Insane idea or was he just riding a wave of inspiration?
Remarkable similarities between a Japanese print and Van Gogh’s masterpiece, painted in a mental asylum
A Vincent van Gogh masterpiece could have been inspired by a classic Japanese artwork, an art historian has claimed.
Martin Bailey, author of Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum, believes one of the Dutch painter’s most famous works, The Starry Night, was inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
Van Gogh collected Japanese prints, and particularly admired the Hokusai print, which is one of the most recognised and reproduced pieces of art in the world. Bailey argues that Van Gogh was inspired, perhaps unconsciously, by his memories of The Great Wave. “He obviously remembered it in great detail,” he said. “He had a very strong visual memory.”
Bailey drew specific attention to similarities between the thrust of the wave and the swirling of the sky. In the Hokusai woodblock print, the wave towers over the volcanic peak of Mount Fuji, while in The Starry Night “the swirling mass in the sky hurtles towards the more gentle slopes of Les Alpille,” Bailey said.
That they are both striking studies in blue points towards to a loose inspiration, according to Bailey.
The Starry Night was painted in the summer of 1889, when Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to a small mental asylum on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, after he cut off his ear and presented it to a young woman in a local brothel.
“It must have been horrific moving into a mental asylum in the 19th century,” said Bailey. “I did research on the other patients in the asylum and they were all in a terrible state so it must have been very, very difficult for him to adjust his life. I think it was art which kept him sane and gave him a reason to live.” Van Gogh painted The Starry Night in June, inspired by the the night sky he looked up at through the bars of his cell and the Provence landscape.
Bailey insists that the comparison with Hokusai should not be seen as lessening the brilliance of The Starry Night. The painting was “a work of imagination with all sorts of conscious and unconscious elements which must have come in to Vincent’s mind when he was doing the painting.
“It is surprising no one has made this comparison before,” he continued. “I’ve put it to a number of Hokusai and Van Gogh experts and they have all said it is a very interesting theory. It is difficult to prove but my feeling is that it is highly likely.”
- © The Daily Telegraph