Vincent van Gogh never went to Japan, but he did spend quite a bit of time in Arles, which he considered the Japan of France. What made him think of the place that way had to do entirely with aesthetics. The Netherlands-born painter had moved to Paris in 1886, but two years later he set off for the south of France in hopes of finding real-life equivalents of the “clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects” of Japanese prints. These days, we’ve all seen at least a few examples of that kind of art and can imagine more or less exactly what he was talking about. But how did the man who painted Sunflowers and The Starry Night come to draw such inspiration from what must have felt like such exotic art of such distant a provenance?