xxxxxThe Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, after a number of failed careers, started painting in earnest on returning to his parents, then living in Nuenen, Brabant, in 1884. His early works were sombre in colour and mood, doubtless influenced by his time spent as a teacher in London, and a lay preacher in the poor mining district of Borinage in southern Belgium. Typical of this period was his Potato Eaters. In March 1886, however, he moved to Paris, living with his younger brother Theo. There he met a number of the leading Impressionists - including Toulouse Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin and George Seurat - and he soon adopted their bright, pure colours and - in part - their distinctive brushwork. He produced 200 works during his two-year stay in Paris, portraits (such as “Père” Tanguy), still-lifes (such as Vase of Gladioli), and numerous scenes of the city, including Boulevard de Clichy, and Banks of the Seine with Boats. In 1888 he settled in Arles in the South of France, and there he delighted in the sunshine, the warm colours and the quality of the light. To this period belongs his famous Vase of Twelve Sunflowers, Bedroom at Arles and Café Terrace at Night. It was then that he began to use thick layers of paint in contrasting colours to give his subject meaning and vitality. In the October, however, at his invitation, his friend Paul Gauguin joined him, and the result was disastrous. After two months of bitter quarrelling, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor and then turned the blade on himself, cutting off part of his left ear. As a result he spent a year in a sanatorium in Saint-Rémy where his work - such as his Starry Night and Wheatfield with Cypresses - were notable for their swirling brushwork, a symptom of his troubled mind. He spent his last days at Auvers just north of Paris. It was there in July 1890 that he shot himself and died of his wound. Van Gogh, along with the likes of Gauguin and Cézanne, greatly influenced Expressionism. As we shall see, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was related to this movement, with its powerful emotion and stark contrasts in colour.

VINCENT VAN GOGH  1853 - 1890  (Va, Vb, Vc)


Van Gogh: Self-Portrait – Musée d’Orsay, Paris; The Potato Eaters – Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam; Flowering Plumtree – Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam; Bridges at Asnières – E.G. Bührle Collection, Zurich; Père Tanguy – private collection; Wheatfield with Crows – Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam; Starry Night – Museum of Modern Art, New York; Bedroom at Arles – Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Sunflowers – National Gallery, London; Café at Arles at night – Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands; Wheatfield with Cypresses – National Gallery, London; Portrait of Theo – Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam.

xxxxxThe Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, little known or appreciated during his brief lifetime, today ranks as one of the most original artists of all time. His 800 paintings and well over 1,000 drawings included an abundance of landscapes, numerous portraits, and a number of still-lifes, many noted for their bold, contrasting colours and their powerful rhythmic design. For the most part, the paintings which eventually brought him fame were produced during the last two years of his life, when he was living at Arles amid the warmth, luminous light and vibrant colours of the South of France. The self-portrait here was painted just a few months before he took his own life in July 1890. His haggard features and the swirling background capture the troubled state of his mind.

xxxxxHe was born in the small Dutch village of Groot-Zundert in North Brabant, the son of a Protestant pastor. He showed an interest in art from his early teens, but he was moody and restless by temperament and found it difficult to settle upon a chosen career. After attending a boarding school at Zevenbergen, he spent four years working for a firm of art dealers in The Hague, including a spell in the company’s offices in Paris and London. While in London, however, he became infatuated with his landlady’s daughter, his work suffered as a consequence, and he lost his job. He then tried his hand at teaching, first in Ramsgate and then in London. It was there that, moved by the poverty he encountered, he changed direction again, and decided to enter the Church. His desire to assist those in need was genuine, but he did not have the staying power to master his theological studies at Amsterdam University, and he was forced to quit the course after a year. Undeterred he went to work for two years as a lay preacher in the Borinage, a poor mining district in southern Belgium. There he lived a hand to mouth existence in helping the poor and needy, but once again, he was not considered suitable for his chosen task. It was then, at the age of 27, having visited art galleries during his earlier travels - notably those in Paris and London -, that he decided to return home and become a painter. It was to prove a short career marred by poverty, alcoholism and, eventually, a sudden plunge into insanity. Only the world of art was to reap the benefit.  

xxxxxSupported financially by his younger brother Theo, he started his new career by sketching outdoors and visiting art galleries. He took drawing lessons in Brussels, received some instruction from his cousin Anton Mauve in The Hague, and in 1884 rejoined his parents, then living at Nuenen, north Brabant. It was there that he began painting in earnest and developing his own, unique style. His early paintings - doubtless influenced by his stay in London and Borinage - were sombre and somewhat crude in character, the majority depicting the arduous life of the local peasants. To this period belongs his most ambitious work The Potato Eaters (here illustrated), a gloomy study of a peasant family sitting down to their evening meal. Notable among other paintings of this time are Old Tower of Nuenen with People Walking, Weaver Standing in Front of a Loom, Avenue of Poplars at Sunset, Two Rats, and Head of Peasant Woman with White Cap.

xxxxxIn 1885 his father died, and Van Gogh was soon on the move again. He left Holland - never to return - and enrolled at the Academy in Antwerp. His stay was short-lived. He took a dislike to the academic training, failed the course at the end of his first term, and decided to move to Paris before he was officially dismissed. It was a move, taken in March 1886, that was to bring about a fundamental change in his concept of art and his future as an artist.


xxxxxFor the next two years Van Gogh shared a flat with his brother Theo in the Paris suburb of Monmartre. Theo was an art dealer, and through him he met and painted with the leading Impressionists - including Toulouse Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin and the pointillists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac - and he was completely won over by their technique. It is hardly surprising; Impressionism suited his purpose. He liked to work fast and out of doors, and its use of pure, bright colours, applied straight onto the canvas, owed nothing to traditional art and the restrictions it imposed. As a result, he renounced the sombre colours and the dull subject matter of his early years; changed to a brighter palette; developed a much freer style of brushwork, and chose topics of a lighter vein. And while in Paris he also came to admire, like the Impressionists themselves, the decorative colours and firm, simple outlines of Japanese art, then seen at its best in the works of the printmakers Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. But whilst he embraced in part these new, avant-garde movements, Van Gogh also valued the works of artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean François Millet and members of the Barbizon School.


xxxxxTo this period belongs a large number of portraits (many of himself), still lifes, and scenes of Paris, some 200 in all. They included Flowers in a Blue Vase and Vase of Gladioli, The Kingfisher, A Pair of Shoes (early 1887), Boulevard de Clichy, and Banks of the Seine with Boats. Illustrated above (left to right) are Flowering Plumtree, clearly showing the Japanese influence, Bridges across the Seine at Asnière, owing much to impressionism, and the portrait of Julien “Père” Tanguy. He ran a paint shop in the city, together with a small gallery, and it was there that the lmpressionists were able to exhibit their works.

xxxxxVan Gogh’s two years in Paris played a pivotal role in the development of his artistic career, but they were not without their personal troubles. Towards the end of 1887, the long hours he had spent in painting, and his heavy drinking began to take their toll on his health. This, together with a growing hostility towards him - caused by his quick temper and a stubborn belief in his own ideas - signalled the need for change. At the beginning of 1888 he decided to “take myself off somewhere down south”. In February he arrived at Arles, a provincial city near Marseilles, ready to make a new start. It was to prove the last phase in his hectic, troubled life.

xxxxxAt first, his move to the South of France with its sunshine, warm colours and quality of light filled him with hope. He rented an attractive Yellow House - the colour of friendship as he saw it - and embarked on the happiest time of his life. He had reached, he informed his brother, the “kingdom of light”, and ideas were coming to him “in swarms”. One of these ideas was the setting up of an artists’ colony, and the first step towards that was to invite his friend Paul Gauguin to join him. As we shall see (1888), Gauguin, then working in Brittany, was somewhat wary of the idea. He did not hold Van Gogh in high regard, either as a person or as a painter, but persuaded by Theo, he eventually arrived in the October, the sunshine of Province playing a part in his decision. The result was disastrous. The arrogant, cynical Gauguin and the obstinate, fiery Van Gogh were soon quarrelling violently. The climax came in December when Van Gogh, losing all self-control, threatened Gauguin with an open razor. Gauguin fled the house and left for Paris by the first available train. In the meantime Van Gogh used the razor upon himself, cutting off part of his left ear. His idyllic dream had ended in a nightmare. From now until his death he was to struggle with recurring bouts of deep depression, sometimes bordering on dementia.

xxxxxEarly in 1889, acutely aware of his dangerous mental state and the fear and hostility of his neighbours, he entered the sanatorium at the nearby town of Saint-Rémy as a voluntary patient. There, slowly coming to terms with his unstable condition, he produced some 200 canvases in the space of a year. Among these works - products of a tortured mined - were his Starry Night (illustrated here), his Olive Trees, and a series of paintings depicting cypress trees in twisted, flame-like shapes, seen in his Wheatfield with Cypresses. (illustrated below). These “Egyptian obelisks in green”, he wrote at the time, “are always occupying my thoughts”.

xxxxxIn May the following year, on the advice of his old friend Camille Pissarro, he left the sanatorium and moved to the artist colony at Auvers-sur-Oise, a village a little northwest of Paris. At first he seemed contented, but his paintings told a different story. His Church at Auvers was distorted in shape, harsh in colour, and painted from a strange angle, and his Self Portrait of this time, as already noted, showed a troubled mind. Towards the end of July, soon after completing his Field under Thunderclouds and his Crows in the Wheatfields he took his own life. Beset with money troubles and once more disturbed mentally, he walked out into the surrounding fields, shot himself in the chest, and then staggered back to his little room above a café. Two days later he died in his brother’s arms, aged 37.

xxxxxIt was during his two years at Arles, a stay which had begun with such promise and ended in such tragedy, that Van Gogh painted his best known works. This was his most creative period. Beneath his “golden sun” of Provence he produced a wealth of portraits, landscapes and still-lifes, many of which have remained highly popular to this day. Working sixteen hours or more a day, he began to express himself “forcibly” through the application of thick layers of pure, intense pigment, often in contrasting colours - red and green, blue and orange. He saw colour as giving his subject meaning and vitality, as in the yellow glow and dark blue sky in his Café Terrace at Night, or the myriad of yellow tones that made up his famous Vase with Twelve Sunflowers of 1888 (both illustrated below). And at the same time he moved away from the basic technique of Impressionism, using his powerful swirling brush strokes - stirred by his own emotions - to bring immediate life to a tree, field, cloud or mountain. He interpreted the natural world around him in his own way, and this was at the root of his unique style.

xxxxxLeft to Right: Bedroom at Arles, a work noted for its harmonious colours and strong outlines; Vase of Fourteen Sunflowers (The version with twelve flowers was auctioned in 1987 for $40 million), and his Café Terrace at Night, (today the Café Van Gogh), one of his best known works, notable for its contrasting colours and brilliant design. Other works from his days at Arles include Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, Painter on his way to Work, the portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans, Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe, The Harvest, and a series of Orchards in Blossom. The Bridge at Langlois with Women Washing is a particularly fine example of his restricted palette. Only six basic colours were used to capture this busy scene.

xxxxxWhilst at Saint-Rémy he produced some 200 works, including a series of Olive Trees and Olive Picking, his Wheatfield with Cypresses (illustrated below) and four portraits of L’Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux). Notable among his paintings at Auvers were various studies of the village itself, Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, and two portraits of Doctor Gachet, the second of which was sold for more than $82 million when auctioned in May 1990. His Wheatfield with Crows (also illustrated below), painted in the same month that he committed suicide, is seen by some as a turbulent, foreboding work anticipating his coming death.

xxxxxVanxGogh, together with the likes of the French artists Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne, are often referred to as Post Impressionists. Coming after the decline of Impressionism, they accepted and extended the movement’s bold use of pure colour, but rejected its loss of structure and its lack of emotional involvement. The vivid colours and the inner emotions expressed in their works had an immense influence on the development of modern art, particularly upon French Fauvism, led by Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, and German Expressionism, demonstrated amongst others by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. As we shall see, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was related to this movement, with its stark contrasts in colour and its powerful, naked emotion.

xxxxxIncidentally, Van Gogh only sold one canvas throughout his lifetime. In February 1890, just a few months before his death, a painting of a vineyard in Arles was sold in a Brussels exhibition for 400 francs. “I cannot help it,” he once wrote, “if my paintings do not sell. The time will come when people will see that they are worth more than the price of the paint”. How right he was! ……

xxxxx……xThroughoutxhis troubled life Van Gogh owed a great deal to the constant support and encouragement given to him by his devoted younger brother Theo. He gave him a home during his two years in Paris, sent him money on a regular basis, and paid for his art supplies in Arles and Saint-Rémy. When Vincent took his own life he was grief-stricken, and six months later - due perhaps to the strain he was under - he died of a stroke, leaving a wife and a baby son. (This portrait is by his brother Vincent) ……

xxxxx……xA valuable outcome of this close relationship between the two brothers was the 700 or so letters sent by Vincent to Theo throughout his artistic career. This collection of letters throws a fascinating and illuminating light not only upon his work - his ideas and changes in technique - but also upon his own hopes and fears in a troubled, frenzied existence.