Vincent van Gogh - The Courtesan 1887

Japonaiserie: Oiran, after Kesaï Eisen Also known as - The Courtesan 1887
Japonaiserie: Oiran, after Kesaï Eisen Also known as - The Courtesan
Oil on canvas 105.0 x 60.5 cm. Paris: September-October, 1887
Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum

« previous picture | Paris | next picture »

During Vincent van Gogh stay in Paris, he collected more Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints; he became interested in such works when, in 1885, in Antwerp he used them to decorate the walls of his studio. He collected hundreds of prints, which are visible in the backgrounds of several of his paintings. In his 1887 Portrait of Père Tanguy, several can be seen hanging on the wall behind the main figure. In The Courtesan or Oiran (after Kesai Eisen) (1887), Van Gogh traced the figure from a reproduction on the cover of the magazine Paris Illustre, which he then graphically enlarged in the painting. His 1888 Plum Tree in Blossom (After Hiroshige) is a vivid example of the admiration he had for the prints he collected. His version is slightly bolder than Hiroshige's original.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Friday, 6 June 1884.
My dear Theo,
I still often think about your pleasant visit, which I hope will presently be repeated for a rather longer time.
Since you were here I’ve been working quite hard on a woman spinning, a little scratch of which I send you herewith.
It’s quite large and painted in a dark tone, the figure is in blue, with a shawl that’s sort of mouse-coloured. I hope to make another one like it of a little old man at the bobbin winder near a little window; you might remember a small study of it.
I would be very glad if you’d let me know the size of your frames soon, then I could make a start. If the size works out, I might make a small one of that woman spinning. I’ll just copy out a passage from Les artistes de mon temps by C. Blanc:
About three months before the death of E. Delacroix, we met him in the Palais Royal galleries, at about ten o’clock in the evening, Paul Chenavard and I. It was as we were leaving a lavish dinner party at which questions of art had been debated, and the conversation had continued between the two of us on the same subject, with the liveliness, the heat, that one devotes to futile discussions especially. We were talking about colour, and I said: ‘To my mind, the great colourists are those who don’t do local tones’ — and I was about to enlarge on my theme when we noticed Eugène Delacroix in the Rotunda gallery. He came over to us, exclaiming: I’m sure they’re talking painting! Indeed — I said to him — I was on the point of putting forward a proposition which is not, I believe, a paradox, and on which you’re in any case a better judge than anyone: I was saying that the great colourists don’t do local tones, and with you I have doubtless no need to go further.
Eugène Delacroix took two steps backward, winking as was his wont: ‘That’s perfectly true — he said; look, there’s a tone, for example (he pointed to the dirty grey tone of the cobblestone); well, if one were to say to Paolo Veronese: paint me a nice blonde woman whose flesh should be of that tone — he’d paint her, and the woman would be a blonde in HIS painting.’

Speaking of ‘snot colours’, to my mind one shouldn’t consider the colours in a painting in isolation — if, for instance, a snot colour is placed against strong tones of brownish red, of dark blue or of olive green — it can express the very tender and fresh green of a meadow or a little wheatfield.
And yet I believe that De Bock, who christened certain colours ‘snot colours’, certainly wouldn’t contradict the above, actually — for I myself once heard him say that in some paintings by Corot there are tones in evening skies, for instance, which are very luminous in the painting and are actually, regarded in themselves, a fairly dark, greyish tone. Those at home will also write to you soon, and thank your for your letter.
But to return for a moment to this question of being able to paint an evening sky or a blonde woman with a dirty colour like the grey of cobblestones; if one thinks about it, this question is actually a double one.
For firstly one has a dark colour that can seem light. (or rather appear to be) This is actually more a question of tone.
But then as far as the actual colour is concerned, a reddish grey, relatively little red, will appear more or less red depending on the colours that are next to it.
And the same with blue, and the same with yellow likewise.
One only has to add a very little bit of yellow to a colour to make it appear very yellow, if one puts that colour into or next to a violet or lilac tone.
I remember how someone tried to suggest a red roof on which the light was falling by means of vermilion and chromate etc. It didn’t work. Jaap Maris did it in many a watercolour by glazing a very little bit with red ochre over a colour that was reddish. And it suggested the sunlight on the red roofs perfectly. If I have time I’ll copy something else out of that piece about Delacroix, about the laws that always apply to colours. I’ve sometimes thought that when people talk about colour they actually mean tone. And perhaps there are more tonists than colourists these days. This isn’t the same, although it can very easily go together.
I do agree with you that these days one often finds it very hard to satisfy the need to talk to people who know how to give advice and from whom one learns and gets light — but without their playing the schoolmaster and at the same time without their just dishing up large, empty words that at bottom are either full of conversation killers or generalities. Anyway — nature is something that one can still learn a lot about, though.
Regards — please don’t forget the rabbet size of your frames. Believe me
Yours truly,