Vincent Van Gogh – A Depth of Passion Transformed – II

By John Keaton

Continuation of part I of his article:

Arles : A New Hope Turns Tragic

Arriving in Arles on February 20, 1888, Vincent had most certainly hoped that the light of provence would inspire his work and raise his artistic abilities to a new, creative plateau. By this point, the plein-air painting he had explored along with the influence of impressionism and the japonaisse elements he utilized were fused and became, certainly without his own realization, the style that would become distinctly “Vincent “

The Sower, painted in June of 1888, displays a return to one of Van Gogh’s favorite motifs, and his lifelong fascination with the work of Millet. At one point, Vincent painted seven copies of the Sower in one week. Here in Arles, the Sower takes on a majestic quality with the brilliant sun blazing across the fields with a divine intensity.

It is a well know fact that Vincent could not afford to hire models for his paintings and very often painted himself. No fewer than 35 of these portraits exist, certainly more self-portraits than any artist had ever painted.

They are intriguing, not merely for the versatility of style, but also because they provide insight into Vincent’s state of mind at the particular point of time in which they were created.
The Self Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat was painted in August of 1888. In my view, it is a charming portrayal of the artist’s optimism and hope for a productive, creative period of his life. There is a sense of peace and renewal evident in his face and in the simple, yet confident brush strokes.

Vincent’s intention in Arles was to create a colony of artists in the southern provincial city. The Painter, Paul Gauguin joined him for a brief time on this artistic excursion of pure expression. Their time together proved to be short-lived however, as their temperaments were vastly different.
While boarding at the yellow house, a bizarre incident occurred which was to mark the end of their relationship. In an atmosphere fueled by alcohol and Vincent’s delusional tantrums, the two personalities clashed, an argument ensued, and Van Gogh cut off a portion of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute named Rachel.

Much has been written regarding this episode and some of the facts have been misconstrued by dramatic interpretations. It is clear that Vincent suffered from both visual and aural hallucinations and that he also partook heavily in the drinking of absinthe, a highly potent mixture, with the same effects as opium. More than likely, the combination of all these elements, along with Vincent’s damaged self-esteem and string of emotional disappointments, led to this bizarre act.
Of the 187 Painting created in Arles, many are Vincent’s best loved works. The painting, Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles, is considered the best of five different versions of the scene. Vincent was so pleased with the work that he wrote highly detailed letters describing the painting: “In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.”

The unusual forced perspective of the room with its slanted back wall is in fact a contradiction to Vincent’s intended vision. Once again we see a composition influenced by Vincent’s preoccupation with Asian art, some prints of which can be seen on the walls. The room grows narrow and perhaps reflect Van Gogh’s sense of isolation and an attempt to record some sense of order in a world of lonely chaos.

“I feel the desire to renew myself and to try to apologize for the fact that my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude.”

-Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Wil, Letter W20
c.20 February 1890

After Van Gogh’s self mutilation episode on a December Sunday in 1888, the young surgeon, Doctor Felix Rey, was placed in charge of Vincent’s care. Perhaps as a token of his appreciation, Van Gogh immortalized the doctor in a portrait in January 1889.

By this point the citizens of Arles had registered a formal complaint against Van Gogh and considered him a threat to the stability and security of their peaceful community.
Doctor Rey’s parents were so mortified by the portrait that they actually used the painting to patch up a hole in their chicken coop. Some twenty years later, Rey rescued the painting which now resides in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow.

Saint-Remy: The Elation of Heightened Nature

Perhaps realizing the seriousness of his own mental deterioration, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence in May of 1889. This was to be one of the most difficult years of his life, ironically though, and in the true spirit of this gifted artist, it was also to be one of Vincent’s most productive periods. Despite being at times completely incapacitated and at battle with his own horrific demons, Van Gogh created some of the most enduring images of all time. We see them now, and they appear to us as old friends. Stars and Trees, etched upon our conscious. This is perhaps Vincent’s greatest gift to us: The depth of his passion transformed through the tragedy of madness into visions that transcend time and space and become tangible visual icons of the human experience.

In this enchanting work, there is a rolling energy as stars explode across the cool blue sky while wild cypress trees rise like flames from the tiny hamlet created entirely from imagination and memory. Considering the popularity of this exquisite painting, let’s take a look at a drawing of the very same composition from Moscow’s Museum of Architecture.

During his convalescence, Van Gogh created no less than 142 paintings from May of 1889 to May of 1890. An ardent admirer of Eugene Delacroix and Rembrandt, he painted his own unique interpretations of their works. Perhaps sensing his own demise, the tormented artist reinterpreted Delacroix’s Pieta. A compelling work, Vincent’s Pieta, is one of compassion and expresses a return to the religious roots of his childhood. The image of Christ being taken down from the cross is much lighter in color than the heavier, more classically influenced work of Delacroix. Nevertheless the emotion and power of expression are clearly evident.

The Painting, Road with Cypress and Stars, is nearly a companion piece to Starry Night. There is a bit of human activity in the foreground and we even see a carriage with two passengers on the far left. The Cypress Tree is the main focus with its turbulent fiery presence in front a blazing sky.
The chisel-like brushwork and amplified surface texture had become hallmarks of Vincent’s work by this time. This was to be one of Van Gogh’s last paintings at the Asylum in Saint Remy.
Upon the advice of his brother, Theo, Vincent moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris. Here he was placed under the care of the Flemish Doctor Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a sixty two year old specialist in mental illness. While Gachet’s competency was questionable, the situation of Van Gogh’s increasingly tragic sense of melancholy called for some drastic measure. An avid admirer of Vincent’s work, Dr. Gachet was thoroughly delighted with his Portrait.
In more recent years, The Portrait of Dr. Gachet fetched an astounding 82.5 Million Dollars at Christie’s Auction House in New York, the highest price ever paid for a painting.
An image of turbulent vitality and vividly colored anguish, Wheat Fields With Crows is considered Van Gogh’s last painting. While this may or not be true, the painting is explosive and there is a terrific atmosphere of an ominous and even sinister nature.

Armed with a revolver, Van Gogh shot himself on the afternoon of July 27, 1890. Two days later, Vincent died with his brother Theo and Paul Gachet, the doctor’s son at his side. Leaving behind a tormented and emotionally disastrous past fraught with despair and sorrow, Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic contribution is unrivalled in its emotional complexity and the sheer power of a tormented soul’s creative capacity.

An Overview

In the course of his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh created a veritable treasure trove of artwork. Over 1000 Drawings, 870 Paintings, 150 Watercolors and more than 133 letter sketches form the body of his vast accomplishments as an artist. The majority of these works were done within a period of four years from 1886 to 1890. Barely recognized during his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh is now recognized as one of the world’s greatest and most influential Artists.

Website References:

The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery:

(This website is the absolute definitive source on all things Van Gogh. The site provides a comprehensive overview on Van Gogh’s life and work and is also endorsed by the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam)


Van Gogh By Pierre Cabanne
Copyright by Finest S.A.
Editions Pierre Terrail
Paris 2003

Living with Art
By Rita Gilbert
Copyright 1995 by Rita Gilbert
McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Van Gogh
By Rene Huyghe
Crown Publishers, Inc. New York
Printed in Italy
Copyright 1967 by Ufficipress
S.A. Lugano

By Kenneth Clark
Published by the BBC
Copyright 1969 by Kenneth Clark

ART: Context and Criticism
By John Kissick
Penn State University
Copyright 1993
By Wm. C. Brown Communications

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



Speak Your Mind