Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige), 1887

Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige), 1887

Inexpensive Japanese woodblock prints flooded the market in Paris during the second half of the 19th century, fueling a mania for anything à la Japonaise. Referred to as ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world,” these compelling images of Japanese daily life, fashionable people, scenes of nature, weather, and even erotica found great appeal among European artists. Monet, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec were all influenced by their unexpected perspectives, flattened spaces, and stylized forms. Van Gogh, who eventually owned more than 500 of these works, was obsessed with ukiyo-e, insisting that he would rather purchase prints than spend the money on food. Artists have their priorities!

With his 1887 painting Flowering Plum Orchard, the Dutch artist reinterpreted one of his favorite Japanese prints, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido (1857) by Utagawa Hiroshige. Van Gogh retained Hiroshige’s compressed composition and abstracted vision of nature, but dramatically transformed the subtle coloration of the original with deeply saturated colors and an especially fiery red sky.

As if trying to make Hiroshige’s print even more decorative and exotic, Vincent added his own inventive orange border with freely-interpreted Japanese characters on either side of the painting.

Hiroshige’s print deeply inspired both Van Gogh and Gauguin. Independently, both artists would freely borrow from its pronounced diagonal tree motif and compact shallow space in their own hybrid paintings of French peasants in the countryside.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Orchard (After Hiroshige), 1887. Oil on canvas, 21. 65 x 18.11 in. (55.6 x 46.8 cm) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)/Bridgeman Images.