Above: Olive grove with two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.
“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh
I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.
I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.
L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.
R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.
The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”. It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.
Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.
“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.
Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.
Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.
As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.
Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam
The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.
Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.
For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish and his early death at 37.
Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.
Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.
A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/
Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.
The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:
“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”