Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, is generally considered to be the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt, and, with Cezanne and Gauguin, the greatest of Post-Impressionist artists. Vincent van Gogh created Postimpressionism and powerfully influenced the current of Expressionism in modern art, though he had little success during his lifetime. Van Gogh produced all of his 900+ paintings and 1100+ drawings during a period of only 10 years before he succumbed to mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, and committed suicide. The striking, bold, intense colors, the emphatic brushwork, and contoured forms of his work are highly expressive, even emotional. Van Gogh used the symbolic and expressive values of colors for expressing emotions rather than, as did the Impressionists, for the reproduction of visual appearances, atmosphere, or light. The term Post-Impressionist does, however, acknowledge that Impressionism had shaped this artist.

Vincent van Gogh

In the winter of 1888 young Dutchman left Paris for southern France in search of the intense light and colour of the South. He was Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh was born in Holland in 1853, the son of a pastor. He was a deeply religious man who had worked as a lay preacher in England and among Belgian miners. He had been deeply impressed by the art of Millet and its social message, and decided to become a painter himself.

His younger brother, Theo, who worked in an art-dealer's shop, introduced him to Impressionist painters. This brother was a remarkable man. Though he was poor himself, he always gave ungrudgingly to the older Vincent and even financed his journey to Arles in southern France. Vincent hoped that if he could work there undisturbed for a number of years he might one day be able to sell his pictures and repay his generous brother. In his self-chosen solitude in Arles, Vincent set down all his ideas and hopes in his letters to Theo, which read like a continuous diary.

These letters, by a humble and almost self-taught artist who had no idea of the fame he was to achieve, are among the most moving and exciting in all literature. In them we can feel the artist's sense of mission, his struggle and triumphs, his desperate loneliness and longing for companionship, and we become aware of the immense strain under which he worked with feverish energy. After less than a year, in December 1888, he broke down and had an attack of insanity. In May 1889 he went into a mental asylum, but he still had lucid intervals during which he continued to paint. The agony lasted for another fourteen months. In July 1890 Van Gogh put an end to his life - he was thirty-seven like Raphael, and his career as a painter had not lasted more than ten years; the paintings on which his fame rests were all painted during three years which were interrupted by crises and despair.

Most people nowadays know some of these paintings; the sunflowers, the empty chair, the cypresses and some of the portraits have become popular in coloured reproductions and can be seen in many a simple room. That is exactly what Van Gogh wanted. He wanted his pictures to have the direct and strong effect of the coloured Japanese prints he admired so much. He longed for an unsophisticated art which would not only appeal to rich connoisseurs but give joy and consolation to every human being. Nevertheless this is not quite the whole story. No reproduction is perfect. The cheaper ones make Van Gogh's pictures look cruder than they really are, and one may sometimes tire of them. Whenever that happens, it is quite a revelation to return to Van Gogh's original works and to discover how subtle and deliberate he could be even in his strongest effects.

For Van Gogh, too, had absorbed the lessons of Impressionism and of Seurat's pointillism. He liked the technique of painting in dots and strokes of pure colour, but under his hands it became something rather different from what these Paris artists had meant it to be. Van Gosh used the individual brushstrokes not only to break up the colour but also to convey his own excitement. In one of his letters from Arles he describes his state of inspiration when 'the emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without being aware of working ... and the strokes come with a sequence and coherence like words in a speech or a letter'. The comparison could not be clearer. In such moments he painted as other men write. Just as the appearance of a handwritten page, the traces left by the pen on the paper, impart something of the gestures of the writer, so that we feel instinctively when a letter was written under great stress of emotion - so the brushstrokes of Van Gogh tell us something of the state of his mind.

No artist before him had ever used this means with such consistency and effect. There is bold and loose brushwork in earlier paintings, in works by Tintoretto, by Hals, and by Manet, but in these it rather conveys the artist's sovereign mastery, his quick perception and magic capacity for conjuring up a vision. In Van Gogh it helps to convey the exaltation of the artist's mind. Van Gogh liked to paint objects and scenes which gave this new means full scope - motifs in which he could draw as well as paint with his brush, and lay on the colour thick just like a writer who underlines his words. That is why he was the first painter to discover the beauty of stubble, hedgerows and cornfields, of the gnarled branches of olive trees and the dark, flamelike shapes of the cypress.

Van Gogh was in such a frenzy of creation that he felt the urge not only to draw the radiant sun itself, but also to paint humble, restful and homely things which no one had ever thought of as being worthy of the artist's attention. He painted his narrow lodgings in Arles, and what he wrote about this painting to his brother explains his intentions wonderfully well:

I had a new idea in my head and here is the sketch to it ... this time it's just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do everything, and, giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, to look at the picture ought to rest the brain or rather the imagination.

The walls are pale violet. The ground is of red tiles. The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish lemon. The coverlet scarlet. The window green. The toilet-table orange, the basin blue. The doors lilac.

And that is all - there is nothing in this room with closed shutters. The broad lines of the furniture, again, must express absolute rest. Portraits on the walls, and a minor and a towel and some clothes.

The frame - as there is no white in the picture - will be white. This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I was obliged to take. I shall work at it again all day, but you see how simple the conception is. The shading and the cast shadows are suppressed, it is painted in free flat washes like the Japanese prints...

It is clear that Van Gogh was not mainly concerned with correct representation. He used colours and forms to convey what he felt about the things he painted, and what he wished others to feel. He did not care much for what he called 'stereoscopic reality', that is to say, the photographically exact picture of nature. He would exaggerate and even change the appearance of things if this suited his aim. He took the momentous step of deliberately abandoning the aim of painting as an 'imitation of nature'. Van Gogh wanted his paintings to express what he felt, and if distortion helped him to achieve this aim he would use distortion. He had arrived at this point without wanting to overthrow the old standards of art. He did not pose as 'revolutionary'; he did not want to shock the complacent critics. He, in fact, had almost given up hope of anybody paying attention to his pictures he just worked on because he had to.

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