The Courtesan illustrates Van Gogh’s interest in Japan and Japanese prints. He based his painting on a work by the Japanese artist Kesai Eisen, which had been used for the cover of a special number of the magazine Paris Illustré. He copied and enlarged the Japanese figure by tracing on a grid, giving her a colorful kimono and placing her against a bright yellow background.
The border around the figure is a unified whole. The watery landscape with bamboo canes, water lilies, frogs, cranes and, in the distance, a little boat – are all motifs Van Gogh borrowed from other Japanese prints. The choice of animals was certainly not accidental: in 19th century France, prostitutes were often referred to as grues (cranes) or grenouilles (frogs); they are a reference to the woman’s "profession".
The Courtesan is not the only painting based on Japanese prints. Two other examples are Flowering plum orchard: after Hiroshige and The Bridge in the Rain, both after woodcuts by Utagawa Hiroshige from Van Gogh’s own collection.