The Japanese print Geishas in a landscape, once owned by Vincent van Gogh, was stolen from the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in 1981. The print, which was published by Sato Torakiyo in the 1870s, appears in Van Gogh’s legendary Self- portrait with bandaged ear, one of the jewels of the Courtauld’s collection (shown on the next page of this story).
Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese woodblock prints, which were bought at small price from dealers such as Siegfried Bing in Paris. He covered the walls of his studio with them, and from the late 1880s began to incorporate Japanese motifs into his oil paintings. Geishas in a landscape appears to have been a favourite example. He first used the print in the painting Japonaiserie: Oiran (now in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), completed in Paris in the summer of 1887. He returned to it more than a year later whilst living in the Yellow House in Arles, inserting the central motif of two women and Mount Fuji into the background of his Self- portrait with bandaged ear. The work is a poignant expression of personal and artistic anguish painted at a very low ebb in the artist’s life, less than a month after having sliced off his ear following a violent quarrel with his friend the artist Paul Gauguin.