The Courtesan (after Eisen), 1887

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 105.5 X 60.5 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
  • F 373

The Courtesan illustrates Van Gogh’s interest in Japan and Japanese prints. He based his painting on a work by the Japanese artist Kesai Eisen, which had been used for the cover of a special number of Paris Illustré. He copied and enlarged the Japanese figure by tracing on a grid, giving her a colorful kimono and placing her against a bright yellow background.

The border around the figure is a unified whole. The watery landscape with bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs, cranes and, in the distance, a little boat – are all motifs Van Gogh borrowed from other Japanese prints. The choice of animals was certainly not accidental: in 19th century France, prostitutes were often referred to as grues (cranes) or grenouilles (frogs); they are a reference to the woman’s “profession.”

More information about "The Courtesan (after Eisen)"

Van Gogh's Japanese print collection

Van Gogh saw Japanese prints for the first time in Antwerp. He greatly admired their bright colors and expressive character, and he soon began to collect them. In Paris he studied the work of the Impressionists, coming to understand the influence these prints had had on the modern movement. He also organized an exhibition of his own collection in the spring of 1887 at the Café du Tambourin. In a portrait of cafe owner Agostina Segatori, a reference to this exhibition is to be seen.

More Japan

The Courtesan is not the only painting based on Japanese prints. Two other examples are The Flowering Plum Tree and The Bridge in the Rain, both after woodcuts by Utagawa Hiroshige from Van Gogh’s own collection. The borders are filled with Japanese characters borrowed from other prints. One major difference between the painted copies and the originals is the coloration. Van Gogh used different, brighter colors or he intensified the already contrasting ones.

One may recognize a Japanese influence even in Van Gogh’s later work - in the stylized designs, the use of strong contours and contrasting colors, the cut-off compositions, and in his continuing interest in certain themes, such as blossoming trees or twisting branches. The Sower is an excellent example. Its bright, almost unreal colors and the cut-off tree in the foreground recall the earlier Flowering Plum Tree.

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