Post-Impressionist Artists: Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Writing to his devoted brother, Théo, Vincent van Gogh said, “I have a terrible lucidity sometimes when nature is so beautiful these days and then I do not feel myself anymore and the painting comes to me as if in a dream.” Vincent van Gogh has long been the subject of myth and legend: the tormented artist, committing suicide in despair and dying in the service of art. Although van Gogh’s works are always representational, they are also intensely personal and expressive. His brief career became legendary after his suicide at Auvers in 1890 at the age of thirty-seven. He sold only a few paintings in his lifetime, but by 1901, he was the subject of a historic exhibition at the well-known Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, which influenced the future Fauves, Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck. Like all myths, there is just enough truth to keep the flame burning but the story hides an important question: if the artist was so obscure in his own lifetime, then how did Vincent become so famous? The answer is, like all the Post-Impressionists, van Gogh had significant art world connections. His uncle, Cent van Gogh was associated with Parisian art dealer, Adolphe Goupil. If Vincent had not learned his trade working at the art firm of Goupil’s and if his brother Théo had not been an important dealer in avant-garde art, the paintings of the artist would most certainly have never seen the light of day.
Dutch Period (1881 – winter 1886)
Always a difficult child an unruly adolescent, Vincent van Gogh seemed unsuited to any trade. He failed at Goupil’s in London (1873) and in Paris (1874). He disliked having to promote the works of “official artists,” such as Gérôme and Bourguereau, over the artists he preferred such as Millet. Having literally walked away from his job in the arts in 1876, Vincent decided upon the ministry, the occupation of his father. Utterly unsuited temperamentally to this vocation, van Gogh was sent to the bleak Borinage coalmining district on the Dutch-Belgium border to minister to the miners and the peasants. He wrote copious letters to his brother Théo who was now working for Goupil’s, now known as Boussod et Valadon et Cie. in Paris. These letters were illustrated with tableaux from these impoverished lives. After many false starts, the would-be minister had found his métier. A passionate idealist, van Gogh turned to art in 1879 only after his career as a preacher faltered. He studied briefly at Haarlem and worked under his cousin, Anton Mauve, adopting a, shall we say, “highly personal” (using his fingers) style of dark thick painting of humble subjects and Dutch landscapes in Drenthe and Nuenen. The following Dutch period, during which he painted the peasants of his homeland, dates from 1881 to 1885. It is late in this period that he began to collect Japanese prints, which would be important to his later work. “Painting comes easier to me than I imagined. I know for sure that I have an instinct for color and …that painting is in the marrow of my bones…” he wrote to his brother.
The most famous of the paintings from the Dutch period was “The Potato Eaters” (1885), sent to Théo, intended for the new Salon des Indépendants. Based upon an real life scene glimpsed through an open door, Vincent, the Naturalist and self-described painter of peasants, revered these people who “I have tried to emphasize that these people eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and how they have honestly earned their food…” The dark brown and green painting, illuminated by a strong central light of deep yellow was bound to the dark tones of the Dutch Masters and of the early French Realists, such as his role model, Jean-François Millet. In other words, the now famous work, done in a three-day marathon, was completely out of date. Nevertheless, Vincent thought, “…to record the peasant at work is essentially the modern objective, the heart of modern art itself, something that neither the Greeks nor the Renaissance nor the Dutch School never did….”
While his friend, Paul Gauguin, had been trained by Camille Pissarro, Vincent had his roots in Seventeenth-century Dutch realism, and arrived in Paris equipped with only a rather provincial art school training. “Just now my palette is thawing, the barrenness of the early time is over…” In 1886, Vincent joined his younger brother, Théo. Over the time the artist painted, he filled his brother’s apartment with hundreds of works of art. Living with a manic-depressive alcoholic must have been difficult on the tidy Théo. Van Gogh thought that they should both get married, because, as he put it, “In intercourse with women, one especially learns so much about art.” After a few transitional paintings of Montmartre, his new home with Théo (“The Hills of Montmartre with Stone Quarry,” 1886), Vincent abandoned his dark manner and adopted the strong light colors of Impressionism, a movement he had ignored his first stay in Paris, a decade before. “The best pictures, seen from near by, are but patches of color, side by side, and only make an effect at a certain distance…” (“The Seine with the Point de al Grande Jatte,” 1887)
Paris (March 1886 – January 1888)
His two-year stay in Paris introduced him to the Impressionists being handled by Theo’s gallery and the gallery next door, that of Paul Durand-Ruel. The Impressionist Camille Pissarro acted as van Gogh’s mentor and said later that “Vincent would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. But I did not know he would do both.” Vincent met the Neo-Divisionist painter, Paul Signac, at the legendary shop of Père Tanguy (“Père Tanguy,” 1887-8), who presided over a shop (“a tiny chapel of art”) of art supplies and had an instinctive ability to recognize artists of promise. It was here in this little shop, where the owner refused to sell black paint, that artists could come and see the works of an obscure artist like Vincent or a reclusive artist like Paul Cézanne. While his work and his working methods had been ill tolerated in Holland and Belgium, in Paris, Vincent was admired for his independence and eccentricities. His early training in academic structure gave his paintings in Paris an anti-Impressionist organization combined with luminous high key color (“The Harvest,” 1888), a combination of science and expression (“Factories at Asnières, Seen from the Quai de Clichy”).
Vincent educated himself further in Paris through his associations with avant-garde artists and his study of a diverse group of earlier painters, from Rosa Bonheur to Eugène Delacroix to Ernst Meissonier to Henri Fantin-Latour. He became part of the atelier of an “official artist,” Fernand Cormon, and met the very young and rebellious Emile Bernard and the very sophisticated Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (a bad companion for the alcoholic Dutchman). Tempted by women and alcohol in Paris, the artist was worn down during the bitterly cold winter of 1887 – 88 as these vices began to harm his health. When not sipping absinthe with the count, he busily organized exhibitions, such as at the Restaurant de Châlet, and lightened his palette and dreamed of an artists’ colony somewhere in the south of France, a part of the nation he imagined to be like Japan. He experimented with Japanese prints (“The Courtesan,” 1887), neo-Divisionism (“A Park in Spring,” 1887) and its color theories, and Impressionism before he finally developed his own post-Impressionist brushwork, which he brought to fruition in Arles.
Arles (February 1888 – May 1889)
Yearning for the “primitive,” Vincent went to Arles, an ancient Roman town, still dominated by its arena. On his way to the Provencal city, he and Théo had stopped by the studio of Georges Seurat. Of his journey to Arles, Vincent said, “Wishing to se a different light; thinking that looking at nature under a bright sky might give us a better idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wishing also to see this stronger sun….” Here, Vincent absorbed all the information and influences of Paris and reinvented himself in the “limpidity of atmosphere” from “a day spent in the full sun.” “…a light that for want of a better word I can only call yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron! How lovely yellow is! And how much better I shall see the North!” He also asserted, “What I learned in Paris is learning me, and I am returning to the ideas I had in the country before I knew the Impressionists.” (“The Drawbridge,” May 1888) But the artist had learned to think commercially in Paris and began painting with the potential buyer in mind. Buyers wanted still lives and landscapes and portraits. “We must win the public over later on by means of the portrait: in my opinion it is the thing of the future…” He painted forty-six portraits of twenty-three people (“The Zouave,” June and August 1888 and “L’Arlesienne. Madame Ginoux,” November 1888). Van Gogh wanted his art to win “…general acceptance as decoration for middle class houses…” and he began a series of paintings of sunflowers.
Many of the paintings at Arles continued to show the influence of Japanese prints, begun in Paris (“Flowering Plum Garden,” 1887) Vincent evolved from using Japanese prints as background for “Père Tanguy” (1887-8) to a full blown Japanese manner in”Flowering Almond Tree” of 1890, indebted to Hiroshigi and Hokusai. But he was lonely and needed colonists for his colony that he would, of course, head. “I kept watching to see if I had already reached Japan.” During the Fall of 1888, he painted two paintings of a local café, including the famous “The Night Café” of which he said, “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green…I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin one’s self, run mad or commit a crime…” No wonder the café owner refused to accept the painting as payment for outstanding bills. Speaking of unpaid bills, meanwhile, Paul Gauguin, a slight acquaintance, returned to Paris from Pont-Aven, leaving behind him a trail of angry creditors. Théo sent Gauguin to be a companion to his unstable brother in return for paying the Breton debts. In October of 1888, Gauguin was welcomed the famous Yellow House, “an artists’ house,” by Vincent’s paintings of sunflowers.
For two artistically productive months, until December 23, the two artists lived, worked and quarreled. While Gauguin worked carefully from preparatory sketches, van Gogh worked directly from nature and the two completed seventeen and twenty-five paintings respectively during the year 1888. Gauguin’s reliance on memory versus van Gogh’s inspiration from nature was a revival of the old quarrel between line and color, between imagination and observation. Although Vincent was using color arbitrarily, he found himself unable to become as abstract as Gauguin, saying that he felt as if he were hitting “a wall.” “Personally, I like things that are real, things that are possible….I am terrified of getting away from the possible…” But despite the number of extraordinary works painted by both artists, Vincent became increasingly unstable. He became a direct threat to Gauguin and a danger to himself. After the local police found Vincent, passed out in his bed, bleeding from his ear, Gauguin decamped, saying, “After all, I must go back to Paris,” and Théo was forced to put his brother in protective custody for the rest of his life. Vincent wrote,
Is it not intensity of though that we seek, rather than a calm brush? And in the conditions of spontaneous work, work done on the scene in the immediate presence of nature, is a calm and well-controlled brush always possible? To me it seems no more possible to be calm at such times than when lunging with a foil…
Saint-Remy (May 1889 – May 1890) and Auvers (May 1890 – July 1890)
Vincent’s strong attachment to the environment reasserted itself in Arles during a period of explosive fecundity, matched only by the fertility of the nature he painted. The land is calm, ordered and stable, natural forces are in a state of upheaval, the objects acquire a monumental transcendental character, the people radiate universality and a uniqueness paralleling the qualities of their region. Only color and a nervous gesturing line–short and sharp–hint at the difficult times to come. Color would rev up to a high pitch of excitement–bright, clashing and vivid; but always, like the line, respecting or enhancing reality. Color is arbitrary but only in relation to convention, never in relation to mood, a mood that changed tragically at Saint-Remy and Auvers. Confined to an asylum in Saint-Remy, Vincent used art to recover and a series of paintings record his painful journey out of his room to the courtyard of the institution, culminating in the remarkable and unfinished “Irises” (May 1889).
Vincent van Gogh spent the rest of his days in a mental institution or under the care of a doctor. When Théo felt that his brother had stabilized enough to be more or less on his own, he arranged for his brother to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, near to Pissarro and to Doctor Gachet (“Doctor Gachet,” 1890). Vincent lived in a tiny rented attic room and tried to put his life back together. These last landscapes were unstable, convoluted, convulsed, and often ecstatic (“Wheatfields,” 1890). The work of Vincent van Gogh was based in nature, soothing the inner turmoil of his mental disturbances. His life was chaotic and painful, ruled by his emotional turmoil and yet guided and controlled and ultimately saved by the anchor in reality: the real world and its objects. Clinging to materiality like a drowning person to a life preserver, van Gogh seized upon nature in an intensely empathetic relationship that involved people and things. In his Dutch period, van Gogh responded feelingly to the people in his care and to their lives (“The Women Miners,” 1882), while at the same time, investing inanimate objects with personas–lives–individualities–sheer being (“A Pair of Shoes,” 1885 and “Still Life with Quinces and Lemons,” 1887).
During the seventy days he spent in Auvers, Vincent painted seventy works and thirty watercolors and drawings, as if in an end-of-life frenzy. The famous, “Crows in the Wheatfields,” although not his last painting, pointed to the end with the tracks through the fields, disappearing in the horizon and the carrion birds circling the sky. Shortly before he died, Vincent had been distressed by a review written about his work by Albert Aurier, “Les Isolés” in “Le Moderniste.” Defending van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at Les XX Exhibition, Aurier was a leading Symbolist writer and re-cast Vincent’s work into a mold rather more mystical than the artist would admit to. Despite his objections, this important article by an important writer in an important journal did a great deal to future Vincent’s reputation, even before he was sent to Auvers. Indeed, it could be said, that of all the Post-Impressionists, Vincent was the closest to a successful career. In the context of near-success, his suicide was puzzling. It is not quite clear if Vincent meant to kill himself, but the shooting, intended or accidental, was a messy affair. “I think I can conclude that my body will hold out for a few years more, say six or ten…I do not intend to spare myself…”
“I tried to shoot myself and I missed,” he explained, “What I have done is nobody else’s business. I am free to do what I like with my body.” It took him three days to die of an inoperable gunshot wound, in his brother’s arms. A century later, Don Mclean would sing, “You took your life as lovers often do/But I could have told you, Vincent/This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” The funeral of Vincent van Gogh was attended by Père Tanguy, Doctor Gachet, Lucien Pissarro and Emile Bernard. “Oh mother, he was so my own, won brother,” Théo wrote to his mother. “We are still in a terrible mess and don’t know where to put all these things…people must know he was a great artist…” Théo said.
Writing in the 1999 catalogue, “Van Gogh’s Van Gogh’s,” John Leighton described the gathering of the paintings and the preservation of the legacy. After his brother’s death, the art dealer reproached himself “…by permitting these masterpieces to go ignored I would hold myself to blame…” He was determined to “…do everything in my power to try to bring this (exhibition) about…” Less than a year later, Théo also died in 1891, perhaps of the same mysterious illness that plagued the life of his brother. He left behind his brother’s legacy, hundreds of paintings and drawings, and hundreds of letters, dating from 1872. It was the widow of Théo, who acquired unwanted works of art spread out among family and acquaintances, bringing them together along with the many works Vincent had shipped to his art dealer brother. Vincent conceived of an arrangement wherein his brother supported him, as his dealer, and he painted and sent the paintings to Théo. The result of this quasi-professional relationship was a large collection, almost complete, of the oeuvre of Vincent van Gogh.
Upon Théo’s death, the task of safeguarding his life and works fell to his widow, Johanna and her two-year-old boy, Vincent Wilhelm. The collection of paintings was shown in part at a memorial show sponsored by Emile Bernard in 1891, who followed Vincent’s instructions on how to hang paintings, “…to place a color scale of yellow next to a scale of blue, a scale of green next to a red, etc…” Although Théo’s planned show at Durand-Ruel did not take place, the following year there was an exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune Galleries in 1892, and later a large scale retrospective in 1905 at the Salon des Indépendants. Leighton points out that Johanna did not want the audience to get the work mixed up with the artist’s tragic life, her mourning for her husband became entangled in the atmosphere of sadness that enveloped Vincent’s paintings. But until her death in 1925, the widow carefully dispersed the art works to important collections, elevating the artist’s reputation. But the romantic legend of the doomed artist remained potent. During the last few weeks of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “I am risking my own life for it and my reason has half-foundered because of it…”
Influence on Later Artists
More than any other Post-Impressionist, Vincent van Gogh developed a personal style that set the younger generation free from the late Naturalism of Impressionism. Without sentimentalizing the artist or committing the “pathetic fallacy,” and using van Gogh’s own words, it can be stated that the artist combined nature and human feeling. The interjection of the subjective is what made him so attractive to Aurier and the later Expressionists, weary of the pretense of objectivity. Vincent’s response to observed nature was personalized through formal means, line and color. The powerful color became subdued and subordinate to line, which took over and assumed the role of expressing the turmoil of life that is always growing, always moving and changing. But nature is never expressive only of Vincent van Gogh; it always expresses itself through an artist immersed in its plays and forces, attuned to all its rhythms (“Cypress, Crescent Moon” (1889). The combination of formal aspects of painting turned up to a high pitch and an adherence to the real and the visible laid the foundations for Twentieth-century Expressionism in France and Germany.
Nature was a world in motion, animated, almost convulsed, and painted in a state of ecstasy and involvement. This always-animated nature was perhaps best expressed in his “Starry Night” (1889), which was both an illustration of an actual astronomical event and an expression of the striving of humans to reach upward to the sublime through nature. Line and color became symbolic or metaphorical, and above all, arbitrary. Although his colors were based upon actual hues, van Gogh intensified the tones, making them darker, brighter or lighter. “Color, by itself, expresses something,” van Gogh insisted. In Paris, he had acquired knowledge of alternative techniques of painting and made contact with members of the avant-garde, but beneath the veneer of his version of the pointillist technique laid his innate intense response to nature that overrode color theory in the intense desire to express not himself but organic activity. Immediately before his death, van Gogh’s paintings were characterized with a new pathos, as his powerful brushstrokes seemed explosive and uncontained as though seeking an anguished release (“Church at Auvers-sur-Oise,” 1890). The contribution of Vincent van Gogh was to free painting of the Impressionist passivity and to activate the artist and the way in which an artist should paint. Marks ceased to stand for something material and began to imply an immaterial, even spiritual, element, reaching beyond nature. The artist wrote, “I see in the whole of nature, for instance in the trees, expression, and, so to speak, soul.”
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