Vincent Van Gogh's Quest for Vibrant Vitality: Part 2

In our recent art appreciation series, GREY has been giving abridged versions of art history lessons. We’ve been focusing on different artists and styles that hail from different areas of the world in hopes that our readers will gain some artistic and historical wisdom. Besides, this is the kind of knowledge you’ll be able to drop when you take a date or some friends to the museum and seem super impressive.  This week we’ll be focusing on Vincent Van Gogh's last years.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889

We left off last week when Van Gogh chose to leave Antwerp Belgium in late 1886 after disagreeing with the methods of Antwerp Academy.

After leaving Antwerp, Van Gogh joined Theo (his brother) in Paris where he became directly exposed to some of the best artistic minds of his time. Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became friends with him and showed him many of the recent advancements in French painting. Simultaneously, Theo introduced him to Impressionists like Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat where his love of color was truly inspired. His brushwork increased in its gestural nature, while bright and bold color palettes became essential to him.

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1887
Vincent Van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (After Hiroshige), 1887

By the summer of 1887, he was using pure colors in his work. No blending or neutralization, just stokes and whirls of pure blues, yellows and reds. The subtle movement of his work in Antwerp was elevated and his paintings became fantastically dynamic in technique. By 1888 the style we now know him for had become fully formed. His first true masterpieces like ‘Portrait of Père Tanguy’ showcased not only his new love of color but his adoration of Japanese woodblock printing as well.

Van Gogh-Portrait of Père Tanguy

Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887

The background of ‘Portrait of Père Tanguy’ is made up of an amalgamation of Japanese woodblock prints. The joy in the depiction of kimono-clad women, sakura trees, and snowy towns are evident as he meticulously recreates each one in his own style. The central figure, Père Tanguy, sits relaxed in front of this wall of Japan, seemingly apart from it. He casts no shadow on the wall which results in the portrait seeming almost like a vision.

Despite all the trappings and socialization of Parisian life, Van Gogh became tired of it after 2 years. In February of 1888 he set out for Arles, a town in southeastern France. Artistically, he flourished there and created some of his most famous masterpieces. He painted the sunny landscape in a riot of colors, each brushstroke seemingly one of impulsive excitement. During this time he began squeezing paint directly on to the canvas, thus forgoing the use of a palette. His choices were spontaneous and expressive, each painting highlighting the light and vitality of the place he so clearly adored. He befriended the local postman, Roulin, whose joyously rosy face and impressive beard were immortalized in many of Van Gogh’s works.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889

‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’ was done in 1889 and is one of many images Van Gogh made of his friend. What drew the men into their friendship is uncertain, but Van Gogh wrote to his brother clearly excited about painting Roulin and his family. The colors of this version are pure and jewel-like. The intense blues of Rulin’s postman uniform interact perfectly with the jade of the background. The gold of Roulin’s beard is elevated as the curls intertwine with the same blues of the coat. This not only emphasizes the movement and shape of the beard, but serves to heighten the intensity of its shine. The face is done in a range of flesh tones, all with brushwork dashing toward the edge of the face. The red of Roulin’s rosy cheeks are mimicked in the red flowers scattered in the wallpaper behind him. Said flowers are joined by white and blue blooms that dance with the red ones in a lively and sporadic mood. Roulin’s expression is relaxed and calm, as though he is a man accustomed to exuberance and content to be awash in it.

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Paul Gauguin, Landscape at Arles, 1888

Van Gogh celebrated his individualized perception of painting during this time and held nothing back. He tried to convince Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, and other artists whose aims were not those of the Impressionists to come to Arles with him in what he hoped to call the “Studio of the South”. It’s important to remember that Van Gogh was not an Impressionist. He was not fascinated with the stages of light or the way it interacts with the same landscape at different times. Instead, he chose bright colors and impassioned brushwork as a mode of expression. His own approach to technique would later be championed by multiple art movements (Fauvism, Expressionism, etc.) but during his own time, he was singular in his thinking.

This became apparent when Gauguin came to paint with him for a few months and the two friends clashed over opposing ideas. It was during one of their arguments that Van Gogh lost his ear. While some accounts say he cut it off himself with a razor, others claim Gauguin severed it with a sword. The truth of the event is lost in time, but Van Gogh claimed responsibility for the act.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, 1889

After receiving medical care he was released and tried to resume painting with the same vigor he had once possessed. And while he still was able to produce masterpieces like his infamous ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’ he began exhibiting signs of mental disturbance. The incidents were worrying enough to have him sent back to the hospital. Van Gogh, concerned about his own mental clarity, asked to be sent to an asylum at the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It’s generally agreed by art historians that Van Gogh suffered from some kind of mental disorder. While some say schizophrenia played a role, others point to a bipolar disorder or possibly a combination of the two. Many also theorize that these problems may have been exacerbated by the fact that he was known to drink absinth frequently. Whatever the case, Van Gogh had enough presence of mind to attempt to seek help.

While at the asylum he stopped drinking absinthe, which is thought to have helped him a little for the 12 months he was there. However, his episodes of mood swings and other concerning behavior still persisted. He worked less consistently, as his routine was subject to asylum rules and rhythms. His works from this time showcase his use of dynamic shapes and lines of color. While these paintings are rightfully exalted, it also has notes of Van Gogh’s own feelings of sadness and self-doubt. It is reported that he became homesick and lonely during his time in the asylum, leading to some of his most emotionally evocative works. This includes what has become his most beloved painting, Starry Night.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

Starry Night is considered a masterpiece for a reason. Said to depict the view out the window of his room at the asylum, this painting is breathtaking. The landscape, while draped in night, is still rich in color and life. The range of blues used in the sky whirl through space as they sweep around each other, eventually twining themselves into loose spirals. The glow of the intensely yellow moon and stars dissipates into pale blues and yellows as their light is swallowed by the night. The town bellow doesn’t actually exist and is instead an imaginative addition on the part of Van Gogh. His loneliness at the time of this work is documented, and the inclusion of the town may be the result of his own desire to be near people. The dark shape of the tree on the left of the canvas has its own flowing subtle texture as the lines within it are much darker.

The crushing homesickness became too much for Van Gogh so in May of 1890 he moved out of the asylum and into the home of fellow artist, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (a close friend of Pissarro), in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. Being in a village for the first time in roughly 4 years, Van Gogh approached his work with enthusiasm once more. His works in this short period seem free, probably due to the fact that for the first time in months he could come and go as he pleased.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

This would be his last period of art making as he began to feel increasingly guilty for his financial reliance on Theo. His brother was now married with a family and Van Gogh likely felt Theo had more important priorities than tending to his failed artist of a brother. It’s important to note that only one of Van Gogh’s paintings ever sold during his lifetime (Starry Night) and he spent most of his life forgoing buying food in favor of buying paint. Art was his life, and it couldn’t support him. He also seemed to have been arguing with his host, which only added to him feeling like a burden.

Vincent Van Gogh shot himself on July 29th, 1890. Since he did not die immediately, his last conversation made it clear he didn’t regret his choice.

“What I have done is nobody else’s business. I am free to do what I like with my own body.”

Theo was broken by his brother’s death and died 6 months later. He was buried beside his brother in a cemetery in Auvers where the 2 of them rest with identical tombstones.

What did you think of Van Gogh’s life? Learn something new? Let us know on social media or in the comments!


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