Blossoming Almond Tree is one of Vincent van Gogh’s best known paintings and is noteworthy in that both Van Gogh and his closest family held the work in high regard. This painting is one of a small handful that Van Gogh produced with a particular person in mind—in this case, his brother and sister-in-law’s newborn baby. Van Gogh was deeply moved when Theo and Johanna chose to name the child Vincent and he always harboured a great deal of affection for the child. Van Gogh painted Blossoming Almond Tree to honour his namesake and it remains a tour-de-force, both the product of Vincent’s fondness for his nephew as well as the Japanese art which he so greatly admired.
Vincent van Gogh mentions Japan more than a hundred times in dozens of his letters to friends and family. Interest in Japanese art and culture was quite popular in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Edmond de Goncourt and Emile Zola, two writers that Van Gogh greatly admired, wrote extensively about Japan. Vincent, a devotee of both literature and art, would develop a deep admiration for Japanese culture via both of these media. Vincent was also a great admirer of the work of another writer, Pierre Loti, whose book Madame Chrysanthème, was highly influential in firing Van Gogh’s imagination for Japanese traditions.
During the course of his career, Vincent would copy three Japanese paintings and several others were deeply influenced by his admiration for Japanese art (this self-portrait, for example). In 1888 Vincent wrote to Theo “About this staying on in the South, even if it is more expensive, consider: we like Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the impressionists have that in common; then why not go to Japan, that is to say to the equivalent of Japan, the South?” (Letter 500).
Three Beauties by Utagawa Kunisada Blossoming Almond Tree has clear Japanese influences and may have been inspired by one of the more than 400 wood block prints in the collection of Vincent and Theo (now with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam): specifically Three Beauties (right) by ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865).