Vincent Van Gogh – A Depth of Passion Transformed – I

By John Keaton

“And my aim in my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then, at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, ‘Oh, the pictures I might have made!'”

-Vincent Van Gogh, Letter 338, 9 November 1883

In the annals of art history, there is no comparison to the enduringly tragic and passionate life of Vincent Van Gogh. His works have been embraced and are treasured by a world which once scarcely understood or accepted this tragic and tortured genius.

The beauty of his remarkably prolific career lies in the intensity and conviction of heart, which he placed in his images. His works remain etched and embossed within our subconscious and still linger in our minds long after this tormented soul’s dramatic departure from this life.

Born March 30, 1853, Vincent Wilhelm Van Gogh’s young life was overshadowed by the death of a brother exactly one year prior to Vincent’s birth. Ironically, the brother’s name was also Vincent. Imagine the confusion of a meditative young boy dealing with the concept of being a replacement child and actually visiting a grave on a regular basis bearing his name. Nevertheless, the mournful and desolate countryside of Vincent’s birthplace in Groot-Zundert, Holland became the nurturing source and breeding ground for Van Gogh’s intense exploration of nature and the world around him.

His favorite brother was Theo, who became and remained a beacon of hope, support and encouragement throughout Van Gogh’s entire life. They were kindred spirits and their eloquent and tender correspondences (over 700 letters) are thoroughly archived as a living testimony to their symbiotic closeness.

In May of 1873, Vincent was sent to London to work at the Goupil Gallery as a young art salesman, where he began to explore and developed an appreciation for art of all sorts. While there he met a young woman named Ursula Loyer of whom Vincent became completely enamored and proposed marriage. Ursula mocked him and refused his advances with nothing short of contempt for the 21-year-old Van Gogh.

This disappointment, the basis of a lifetime of isolation and despair, became an awe-consuming event which shattered his expectations of a “normal life” While this may seem a childish exaggeration, this pattern of rejection was to repeat itself many times over the course of Vincent’s Life and influence his perception of the world around him.

The Emerging Artist: Nuenen

While speculation on Van Gogh’s personal life, emotional and physical troubles could fill volumes; we will focus on his art. This is best achieved by concentrating on the specific regions in which Van Gogh lived and worked and his reasons for being there, as opposed to a lengthy analysis of his coming and goings. Van Gogh did travel quite extensively for someone of his stature and class, but more relevant are the images themselves, which were created in a certain area at a significant point in his artistic growth.

The son of a Dutch protestant minister, Vincent’s early life was spent studying theology and acting as lay preacher for the miners of the region. Herein lies his fascination with common folk and workers of the lands and fields. In one of the artist’s earliest works entitled Sorrow, the trials and tribulations of life take on an overwhelming somber tone.

In his first truly serious painting, The Potato Eaters, painted in Nuenen in April of 1885, we see a poverty stricken world with characters neatly sculpted in sharp, deep tones of thickly applied oil paint. It was during this stage of the artist’s development that the themes of the harvest and character studies of the miners took priority. The 192 canvases painted during this period are portraits of courage and dignity in spite of oppressive poverty and depressive circumstances.

“The point is that I have tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labor and — a meal honestly earned.”

-Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Theo, c. 30 April 1885

Antwerp : Academic Reinforcement

During Van Gogh’s brief stay in the city of Antwerp, he attended the Academic Royale des Beaux Art. Although he painted only seven paintings during his three month tenure, the focus was on academic precision and it’s inclusion in the refinement of his art and technique. Arising from his studies of anatomy and the human figure, Van Gogh produced this rather startling macabre image entitled, Skull with Burning Cigarette. Perhaps Vincent was reflecting on his own ill health at the time with complaints of rotting teeth and stomach ailments.

Paris : Pivotal Artistic Exploration

In 1886 Vincent moved to Paris to stay with his brother Theo, now an art dealer. This period of Vincent’s life is remarkable in Van Gogh’s exposure to new art movements and his willingness to experiment and apply these new concepts to his own creations.

Influenced by the Impressionists, his palette became much lighter and the colors more brilliant. Other influences include Japanese prints with their flat, decorative panels of color, which were highly popular at the time. Vincent incorporated many of these new influences in this incredibly vibrant stage of his life and career.

The painting Interior of a Restaurant with its speckles of yellow, gold and green, clearly displays the influence of Divisionism and even Pointillism, a technique developed by George Seurat. During his stay in Paris, Van Gogh met and associated with many of the premiere impressionists of his day, among them, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissaro, Seurat and of Course, Gauguin. Upon viewing Vincent’s work for the first time, Gauguin remarked, “You really do paint like a madman!”

This incident took place in an art supply store, which was run by Pere Tanguy, who also displayed paintings and considered himself an art dealer. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Pere Tanguy. is of special interest with the colorful Japanese prints and woodcuts, which profoundly influenced Vincent’s work at the time, that form the background of this unique portrait.

Vase-with-twelve-sunflowers, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh

Painted in the late summer months of 1887, the painting, Two Cut Sunflowers, is particularly striking. Vincent’s fascination with the vivid yellow of these huge flowers is well known. The intensity of the color is only matched with Van Gogh’s seemingly manic strokes. During his stay in Paris, Vincent painted 222 paintings, many of which are considered masterpieces. Rural scenes of the area, numerous self-portraits and landscapes of the city itself are the subjects of Vincent’s incredible outpour of vivacious and enchanting imagery.

— continued in part II of this article.

This Article copyright 2005 by John Keaton. All Rights Reserved.



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