An undisguised, vigorous - and Japanese - canvas

Vincent van Gogh fell profoundly in love with Japanese art. He knew it primarily through the many woodcuts that came to Europe. He collected them.

He never went to Japan. But when he moved from Paris to Provence - from northern to southern France - in his imagination the south seemed to be "the equivalent of Japan." He described it as such in a letter to his brother, Theo, who was still in Paris.

"I wish you could spend some time here," he told Theo. "You would feel it after a while, one's sight changes: You see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel color differently. The Japanese draw quickly, very quickly, like a lightning flash, because their nerves are finer, their feeling simpler."

Quickness in drawing and painting mattered to Van Gogh. In the same letter, he boasted that he had just made a drawing of some boats "in an hour." He worked in the open air, drawing and painting the landscape directly, as the Impressionists did. Changing light and weather - not to mention sudden alterations to the agricultural landscape as, for instance, when harvesting occurs - demanded hasty notation. But his style developed into something quite unlike Impressionism.

It is possible that the speed of execution he attributed to Japanese artists provided him with a kind of shorthand. This showed significantly in his drawings. He used a reed pen. In his hands, this produced a wide, fluent line, strongly calligraphic; bolder, but with a feel similar to the black dots, dashes, hatchings, and outlines in Japanese woodcuts.

The brushwork in his paintings learned from his drawing technique. It became boldly linear, energetically graphic. Nothing of the way in which Van Gogh paints his paintings is disguised. Every stroke of thick oil paint is evident to the viewer. It retains the directness and speed with which the artist applied it. "Stairway at Auvers" (a town near Paris), shown here, was painted in the prolific final phase of Vincent Van Gogh's career.

It shows how he brought back to northern France everything he had learned in the South. It is markedly Japanese in character.

This is hardly naturalism. Yet it is a recognizable world, every part of which is animated with the immediacy of Van Gogh's uniquely linear and vigorous style.

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