More than a century after his death, Vincent van Gogh has become a legend. So many myths surround his name today that his major place in the development of modern art is often overshadowed. Despite his turbulent life, Van Gogh pursued throughout his career a clear artistic goal: to create images of great emotional intensity based on a careful study of the effects of color and composition.
Notwithstanding the clichés that endure in the popular imagination, Van Gogh was neither a mad genius, nor a starving, misunderstood artist. His art belonged to the avant-garde of his time, and as such was not accepted by the public at large; but Van Gogh had the support of an entire circle of friends, artists, and critics. He received financial help from his brother Theo, and by the end of his short career his paintings were exhibited in several major group shows in Paris and Brussels.
Most of the paintings in these exhibition remained in Van Gogh’s family after his death and are now housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Among them are several key works from each phase of the artist’s career, together with some less well-known paintings, providing an opportunity to rediscover the artist’s creative range beyond his most familiar images.
HOLLAND AND BELGIUM
Van Gogh was twenty-seven years old when he decided to become an artist, after unsuccessful attempts at being an art dealer, a teacher, and a clergyman. Although he attended a few drawing classes and received some instructions from a cousin, Van Gogh mostly taught himself art by studying prints and reproductions he collected. His early work, which includes rural landscapes, still lifes, and images of working peasants, is marked by a great sense of immediacy and a bold execution.
Van Gogh’s first major painting, The Potato Eaters of 1885, reflects his ambition to be “a painter of peasant life.” At the time the artist was living in the small village of Nuenen, in southern Holland, and found inspiration in the harsh experience of workmen and laborers, with whom he identified. Following standard academic practices, Van Gogh based his painting on more than forty studies of peasant heads and several sketches of the entire composition. Although the theme of the evening meal belongs to an established tradition that includes such biblical scenes as the Last Supper, Van Gogh’s coarse treatment is unconventional. Emulating the French realist authors Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, whom he read avidly, Van Gogh eschewed sentimentality in his representation of country life. “What I have tried to do,” he wrote, “is convey the idea that those people, eating their potatoes by lamplight, have dug the earth with the very hands they put into their bowls.” Hoping to make a career as a figure painter, Van Gogh left Nuenen in 1885 for Antwerp, where he briefly attended the academy. A few months later he suddenly decided to move to Paris.
The two years Van Gogh spent in Paris, exposed to the recent trends of the French avant-garde, were crucial to his artistic development. A Pair of Shoes, perhaps painted soon after his move, still shows the dark colors of his Dutch works. The frontal, close-up view of the worn-out shoes — often interpreted as a symbolic self-portrait — also recalls the studies of peasant heads from the previous year. But Van Gogh’s discovery of impressionism and postimpressionism, and the friendships he formed with artists such as Gauguin and Signac, led to a dramatic change in his palette and brushwork. Interested in color theories, Van Gogh began experimenting with the use of bright, pure colors to heighten the expressiveness of his work. By 1887 he had also adopted the broken brushstrokes of the impressionists in several views of Paris and the hill of Montmartre, where he lived.
When Vincent and Theo lived there, Montmartre was still semi-rural. There was farmland and allotment gardens; three of the celebrated windmills were still standing. The latter were a favorite destination for day-trippers from the city. The largest mill in the painting, Le Blute-Fin, had a pavement café affording a magnificent view over Paris; at the top of the mill, there was a viewing platform. Round the mills there were also various catering establishments and dance halls.
Here Van Gogh stresses the rustic charm of the area, showing people working in their allotments. Nonetheless, modern development looms: to the left of the smaller mill, a large apartment building rises above the fields.
Montmartre offered a conjunction of urban and rural elements that appealed to Van Gogh. InVegetable Gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre, he juxtaposed complementary hues — yellow and purple, blue and orange, green and red — throughout the painting, applying the principle that a color looks more intense when placed next to its complementary. In addition, he made the colors vibrate by combining the loose, spontaneous brushstrokes of the impressionists with the more regular hatchings and dots of Seurat’s pointillism.
Another source of inspiration that Van Gogh explored in Paris, where japonism was then fashionable, was Japanese woodblock prints. He admired their bold designs, intense hues, and flat areas of unmodulated color. In 1887, he made paintings directly copied from Japanese prints, accentuating their color contrasts. The Japanese influence would remain strong throughout Van Gogh’s work, finding its way in his use of daring perspectives and in the flat decorative patterns he often added to the background of his later portraits.
It was during his Parisian period that Van Gogh painted most of his self-portraits — mainly because he was unable to afford models. Their psychological intensity was deliberately sought after in an attempt to go beyond photographic resemblance. It was achieved through bold color contrasts and frank brushmarks that do not conceal their constructive role. Van Gogh also fashioned his own identity. InSelf-Portrait as an Artist he does not wear a painter’s smock, but what he described himself as “a blue peasant’s blouse of coarse linen.” The palette, with its display of unmixed bright colors, indicates the artist’s association with the modern movement.
Exhausted by the pressures of the urban environment and attracted to a simpler rural life and warmer climate, Van Gogh decided to move south. In February 1888 he left Paris for the small town of Arles, in Provence. In contrast to the varied and experimental production of the Paris years, the paintings Van Gogh created in Arles (some two hundred over a period of fifteen months) present a greater stylistic consistency. Renewing his contact with nature, Van Gogh painted steadily outdoors, recording the light-filled blossoming landscape of spring in Provence. He adopted new types of compositions, such as the vast, open vista of The Harvest, one of his favorite paintings. The wide range of yellow hues and the brilliance and density of color throughout the canvas evoke the blazing sun of summer over the fertile land.
In Arles, Van Gogh developed his ideas about the expressive value of color: “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily, in order to express myself forcibly.” These ideas found direct application in a group of paintings he created to decorate the so-called Yellow House into which he moved in September 1888 and where he dreamed of founding an artists’ colony. In The Bedroom, for instance, the intense colors were intended to produce an image of “absolute restfulness.” “It’s just simply my bedroom, only here color is to do everything, and…is to be suggestive of rest or of sleep in general…. The shadows and the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints.”
The artists’ colony never materialized. Only Gauguin answered Van Gogh’s invitation and came to Arles in the fall of 1888. For two months both artists shared their enthusiasm for brilliant colors, occasionally painting side by side. But conflicts of personality arose, compounded by Van Gogh’s first breakdown (a result of some form of epilepsy), which led to his well-known mutilation of his ear and to Gauguin’s departure. Distraught by his condition, Van Gogh confined himself voluntarily to the mental hospital of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in May 1889.
Between his breakdowns, Van Gogh devoted himself to painting and drawing, with complete lucidity and in perfect control of his creative ability. In the confinement of his room he made copies after prints of old master paintings. He also painted scenes from his window and in the asylum garden. When he was well enough to venture outside, he produced series of paintings of cypress trees, olive orchards, and the surrounding mountains. His palette became more subdued, with combinations of ocher, dark green, and blue.
Van Gogh’s fascination with the sun persisted, however, as in Wheatfield with a Reaper, to which he ascribed a symbolic meaning. “I see in this reaper — a vague figure fighting like the devil in the midst of the heat to get to the end of his task — I see in him the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be the wheat he is reaping…. But there’s nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.” This optimistic vision is brought home by Van Gogh’s dynamic, swirling strokes of thick paint defining the wheat field, itself an image of the force of life in nature.
After leaving Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh spent the last two months of his short life in Auvers-sur-Oise, some twenty miles north of Paris. This picturesque village, with its thatched cottages, had attracted many painters in the nineteenth century, from Corot and Daumier to Pissarro and Cézanne. Among the landscapes Van Gogh created in Auvers is a group of thirteen narrow horizontal canvases, perhaps intended as a decorative ensemble. One of them, Wheatfield with Crows, has long been mistakenly thought to be Van Gogh’s last painting, and as such has often been interpreted as a dark premonition of his suicide. Seen as one in a series of contrasting visions of the countryside shown under different skies, the painting appears less threatening, the visual echoes from one canvas to another suggesting instead an overall image of harmony. “I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words,” wrote Van Gogh about some of these landscapes, “the health and restorative forces that I see in the country.”
But Van Gogh’s recurring crisis often prevented him from working. In a bout of depression the artist shot himself in July 1890, and he died two days later, at the age of thirty-seven. In the paintings he left he had expressed his deeper feelings through the most lucid combination of bright colors, bold compositions, and a rich handling of paint — thus setting the direction for many of the expressionist tendencies in twentieth-century art.
Source: 2008 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC