Almost half of the Japanese prints in Van Gogh’s collection were designed by the artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865). He was also an extremely productive printmaker, and the thousands of prints produced throughout his career (that spanned no less than 60 years) were eagerly acquired by collectors.
Despite this enormous production and popularity during his lifetime, at the end of the 19th century, he was not considered to be the ultimate print artist. Critics thought that his work was somewhat formulaic. This perhaps explains why it was precisely these prints that Van Gogh acquired: by purchasing Kunisada’s prints, he could get his hands on true craftsmanship relatively cheaply.
The temptations of Tokyo
Kunisada was a man of the world, who devoted both his life and his art to Tokyo’s pleasure district. He had mastered creating seductive portraits of beautiful women, so-called bijinga.
The white skin of the courtesan depicted on the left is the subject of this woodcut, which is aptly called ‘white’. The poem at the top of the print praises the beauty of all that is white: the snow, the flower, and her neck – which we can admire thanks to the mirror.
An incomplete image
A striking number of prints by Kunisada from Van Gogh’s collection were originally part of triptychs and series, meaning that Van Gogh would have had an extremely fragmented image of the Japanese printmaker.
In light of the fact that the prints were part of a larger entity, the compositions sometimes appear to be rather abruptly cropped. They therefore look more modern than originally intended.