Image Comparison - East Meets West


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)                              Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, 1831.                      The Starry Night, June 1889

~ 10 x 15 inches.  Color woodcut.                               29 x 36-1/4 inches. Oil on canvas

Collection: Hakone Museum, Japan                    Mus. of Modern Art, New York


                                   East Meets West, Meets East

This woodcut print by the Japanese artist Hokusai portrays everyday fishermen in a famous seascape view of Mt. Fuji, Japan.  Van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night” shows a village sleeping beneath a glorious, swirling nocturnal display whose dynamic pattern resembles the curls of wave and sky in Hokusai’s print.

The European and American craze for Japanese culture that began when trade was started up between Japan and the West in 1854 was given the name Japonisme by the French in the late 19th century.  Van Gogh, like many other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists was an admirer of Japan and its aesthetics. Van Gogh saw Japanese prints for the first time in 1885 in Belgium and began buying them for himself.  Japanese prints then were cheap.  Many were made only for export to Western countries. Hokusai’s print inspired Debussy's music "La Mer," Rilke's poem "Der Berg," and the work of many European visual artists.

Van Gogh wrote: "I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such an unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one's waist-coat."

Interestingly, decades earlier, Hokusai on his part, had mixed traditional Japanese print-making with techniques he derived from Chinese art and from Western art. He learned about Western art from European engravings that were brought in to Japan.


[Hokusai] Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

[van Gogh] Museum of Modern Art, New York website.

Paias, Manuel (Pai-Mai). Website dedicated to Japanese prints. 2008 [July 2009]

Potter P. Of tidal waves and human frailty [about the cover]. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2005 Oct [July 2009]. Available from:

Shengdar Tsai. “Impressionist Influences in the Music of Claude Debussy.”  No date [July 2009]. Reprinted in

Wichman, Siegfried. Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Arts since 1858. Thames and Hudson, 1981.