Prints as puzzles
Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) combined his depictions of certain courtesans or geisha with particular locations close to Edo, such as in this print with Mount Fuji. In doing so, he threw up questions as to her identity, which lovers of Japanese prints enjoyed trying to answer.
This subtle layer of meaning is now difficult for us to fathom, and it would have also meant just as little to Van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s copy
On the cover of the May 1886 edition of the journal Paris Illustré, Van Gogh came across an image of an Eisen woodcut depicting a courtesan. She was wearing a kimono decorated with a dragon.
Van Gogh was so taken with the design that he copied it into a painting of his own: Courtesan (after Eisen).