Spring in art part 5: van Gogh's Japanese connection
There is something particularly poignant about this painting. Maybe because van Gogh created this resplendent vision of spring mere months before he decided to take his own life. A gift to his beloved brother Theo and sister-in-law Jo for birth of their son Vincent Willem, the founder of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Almond Blossom is a joyful celebration of the awakening of nature and the arrival of new life. The Dutch artist had moved to Arles in the south of France in early 1888, where the unique beauty of the landscape inspired some of his most expressive late paintings.
Van Gogh never travelled to Japan, but while he lived in Paris he had fallen under the spell of Japanese prints. He owned over 600 of them, which he displayed on the walls of his studio as a fundamental reference point that never ceased to drive his artistic direction. There is no doubt that his depiction of southern France was heavily influenced by these aesthetics. In a letter to his friend Emile Bernard penned in March 1888 he wrote: "I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes,as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns."
The impact of Japanese prints on van Gogh's work is particularly noticeable in his use of flat, vivid colours and in the unusual cropping. In Almond Blossom there is no horizon, the twisted tree branches run all across the canvas in the foreground against the strikingly turquoise sky. What we see here is one of van Gogh's many gifts (to us), namely his ability to capture the essence of the energy of nature in all its lyrical seductiveness.
How van Gogh could produce a piece of such supreme serenity while his life was slowly but surely falling apart is a mystery to me. But it is nice to think that even in his darkest hour Vincent managed to find some comfort in painting the beauty of the world around him.
Tomorrow would have been van Gogh's 166th birthday. To mark the occasion, Exhibition on Screen is very generously broadcasting the premiere of the documentary Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing on their Facebook page (you don't need to have an account to watch it). Times are as follows: 7pm BST, 8pm CET, 11am PDT and 2pm EDT.
I, for one, won't be missing it.
Vincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom (1890). Photo credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Cherry Blossoms (1860)