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Van Gogh & Hiroshige's Unspoken Collaboration


In Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) The Bridge in the Rain 1887 (after Hiroshige’s Ohashi Bridge) we are given a unique look inside the mind of one of the world’s great artistic geniuses. By viewing this painting that is both uniquely his and also one of the most outwardly influenced works in his portfolio (he literally copied verbatim, although his own vehement style, from a Hiroshige woodblock print), we are let into the mind of Vincent the artist as well as Vincent the man. Permitted to enter into what Van Gogh valued in terms of art and society, in the face of the chaotic changes which symbolized late 19th century Parisian life, we can speculate on the meaning of such a skillful individualized composition of Hiroshige’s Ohashi Bridge. Perhaps through this analysis we can overcome the common perception of Vincent Van Gogh as an insane savant who killed himself at age 37 but rather see him as a man in search of a more perfect serene existence in a life of chaotic change.

In Van Gogh’s The Bridge in the Rain six travelers cross the sweeping arc of a straw yellow bridge. The garish yellow of the walkway, opposes the woody supports below and leaves one wondering about the bridges composition and how it supports the six travelers. They are consumed by a violent summer rain; when the sky darkens suddenly, thunder cracks and as rapidly as it all began it clears away. Surprised, the travelers hastily protect themselves with hats and umbrellas.

The water rolls down in blotchy textured greens that transform into a deep sapphire blue beneath the bridge. The blue color at the bottom of the composition is mirrored by the darkest blue black clouds atop the image that releases the tempestuous rains. A sudden shift from the darkness of the blue atop the image to the lighter blue gradation below leaves the sky in a sort of hazy mystique. This effect silhouettes the trees and dwellings on the far embankment and makes them ephemeral and distant while still maintaining an air of unmistakable clarity. On the river a boatman poles his raft undisturbed. Numerous irregular, vigorous lines depict the downpour, while sharp choppy brush strokes, broad swatches of color and a hazy quality depicts nature’s changes and man’s reactions to them. The incomprehensible Japanese calligraphy bordering the canvas along with the jarring perspective of the close up view of the bridge looming out of the design only serves to heighten the chaotic nature of the painting.

The metaphorical value of travelers crossing a bridge is in innumerable; however in viewing the context in which Van Gogh painted, The Bridge in the Rain, a speculative understanding of its significance can be reached. During the later half of the 19th century a wave of industrialization and urbanization swept through France. The changes, mainly concentrated in Paris, were taking place right on Van Gogh’s doorstep. In the travelers crossing the bridge we observe them caught in a period of transition, between the two shores. They traverse the divide between modern, industrialized society and traditional life. Just as Van Gogh’s painting style was in a period of transformation.

His blotchy use of brush-stroke lacks the confidence seen in his later work, while the detailing and firm quality of the lines in the bridge seems to come more from his reproducing an image of a Japanese print than from the mind of Van Gogh. It was during this time that he wrote to his brother Theo, “All my work is in a way founded on Japanese art,” (Stone, 1969;364). However, we see Vincent’s mastery and confidence in his skills in the violent nature of the rain reflected through his strong brush strokes depicting the chaotic character of the changes taking place within himself and society; it is this sudden downpour of transformations which surprises the six travelers (humanity) leaving them hastily scrounging for any shelter.

Van Gogh was enamored with Rousseau’s ideal natural man, of man’s return to nature and the natural state. In viewing the composition and its colors, we can see through another angle, three of the travelers head to the left into the unknown, un-depicted shore that is cut off by the painted border. The other three take off further into the compositions hazy, mystique laden coast. The un-depicted shore could have represented to Van Gogh the unknown end result of industrialization and urbanization. This is depicted by the unified mirroring effect of dark blues both at the top and bottom of the image which make it seem as if the entire image is being swallowed by the darker colors. The foreground is in the viewer’s domain, the domain of the changes, of dark colors. Those who walk on to the far shore head to a lighter sky which the chaotic rains seem to have forgotten, a hazy natural Eden that appears to be fading, lost by the encroaching darker colors.

There is a final figure in the image, a man caught in the storm and yet undisturbed by it. Here is our idealized figure, the man who rides the tides of change; he does not run to one side of the river or the other. There is no hasty covering of his head to shield him from the rain. Instead there is a peaceful serenity of allowing life take him where it will, the natural man who has found peace.

Van Gogh considered himself a social pariah and outcast. He lived his life in a state of dissatisfaction. This belief was only cemented by numerous professional failures both within the field of painting and beyond; he only sold one painting during his lifetime. With a brief glimpse at Van Gogh’s perception of himself and the times he lived in, we can begin to understand the deeper meaning of The Bridge in the Rain to Vincent himself. Brutal transformations took place rapidly in Parisian society, leaving life seeming ephemeral and insubstantial much like a Japanese ukiyo-e print. To Van Gogh this only exacerbated his dissatisfaction. The seeming transient nature of the storm in his painting depicts this period of change, perhaps even forethought to when he would leave his own stormy life behind and fade into the misty haze of the far shore.

His search for a more substantiated, real, and natural life, lead him to one of the many “fads” that seems to have persisted through this tempest tossed time of change; Japonisme. Here he could intellectually experience such a life, every man needs his own Shangri-la, a world which to Van Gogh, “[Was one where a man] studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the country side, then animals and then the human figure… Come now, isn’t it almost a religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers?” (Van Rappard Boon, 1991; 35)


Sources
Charlotte Van Rappard-Boon, William Van Gulik, and Keiko Van Bremen-Ito. Introduction. Catalogue of the Van Gogh’s Museum’s Collection of Japanese Prints. Zwolle: Waanders Publishers. 1991
Stone, Irving. Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. Penguin Books.
Van Gogh, Vincent. The Bridge in the Rain. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.