39

blish his community in Provence. His Arles letters show

works among themselves very often. It certainly proves

that they liked and upheld each other, and that there
reigned a certain harmony among them: and that they
were really living in some sort of fraternal community,

The exchange of works was not characteristic of Japa-

his preoccupation with the "atelier du Midi." He wrote

nese painters, nor does Bing say anything about such a

to Bernard: "Furthermore, the material difficulties of a

custom in his article, and to my knowledge it is not

painter's life make collaboration, the unity of painters,

mentioned in any of the writings which van Gogh had

desirable (as much so as in the days of the Guilds of

38 Elisa Evett, The critical reception of Japanese art in Europe in the

late igth century, Ann Arbor 1982; and "The late nineteenth-century
European critical response to Japanese art: primitivistic leanings,"
Art History 6 (1983), pp. 82-106.
39 "J'ai depuis longtemps ete touche de ce que les artistes japonais
ont pratique tres souvent: l'echange entre eux. Cela prouve bien qu'ils

Chatrian in hun werken) of(de teekenaars van de Graphic) vind ik het

iets uitstekends" (R i6). "Er was een corps schilders, schrijvers, artisten, enfin, die ondanks hun verdeeldheden eenheid hadden, en eene

s'aimaient et se tenaient, et qu'il regnait une certaine harmonie entre

eux: qu'ils vivaient justement dans une sorte de vie fraternelle, naturellement, et non pas dans les intrigues. Plus nous leur ressemblerons
sous ce respect-la mieux on s'en trouvera" (B i8).

kracht waren... Ik spreek van den tijd toen Corot, Millet, Daubigny,

Jacque, Breton jong waren, in Holland Israels, Mauve, Maris etc"

(247). (Only when artists seriously combine to co-operate on a task
that is too much for only one man (for instance Erckmann-Chatrian in
their works-or the artists of the Graphic for the Graphic) do I think it

an excellent thing; and In short, there used to be a body of painters,

authors, artists, who were united, notwithstanding their differences,

40 "Het was toch een aardige tijd toen er in den Elzas zooveel

and they were a force... I'm talking about the time when Corot, Millet,

artisten waren, Brion, Marchal, Jundt, Vautier, Knaus, Schuler, Saal,

v. Muyden en zeker nog veel meer-tegelijk met een partij schrijvers
die in dien zelfden geest werkten, zoals Chatrian en Auerbach" (232,
written in I882).
41 "Dan slechts wanneer men zich serieux combineert tot het samen werken aan iets wat voor een mensch teveel is (b.v. Erckmann-

Daubigny, Jacque, Breton, were young; in Holland, Israels, Mauve,

Maris, etc.)
42 "... I will, if you like, share my lodgings and studio with you so
long as I have any. In spring-say February or even sooner I may be
going to the South of France, the land of the blue tones and gay colors"


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St Luke). By safeguarding their material existence, by

loving each other like comrades-in-arms instead of cut-

life to that of monks: "If you are a painter, they think

ting each other's throats, painters would be happier, and

you are either a fool or a rich man; a cup of milk costs

in any case less ridiculous, less foolish and less culpable."43 Van Gogh urged his friends to join the community, exchanged self-portraits with them in supposed
imitation of the "peintres japonais," and decorated the
room for Gauguin with his own paintings.44

As Pevsner has pointed out, van Gogh's ideal of an

"atelier du Midi" undoubtedly belonged to the tradition

Like the Nazarenes, van Gogh compared the artist's

you a franc, a slice of bread two, and meanwhile your

pictures are not selling. That is what makes it necessary

to combine as the old monks did, and the Moravian

Brothers of our Dutch heaths."47 In van Gogh's concept

of the painter-monk one recognizes the aftermath of

Wackenroder's kunstliebenden Klosterbruder and the
Fratelli di San Isidoro. It would not be going too far to

of the nineteenth-century Gemeinschaftsideal.45 Most of

say that the self-portraits by Gauguin and Bernard are

the groups of painters mentioned above in connection

later variations of the Freundschaftsbilder which flour-

with the tradition of primitivism or the "return to na-

ished at the time of the Nazarenes (fig. I , I2).48 Gau-

ture" shared this ideal to some extent. In this case,

though, van Gogh is more clearly aware of the fore-

guin depicted Bernard's portrait in the background of

his painting, while Bernard included Gauguin's portrait

runners of his ideal than he was in the case of the "return

and a Japanese print. The two self-portraits are of course

to nature." He wrote to Theo: "You know that I think a

fundamentally quite different from the Freundschafts-

society of impressionists would be something of the

same nature as the society of the twelve English PreRaphaelites, and I think that it could come into exis-

bilder of the Romantics. Neither Gauguin nor Bernard

tence."46 In van Gogh's letters we find only the names of

them to. Nevertheless, this idea of exchanging portraits

shared van Gogh's Gemeinschaftsideal, and they would

not have painted such self-portraits if he had not asked

the Pre-Raphaelites, the Barbizon School and the artists

did at least have its origins in the Nazarean concept of

in Alsace. The Nazarenes are not mentioned, and he

artistic collaboration.

seems to have known little about this German Romantic

To return to van Gogh's self-portrait, we now have

group. Nevertheless, his concept of an "atelier du Midi"

had more in common with the Nazarenes than with the

enough information for a convincing interpretation of

this seemingly curious work. As already noted, he inter-


preted the Japanese from the context of primitivism.

43 "L'Union des peintres desirable (tout autant qu'a l'epoque des

corporations Saint-Luc). En sauvegardant, la vie mat6rielle en s'ai-

Uitert, "Vincent van Gogh in anticipation of Paul Gauguin," Simiolus

10 (1978-79), pp. 182-99; J. House, "In detail: van Gogh's The poet's
garden, Aries," Portfolio (September-October 1980), pp. 28-33.
45 N. Pevsner, "Gemeinschaftsideale unter den bildenden Kinst-

mant comme des copains au lieu de manger le nez, les peintres seraient

plus heureux et en tous les cas moins ridicules, moins sots et moins
coupables" (B i i). In letter B 8 van Gogh explains the character of
the community: "L'Idee de faire une sorte de Franc-Ma9onnerie des
peintres ne me plait pas enormement. Je meprise profondement les
reglements, les institutions, etc., enfin je cherche autre chose que les

dogmes qui, bien loin de regler les choses, ne font que causes des
disputes sans fin." (The idea of turning the painters into a sort of
freemasonry does not please me enormously. I profoundly despise
regulations, institutions, etc.; in short, what I am looking for is differ-

ent from dogmas, which, far from settling things, only give rise to
endless disputes.)

lern des 19. Jahrhunderts," Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 9 (1931), pp. 125-54.

46 "Tu sais que je crois qu'une association des impressionistes serait une affaire dans le genre de l'association des 12 preraphaelites
anglais, et que je crois qu'elle pourrait naitre" (498). The word "impressionistes" was often used by van Gogh and Gauguin to signify
their own group as well as that of Monet and Pissarro. In September
van Gogh bought precisely twelve chairs for his Yellow House; see
letter 534.

44 For van Gogh's exchange of works see Roskill, op. cit. (note 30),

47 "Si on est peintre, ou bien vous passez pour un fou ou bien pour
un riche... Voila ce pourquoi il faut se combiner comme faisaient les

ch. 4, and M. Roskill, "Van Gogh's exchange of work with Emile

Bernard in i888," Oud Holland 86 (1971), pp. 142-79. See also W.

vieux moines, les freres de la vie commun de nos bruyeres hollandaises"(524). See also letter 556. In letter 544 Vincent included Theo in

Jaworska, Gauguin et l'ecole de Pont-Aven, Paris 1971, p. 67. It is worth

noting that Vincent had exchanged portraits (photographs) with Theo

his imaginary community when he wrote: "Tu serais ainsi un des premiers ou le premier marchand ap6tre." (So you will be one of the first,

back in 1873. See letters 4 and 5. The series Poet's garden and Sunflowers were intended as the decoration for the Yellow House. For the

or the first dealer-apostle.) Van Gogh's idea of the painter-monk was

first pointed out by Pevsner, op. cit. (note 45).

Poet's garden see J. Hulsker, "The poet's garden," Vincent, Bulletin of

the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh 3 (1974), nr. I, pp.22-32; E. van

48 For the Freundschaftsbild see K. Lankheit, Das Freundschaftsbild

der Romantik, Heidelberg 1952.

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits


For him the word "japonais" had the connotation of

"l'homme de la nature" of Rousseau, the painter-monk,
or the fraternal life of the Nazarenes. It was not for

nothing, then, that he depicted himself as a bonze. He

could have chosen another, more important figure from

Madame Chrysantheme, namely Monsieur Sucre, the

Japanese artist. The psychological mechanism of van
Gogh's identification with a bonze is similar to the Nazarenes' identification with Fra Angelico, whom they
mistakenly took to be a naive painter-monk.49 By giving

himself the features of a bonze, van Gogh painted himself as an inhabitant of his ideal community. At this
point it should be recalled that Pere Tanguy, with whom
he shared his utopian vision, was also painted in the pose
of a bonze. The idea of portraying a close friend in ima-

ginary and ideal surroundings is also found in the Nazarenes' paintings. In his Portrait of Franz Pforr (fig.
Io), Overbeck depicted his closest friend in a medieval
setting-wearing an old German costume, with a pointed arch and a Gothic city, and the Mediterranean in the

background. Overbeck was expressing the Nazarean

ideal when he painted this portrait. Despite numerous
iconographical differences, the Portrait of Tanguy was
also the expression of van Gogh's and Tanguy's ideal.
The middle ages in the Portrait of Franz Pforr are transformed into Japan in the portraits of Tanguy, but van
Gogh's way of expressing his utopian ideal is similar to
Overbeck's. It would not be too much to say that van

'?.i.,.~f-/~?. ,,.t,~- "ri.... . i .... . . . . . .

Io Friedrich Overbeck, Portrait of Franz Pforr, Rome, i8Io.
Berlin, Staatliche Museen preussischer Kulturbesitz

Gogh's journey to the Midi can be compared to the

Romantics' Italienreise, and his "atelier du Midi" to the
brotherhood of the Fratelli di San Isidoro.50

Van Gogh's Self-portrait as bonze was the symbol of

his primitivistic ideal. It was not merely a portrait of the

painter with Japanese features, but a portrait of a primitivist in the late nineteenth century.

CREATIVE PROCESS It is also worth examining the

creative process behind this self-portrait, for the meaning of the painting cannot be interpreted properly if it is

not seen in the context in which it was painted. Moreover, Self-portrait as bonze offers us a paradigm of the

49 Cf. Keith Andrews, The Nazarenes, a brotherhood of German

painters in Rome, Oxford 1964, pp.2I and 88. It seems that van Gogh
also imagined Fra Angelico as a pious, naive painter-monk: "Se dire
de nos jours que celui-la [Millet] s'est mis a peindre en pleurant, que
Giotto, qu'Angelico peignaient a genoux, Delacroix si navre, si emu...
presqu'en souriant" (W20). (And then to think in our time that that
man [Millet] wept when he started painting, that Giotto and Angelico
painted on their knees-Delacroix so full of grief and feeling... nearly
50 In this respect it is interesting to note that van Gogh painted an
Italian woman with a Japanese decoration in his Paris period; Portrait
ofan Italian woman (Segatori ?) (F38I ; fig. 3). For the Portrait of Franz
Pforr see exhib. cat. Die Nazarener in Rom, ein deutscher Kunstlerbund
der Romantik, Rome & Munich i98i, p. 158.
5I Van Gogh made a distinction between etude and tableau; see E.

October.52 When van Gogh wrote the first letter the self-

van Uitert, "Van Gogh's concept of his oeuvre," Simiolus 12 (I98I82), pp.223-44.
52 According to Hulsker, op. cit. (note I), the dating of the seven
letters is as follows: W7 (i6 September), 537 (i6 or 17 September),

portrait was already finished. He simply announced: "I

also made a new portrait of myself, as a study, in which
I look like a Japanese" (my italics).53 In the following

553a (ca. 29 September), 545 (7 October).

53 "J'ai aussi fait un nouveau portrait de moi-meme comme etude
oil j'ai l'air d'un japonais" (W7).

creative process of a tableau.51 It is mentioned seven

times in the letters written between I6 September and 7

539 (I8 September), 540 (ca. 22 September), Bi8 (29 September),

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ii Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait: Les Miserables, i888. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh

three letters (537, 539, 540) he wrote only about the

color of the painting, but in the next letter, to Bernard,

he said: "I shall have to add at least two attempts at

pictures a little more serious: a self-portrait and a land-

scape during the fury of an evil-minded mistral" (my

italics).54 It was not until the last two letters that he used

the word "Bouddha." What made him recognize the

importance of the painting, and what prompted his reinterpretation ?

Prior to this reinterpretation van Gogh had read the

54 "...faudra que j'ajoute au moins deux essais de tableaux un peu

plus graves, un portrait de moi et un paysage en colere de mistral
mechant" (B I8).
55 Gauguin had written in reply to van Gogh's suggestion: "V6tre
projet d'echange auquel je n'ai pas encore repondu me sourit et je ferai
le portrait que vous desirez mais pas encore. Je ne suis pas en etat de le

two articles by Bing and Leroy-Beaulieu, and he had

also received Gauguin's promised self-portrait Les miserables (fig. I I).55 The accompanying letter contained the
following description: "The mask of a badly dressed
bandit, and with the power of a Jean Valjean, with his
nobility and his inner gentleness... The design of the
eyes and the nose, like the flowers in Persian carpets,
sums up an abstract and symbolic art. The little girlish
background with childish flowers is there to bear witness to our artistic virginity. And this Jean Valjean, op-

mais un portrait tel que je le comprends" (Your idea of an exchange,

which I hadn't responded to before, does appeal to me. I will do the
portrait you want, but notyet. I'm not yet ready, seeing that you do not

want a straightforward likeness, but a portrait as I understand the

word); D. Cooper, Paul Gauguin: 45 lettres a Vincent, Theo et Jo van
Gogh, The Hague & Paris I983, p.225, letter 32, 22 September I888.

faire attendu que ce n'est pas une copie d'un visage que vous desirez

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Van Gogh'sjaponisme portraits


7..1:?" : ':? :. ::: j l i'.i ... ... * ::. i

:.^: ;:.:
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x2 Emile Bernard, Self-portrait, x888. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh

pressed and outlawed by society, with his love and his

strength, is this not also the image of a present-day Im-

description. He had already painted his own self-portrait, but he wrote that he would "have to do it over

pressionist? And by painting him with my own features

again, if I want to succeed in expressing what I mean."57

you have both my personal likeness and our portrait of

all the poor victims of society."56

touched, but judging from the descriptions in the earlier

Van Gogh was touched by Gauguin's portrait and its

letters (537, 540), from letter 545 written after he had

56 Ibid., pp. 243-45, letter 33, 25 September i888: "Le masque de

bandit mal vetu et puissant comme Jean Valjean qui a sa noblesse et sa

douceur interieure... Le dessin des yeux et du nez semblables aux

It is difficult to know exactly how the painting was re-

dont vbtre portrait est un symbol, est saisissante... J'ai un portrait de

moi tout cendre... Mais exagerant moi aussi ma personnalite j'avais

cherche plutbt le caractere d'un bonze simple adorateur du Bouddha

fleurs dans les tapis persans resume un art abstrait et symbolique. Ce

eternel. II m'a cofte assez de mal mais il faudra que je le refasse

petit fond de jeune fille avec ses fleurs enfantines est la pour attester

entierement si je veux reussir i exprimer la chose" (553a). (This morning I received your excellent letter, which I sent on to my brother;
your concept of impressionism in general, of which your portrait is a
symbol, is striking... I have a portrait of myself, all ash-colored... But
as I also exaggerate my personality, I have in the first place aimed at
the character of a simple bonze worshipping the Eternal Buddha. It
has cost me a lot of trouble, yet I shall have to do it all over again if I
want to succeed in expressing what I mean.)

notre virginit6 artistique. Et ce Jean Valjean que la societe opprime

mis hors la loi, avec son amour, sa force, n'est-il pas l'image aussi d'un
impressioniste d'aujourd'hui ? Et en le faisant sous mes traits vous avez

mon image personelle ainsi que notre portrait a tous pauvres victimes
de la societe."

57 "Ce matin, j'ai requ v6tre excellente lettre, que j'ai derechef
envoyee i mon frere: v6tre conception de l'impressionisme en general

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received Gauguin's Les miserables, and from the paint-

ing itself, I presume that the slanted eyes, the round

head and the color of the clothes might be the result of
his retouch.58 That is to say, the self-portrait could have

had more "realistic" and less "Japanese" features before

van Gogh received Gauguin's self-portrait.

The Japanese features, however, were not merely van

Gogh's encouraging response to Gauguin's pessimistic

in van Gogh's letters, but van Gogh "loved Bernard's

very much."60 It is interesting to note that Bernard
modestly painted a Japanese print in a corner of the
painting. As already noted, Bernard was well acquainted with the utopian ideal of van Gogh and Pere Tanguy, and with the portraits of Tanguy. Small wonder,
then, that Bernard should have known that the Japanese

prints in Tanguy's portraits had utopian connotations

view of the miserable situation of the artists, but also a

for van Gogh, and he was probably thinking of that

subtle criticism of Gauguin's symbolist aesthetics. On

Gauguin's comparison of Les miserables to Persian carpet decoration, van Gogh wrote to Theo: "What Gau-

utopian ideal when he depicted the Japanese print in his

self-portrait. Interestingly enough, the print occupies a

and Japanese to the Persians and Egyptians."59 Con-

modest position in the corner of the painting. Was he

expressing his reluctance to join van Gogh's community, or the very reverse, namely that Gauguin and he
might well join it? Bernard's intention remains ambiguous, but van Gogh would have been content to have

trasting the Persians and Egyptians with the Greeks and

this painting with the likeness of two possible members

Japanese, van Gogh would have been conscious of the

and the symbol of the "atelier du Midi." In contrast to

slight but essential difference between his and Gauguin's

Gauguin's self-portrait, van Gogh was able to accept

Bernard's without any reservations.

guin says about 'Persian' painting is true. ....But, but,

but... I myself do not belong to the world of the great,
not even to any world at all... and... I prefer the Greeks

primitivism. Yet despite this difference van Gogh had

great respect for Gauguin, and believed that he should
be the central figure of the ideal community. Van Gogh

was then at the height of his utopian dream, and the


accepted van Gogh's proposal and came to Aries in Oc-

retouched self-portrait was sent to Gauguin with the

tober I888. Despite van Gogh's delight, Gauguin was

dedication: "A mon ami Paul Gauguin," as an invitation

not happy at Aries, preferring the mystic atmosphere of

to his "atelier du Midi," of which a Japanese bonze was

the symbol.

Brittany. Nor did he share van Gogh's Gemeinschaftsideal. Anyway, their collaboration came to an end with

BERNARD'S SELF-PORTRAIT Emile Bernard's self-

the well-known catastrophe. After van Gogh recovered

from his first attack of madness he painted two self-

portrait, which van Gogh received together with Gauguin's Les miserables, should also be mentioned briefly

them he depicted a Japanese print on the wall (fig. I3).61

(fig. 12). It is not mentioned as frequently as Gauguin's

If we bear in mind that "Japon" was a synonym for van

58 "Le vetement est ce veston brun borde de bleu, mais dont j'ai
exagere le brun jusqu'a pourpre et la largeur des bordures bleus. La
tete est modelee en pleine pate claire contre le fond clair sans ombres

light on the history of the painting after the dedication to Gauguin.

In Gauguin's Portrait of van Gogh painting sunflowers Vincent wears

portraits with a bandaged ear (F527, F529). In one of

the same "veston brun borde de bleu." In Gauguin's painting (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh), the veston is painted in light brown.

presque ... Seulement j'ai oblique un peu les yeux a la japonaise" (545).
(The clothes are this brown coat with a blue border, but I have exaggerated the brown into purple, and the width of the blue borders...

mais... je ne suis pas moi ni du grand monde ni meme du monde... et...

Only I have made the eyes slightly slanting like the Japanese.)
In the earlier letters he wrote: "Le troisieme tableau de cette se-

aux Persans et Egyptiens je prefere et les Grecs et les Japonais" (544).

"Grecs" in this passage probably refers to primitive Greek art before

maine est un portrait de moi-meme presque decolore, des tons cendres

the classical period. Such a comparison between Greece and Japan was
not exceptional in van Gogh's period; see, for example, E. Pottier,
"Grece et Japon," Gazette des Beaux Arts (August 1890), pp. I05-32.
60 Letter 545.

sur un fond veronese pale" (537). (The third picture this week is a
portrait of myself, almost colorless, in gray tones against a background

of pale malachite); and "Je viens de peindre mon portrait a moi, qui a
la meme coloration cendree" (540). (I have just painted my own portrait, in my own ashen coloring.)
The results of a technical analysis of later damage to and retouching
of this painting are to be published shortly by Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski and H. Travers Newton. Their work will throw an interesting

59 "Pour ce que dit Gauguin de 'Persan' c'est vrai... Mais mais

61 For this painting and the identification of the Japanese print see

D. Cooper, "Two Japanese prints from Vincent van Gogh's collection," Burlington Magazine 99 (1957), pp.204-07. The print on the
wall is a deliberate insertion, of course, for it is not shown in mirror

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Van Gogh's japonisme portraits


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13 Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with a Japanese print (F 527), Aries, January 1889. London, Courtauld Institute Galleries

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Gogh's primitivistic ideal, the meaning of the print be-

remains, however, the idea of an association of painters,

comes clear. It undoubtedly signifies the utopia which

he was unable to realize in Arles.62 Significantly, this

of lodging them in common, some of them: though we

self-portrait is the only painting from the Arles period to

choly failure, the idea is still true and reasonable, like so

did not succeed, though it is a deplorable and melan-

feature a Japanese print. In the letter in which he first

many others. But we won't begin again."65 From Gau-

mentioned the Self-portrait as bonze, when he was in the

guin's letters we know that van Gogh did not completely

prime of his utopian dream, he wrote: "For my part I

give up the idea of community till the end of his life. He

don't need Japanese pictures here, for I am always telling myself that here I am in Japan. Which means that I

suggested to Gauguin that they should work together

again, but Gauguin refused obliquely. Van Gogh even

have only to open my eyes and paint what is right in

proposed going to Brittany himself, but Gauguin's an-

front of me, if I think it effective."63

swer was not encouraging.66 Van Gogh himself had also

become far less enthusiastic about the idea of commu-

Yet the dream was over. He had to paint a "Japanese

picture" once again, this time as a recollection of the


long history of his utopian ideal which had first appeared

Self-portrait with a Japanese print was van Gogh's last

in the portraits of Tanguy. Van Gogh recovered from

his first attack of madness, but he had little hope for his
"atelier du Midi." In a letter to Theo he wrote: "It

japonisme portrait. After that, "Japon" and "japonais"

ceased to be the model of his ideal society and of the
ideal life of artists. His "Japon" was a primitivistic uto-

seems to me impossible or at least pretty improbable,

pia. One might call it a romantic and childish dream, but

that impressionism will organize and steady itself now.

it was this romantic dream, which van Gogh called "en-

Why shouldn't what happened in England at the time

of the Pre-Raphaelites happen here ? The union broke
up."64 But the idea of an "atelier du Midi" remained in

fantillage," which supported his creative activity in his

his mind. About three months later he wrote: "There


62 Orton, op. cit. (note 14), p.22 had already reached the same
conclusion: "Presumably he is making a specific contrast between the
empty canvas on the easel and the print, the world of Japan. In other

words, the scene in the Japanese print, a summation of all that he

most productive period.

65 "Reste cependant que l'idee d'association des peintres, de les

loger en commun quelques'uns, quoique nous n'ayons pas reussi,
quoique c'est une faillite deplorable et douloureuse, cette idee reste
vraie et raisonnable, comme tant d'autres. Mais pas recommencer"

thought of as typifying Japanese life, signifies the emotional, moral,

and even aesthetic values he had been unable to find in Arles." Wheth-


er the canvas was intended as a contrast to the print and whether it is

donne beaucoup a reflechir et je vous avoue que je trouve la vie ensem-

66 "Merci de v6tre lettre et de vos propositions projetees, elle m'ont

empty remain inconclusive, but as far as the Japanese print is con-

ble possible tres possible mais avec beaucoup de precautions" (Thank

cerned Orton's interpretation is to the point.

you for your letter and the news of your plans. It has given me much

63 "Pour moi ici je n'ai pas besoin de japonaiseries, car je me dis

toujours qu'ici je suis au Japon. Que consequemment je n'ai qu'a

food for thought, and I own that I find communal life possible, very
possible, but with many provisos); Cooper, op. cit. (note 55), p. 297,
letter 39, 28 January I890.
"Votre idee de venir en Bretagne au Pouldu me parait excellente si
elle etait realisable" (Your idea of coming to Brittany, to Le Pouldu,
sounds excellent to me, provided it is practicable); ibid., p. 323, letter
42, ca. 24 June 1890.

ouvrir les yeux et a peindre droit devant moi ce qui me fait de l'effet"

64 "II me semble a moi maintenant impossible, au moins assez
improbable, que l'impressionisme s'organise et se calme. Pourquoi
n'adviendra-t-il pas ce qui est arrive en Angleterre lors des Preraphaelites. La societe s'est dissoute" (571).

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