GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)

La Mousmé

July 1888, Arles
Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Catalogue numbers: F 431, JH 1519. Portrait of a Girl ('La Mousme') Oil on canvas, 74 x 60 cm. July 1888. Washington, National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

In June 1888 van Gogh had been reading a novel, Madame Chrysanthème, ostensibly about Japan, written by the popular and prolific Pierre Loti. Loti's descriptions of the young Japanese girl, known as Mousmé, much impressed van Gogh, and he gave this portrait of an Arlesian girl the same Japanese title. Loti's travelogues and novels about his visits to Japan provided van Gogh with a spurious picture of the Far East. Loti showed little insight into Japanese life and culture. They were seen through the eyes of a Western tourist, only for their Oriental exoticism and strangeness, by turns luxurious and primitive. Van Gogh, the Dutch tourist in Provence, seems to have viewed its life and people with as little comprehension. He took a superficial delight in what he saw as picturesque, quaint, different, and felt free to 'orientalize' a local Arlesian girl.

On July 29, 1888, van Gogh wrote his younger brother Theo, an art dealer in a Parisian gallery, that "if you know what a 'mousmé' is (you will know when you have read Loti's Madame Chrysanthème), I have just painted one. It took me a whole week...but I had to reserve my mental energy to do the mousmé well." Van Gogh's literary source was a popular novel from the period, whose story of a Frenchman's affair with a Japanese girl reflected the French fascination with Japanese culture.