Vincent van Gogh on the Psychological Rewards of Japanese Art

“You cannot study Japanese art … without becoming much gayer and happier.”


In February of 1888, a decade after a winding road took him to his purpose, Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) moved to the town of Arles in the South of France, where he found himself enchanted by the landscape and the quality of light. So began an extraordinarily fertile period of creativity for the artist, marked by the completion of more than 200 paintings, 100 watercolors and sketches, and the culmination of his famous Sunflowers series. But it was also a period of extreme poverty and psychoemotional anguish, culminating with his famous self-mutilation.

“I have no thought of fatigue,” the destitute painter wrote to his brother Theo while subsisting on little more than artistic exhilaration and caffeine. “I have lived principally for these four days on twenty-three cups of coffee, with bread which I still have to pay for.”

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1887

In the midst of this tumult, marked by both artistic invigoration and mental toil, Van Gogh hungered for a source of serenity and he found it in an improbable source — Japanese art and its attendant philosophy. Japanese prints had graced the walls of his former studio in Antwerp for three years and he had staged a small exhibition of them during his time in Paris a year before he moved to Arles, but this was the first time he formulated the profound effect this aesthetic tradition had on his psyche.

In a letter to Theo, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — the treasure trove that gave us Van Gogh on talking vs. doing, the creative power of unrequited love, and how inspired mistakes move us forward — the 35-year-old painter writes:

If we study Japanese art, you see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass.

And you cannot 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 convention…

I envy the Japanese the extreme clearness which everything has in their work. It never is wearisome, and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat…

Complement this particular portion of the altogether beautiful and heartbreaking Ever Yours with this love letter to ancient Japanese aesthetics, then revisit Van Gogh on love and art, how relationships refine us, and his never-before-revealed sketchbooks.


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