Oiran (The Courtesan)
Painted in the summer and autumn of 1887, Oiran, also known as The Courtesan, is an image of a Japanese woman copied by Van Gogh from a print by Keisai Eisen which was on the cover of the May 1886 Paris Illustré, a magazine that featured an article about Japan. Van Gogh’s copy differs from the original in several significant ways.
Van Gogh used transparent paper and traced the woman from the cover of the magazine and then created a grid over her so that he could later enlarge and transfer the image to a canvas. The motifs around the woman, the water landscape, bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs, cranes, and a boat, are copies of images from other Japanese prints in Van Gogh’s own collection. The original image had a blooming cherry branch, a symbol of Japan, surrounding the woman but Van Gogh left that out. Instead he added a new element, he transformed the woman from merely a magnificently dressed woman, to a courtesan, or prostitute. He expresses this by painting the images of cranes and frogs. The French words for cranes (grues), and for frogs (grenouilles), were also used to refer to a woman in the profession.
In The Courtesan, we see an example of the Japanese cropping style Van Gogh began to experiment with. Eisen’s print shows the figure cropped on the right of the painting, Van Gogh had transposed the figure and cropped on the left of the painting. We see Van Gogh’s attraction to bright, bold colors and their relationship to form as he moved away from his typical dashes and dots with the brush to larger areas of bright color. He intensified the colors from the light pastels and corals in the original version to rich, bold, yellows, blues, greens and reds.
In Van Gogh’s later works, we continue to see the Japanese influence. The strong lines, typical of Japanese woodblocks, as well as color contrasts and his compositional structure all suggest the influence of Japanese art and culture on his life.