Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"If a voice within you says you are not a painter, then paint my boy and that voice will be silenced."

In art school I read this statement in the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent Van Gogh is one of my favorite painters and one of history's greatest artist. The Dutch post-impressionist had a huge impact on the modern movements that would occur in the 20th Century. He painted his world - the people and places of his own environment, in a style of slashing strokes of vivid color that created a highly emotional impact. Van Gogh suffered from anxiety and mental illness, and died unknown, at the age of 37, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

He produced more than 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings, and 1,100 drawings and sketches. He didn't start painting until his late twenties, and most of his best-known work was produced in the last  two years of his life. Unknown and having nothing when he died, his work is now worth millions of dollars.

At one point, Van Gogh desired to be a pastor, and from 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium. He sketched the people in the local community, and in 1885 painted his first major work The Potato Eaters. He used mostly somber earth tones and showed no sign of the vivid coloration that distinguished his later work. In 1886, he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later he moved to the south of France and was inspired by the strong sunlight he found there. During his stay in Arles in 1888, he fully realized his unique and highly recognizable style.

How his mental illness affected his art has been a subject of speculation and controversy. Some see the mental illness as an explanation for the electric color and vibrating strokes of paint. Others feel he was actually frustrated by his illness, as it made it difficult for him to work when he was having an episode.

In 1885, he lived in Antwerp and liked the bold color he saw in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and started collecting Japanese woodcuts and started incorporating them into some of the backgrounds of his paintings. During his stay there he started drinking absinthe heavily, and became ill and run down from overwork, a poor diet, and excessive smoking.

He travelled to Paris in 1886, and was exposed to the work of Monticelli, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Seurat, Monet, Degas, and Pissaro, among others. In November of 1887, Vincent and Theo met and befriended Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh had become worn out from life in Paris, even though he had created over 200 paintings in his two year stay there.

Van Gogh moved to Arles hoping for refuge. He found it a strange and exotic place. In one of his letters he describes the people who all drank absinthe, as creatures from another world. He was inspired by the local landscape and light, and his paintings from this period were intensely colorful using yellow, ultramarine, and mauve. Paintings from this period included The Red Vineyard, The Night Cafe, The Postman, Van Gogh's Chair, Bedroom In Arles, Starry Night Over The Rhone, and Still Life: Vase With 12 Sunflowers.

After repeated requests, Gauguin finally arrived in Arles in October. During November they painted together but they argued about art all of the time, and Van Gogh felt an increasing fear that Gauguin would desert him. Van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade, but then in a panic left their quarters for a local brothel. He cut off the lower part of his left ear and wrapped it in newspaper and left it with a prostitute named Rachel. He told her to "keep this object carefully." Gauguin left Arles and never saw Van Gogh again. Van Gogh was hospitalized and when he returned home suffered from hallucinations and delusions that he was being poisoned. In March, 1889, police closed his house because of complaints by the townspeople who referred to him as the "redheaded madman." Two months later he left Arles for Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

He committed himself to a hospital that was a former monastery, 20 miles from Arles, located in an area of  cornfields, vineyards, and olive trees. Theo arranged for two small rooms - adjoining cells with barred windows. The second was to be used as a studio.

The clinic and the garden became the main subjects of his paintings. Some of the work from this period was characterized by swirls - including his masterpiece The Starry Night. He was allowed to take short supervised walks which gave rise to the paintings of cypresses and olive trees. This led to a shortage of subject matter, so Van Gogh did some work based on other artists such as Millet's The Sower at Noon.

In May 1890, Van Gogh left the clinic ot live near the physician Dr. Gachet and be closer to Theo. He did portraits of the doctor and also Wheat Fields With Crows an amazing work where he used a double square canvas to create a panoramic landscape. This is one of his last works and has a dark and turbulent quality. In 1986, the Met had an exhibition centered around the work from this period and I was able to see Wheat Field With Crows in person. 

It is a painting that can be interpreted in different ways. Some see it as an image of cosmic chaos projected through Van Gogh’s inner torment, a psychic graph of his imminent suicide. The troubled skies represent the tragedy of the modern world, it’s failures, despair, and the pathetic situation of the human condition. The suffering soul of man hanging and torn between two poles - one in contact with evil and the other reaching to the heavens. Even though he looked outside of himself for the subject of his paintings, the work expresses the terrible image of his soul. Ordered chaos, frustration, and the endless search, never arriving at any destination. 

Others saw the painting in a more positive light. Van Gogh believed in the restorative forces of landscapes, and the center path of the painting leads the eye through the field converging to infinity. The wheat is ripening under the menacing sky and the crows are flying away free and transcendent.

His depression got worse, and on July 27, 1890 he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He was able to walk back to the Inn where he was staying, but died on July 29, 1890. Theo reported his brother's last words were " the sadness will last forever."

Vincent Van Gogh was a self-taught artist who created an amazing body of work at a frantic pace late in his life. The paintings are powerful, and haunting and reflect both the beauty and turmoil of life.

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