Japonaiserie: Oiran (Courtesan), 1887
This is one of three instances in which Van Gogh literally transcribed an image from a Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock print). Kensaï Eisen’s exotic image appeared on the May 1886 cover of the magazine Paris Illustré, for its special double issue, “Le Japon,” dedicated to japonaiserie, the French obsession with all things Japanese. The following year, Van Gogh created this painted homage to Eisen’s original woodblock print; the painting also appears in the elaborate background of Vincent’s portrait of Père Tanguy.
The figure’s hairstyle and obi (or belt) tells us that she belongs to the highly regarded class of courtesans known as Oiran. Often the subject of Japanese ukiyo-e, Oirans were considered celebrities; pin-ups admired for their beauty, musical talent, and sense of fashion.
Using tracing paper and a grid, Vincent transferred the image of the courtesan to a canvas, doubling its size and adding a rectangular backdrop of chrome yellow, a color he personally associated with Japanese culture. He then intensified the overall color palette and made his outlines bolder and more expressive to re-create the hand-carved effects of a woodblock print.
To accentuate this stylistic connection, Van Gogh added an illusionistic border – a pond filled with bamboo, water lilies, a frog, cranes, and a small boat with two fisherman – to evoke the landscape imagery of Japanese prints. His inclusion of these particular animal motifs, however, reveals a thinly veiled meaning: both frogs (grenouilles) and cranes (grues) were frequently used to allude to prostitutes in 19th-century French art and literature.