Vincent van Gogh

Dutch painter active mainly in France and counted a post-impressionist.

Almost unknown in his lifetime, he was, during his years as full-time artist, totally dependent on his brother, Theo, who worked for the dealer Goupil in Paris, and supplied him with paints and canvases.

Vincent wrote many letters to him, also to other relatives and artist friends. His reputation grew quite quickly after his death. Articles with reproductions and the publication of some of these letters began in Paris in 1891 (the first by Bernard); from 1903 on albums of reproductions of his work and then monographs, the first in 1911, were published in Amsterdam.

By that time a number of artists, French and foreign, had been stimulated by the work of Van Gogh, notably the Fauves and the Brucke.

The drama and pathos of his life and knowledge of his spiritual and psychological crises, had sharpened this awareness.

Today Van Gogh is one of the most highly priced and one of the most popular artists in the world, yet emphasis on his madness and the passionate execution of his paintings suggests that he is not well understood.

He was born in Zundert, Holland, the son of an evangelical pastor. One of his uncles was an art dealer and Vincent’s first job was in his uncle’s firm in The Hague, recently taken over by Goupil of Paris. He saw much and learned much about art, especially the great Dutch masters and the new Hague School. He worked for Goupil in London and in Paris. An unhappy relationship with his landlady’s daughter in London appears to have triggered a depression which led to his dismissal in 1876. He turned to religion for comfort and purpose, studying the Bible.

A short period working for a bookseller in Dordrecht broadened his interest in literature in Dutch, French and English; he read avidly (novels by Zola, George Eliot and Dickens, historical works by Michelet and Carivle) and some of his reading was later reflected in his painting. But religion dominated him. He decided to become a pastor like his father, studied tor this in Amsterdam and Brussels, and in late 1877 went to work amongst the poor of the Belgian mining district, the Borinage.

His colleagues found him too zealous and dismissed him. Repeatedly he found himself ostracized because of his headlong involvement with the down and out, even by artists, and this developed in him a sense of self-reliance and self-direction which ultimately led him to channel his reading and his experience of art and the world, together with his passionate feeling for humanity, into art.

He had always drawn. From 1880 on, he worked at art full time. He studied briefly in Brussels, then lived in his parents’ house in Etten. Between December 1881 and September 1883, he lived in The Hague again, in part studying with the painter Anton Mauve. His drawing style became firmer, both in representing the forms and energies of working peasants and the forms and spaces of nature; his painting became more assured and expressive, with emphatic forms and movements in low colours. His Potato Eaters (1885) is the climax of this period, a tougher version of what others had treated as an often sentimental subject.

Eager to make progress he went to Antwerp to study at the academy, but after a few weeks he moved on, taking with him memories of Rubens and of the Japanese woodcuts he had bought there.

He suddenly decided that be had to be in Paris. In February 1886 he descended on Theo, using him as a base from which to explore art and artists and the city of art itself. Pissarro and impressionism soon lightened his touch and his colors; Seurat and Signac led him to think of more controlled ways of using pure colors; Ciauguin and Bernard hinted there were areas of the imagination to be made visible.

The Louvre deepened his understanding of past art. All the artists he knew admired Japanese prints and confirmed his passion for them. Twenty-four months later Vincent just as suddenly went south, towards the sun and, he hoped, a world untouched by Paris’s anxieties where he and artist-friends might live and work in amity, like the Barbizon painters.

He went to Arles. He was glad to be amid landscape again. He drew and painted energetically, finding new ways to capture the vigor he sensed in nature and wanted to impart to his human subjects. Everything was charged with symbolic value for him as well as being intensely itself: the series of Sunflowers (1888) a potent instance in its basic opposition of yellow and blue and in its sublimation of specific blossoms into images of individual life and death as well as of the sun; the series of the postman’s wife as La Berceuse (1888-89), the motherly woman rocking an invisible cradle; together, he wrote, these images would comfort the seafarer far from home. But he needed the particular flower or person or landscape.

Gauguin came to Arles to work with him and challenged that habit, forcing him to work from his head, and in the end broke Vincent’s spirit. He attacked his visitor, though Gauguin was by far the tougher and bigger man, and then cut part of his car off and gave it to a local prostitute. He was insane and had to be put away.

From this time on he was liable to attacks of madness and subsequent weakness and lethargy; a form of epilepsy is today’s diagnosis. He worked in periods of lucidity yet his art was disturbed by these experiences. The forms now became more agitated, his colors colder. He painted what he saw around him and memories of Holland, also personal versions of engraved works by Millet, Delacroix and Rembrandt. Some of these are religious subjects (e.g. his transcription of Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus, 1890), but then he tended to see the world in supernatural terms, the scene of The Sower (1888) necessarily becoming a resonant statement about life and death.

He continued to write to Theo, the letters leaving one in no doubt as to his sanity when he paints and writes. There is the same analytical intelligence at work as before, the same control of brushstrokes and color in his paintings, the same careful and constructive use of different nibs and of inks of different tone and intensity in his pen drawings, He had to use his media with all possible directness and economy.

In May 1890, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, to live in the house of Dr Gachet, doctor, painter and a friend of artists. It was a good home for him. He worked incessantly, hoping yet to become a successful artist and justify his brother’s trust and help.

The portrait of Dr Gachet is one of his most powerful works (1890), an unusually intense harmony of strong design and color: red against green, blue against orange.

Nonetheless, on 27 July 1890, out in the fields, Van Gogh shot himself; he did not die until two days later, in Theo’s arms.

Theo lived only another half year and they are buried side by side in the cemetery at Auvers.

During his short career, Van Gogh developed from a tonal painter into one using color at its most intense, placing his touches side by side, often in complementary hues that enhance each other’s intensity.

Having found expressiveness first in the sharpened, emphatic outlines he gave to his subjects in his earlier drawings of, for example, peasants at work, he developed for his painting a range of marks, from short to long, straight to curling, which characterized the object and at the same time enabled him to use colors to maximum effect. What strikes one as vehemence is the product of knowledge and control, a slow constructing of, at the same time, the representation anil the picture surface as a tapestry of brushstrokes. This is perhaps most patent in his self-portraits, notably those he did after his first attack of madness (December 1888): e.g. Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

In his drawings, similar marks enabled him to represent objects and also space with great vividness, the several tones of inks and sizes of marks giving them subtle modulations that one senses as close to color. His work, together with his letters -one of the greatest 19th-century bodies of writing about art – is an outstanding achivement.

Many painters responded to Van Gogh’s use of vivid forms and colors but seemed unaware of the poetic content of his images. Displays of his work in Paris in 1901 and 1905 and in Cologne in 1912 were especially influential.

Amsterdam has the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh – a large collection is in the Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller near Otterlo.

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