Vincent Willem van Gogh
The Tortured Artist
For many, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) represents the iconic “tortured artist.” Suffering with mental illness and abject poverty for most of his adult life, van Gogh’s style draws heavily from his psychological distress, allowing him to perceive the world through a lens that would speak to millions after his suicide at the age of 37. Even though he only began to take art seriously in the last 10 years of his life, he churned out over 2,100 works, his most famous and distinct Post-Impressionist pieces being created in his final years. Van Gogh was certainly driven by his own hardships, and his paintings represent a creative shift toward the subjective; however, as we will learn today, his contributions to artistic technique and approach to subject matter are much more complex than the clichés attached to his name.
Vincent van Gogh. Self Portrait with Felt Hat, 1887. Oil on canvas. 17.3” x 14.7”. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Van Gogh’s method may be deeply autobiographical, yet he also incorporates the Impressionists’ interest with the optical and the medium with the Divisionists’ use of distinct, separated color palettes. Imbuing these formal methods with personal expression, his description of his approach helps us read into his 1887 Self Portrait: “I will paint him as he is, as faithfully as I can … I shall be an obstinate colorist. I shall exaggerate the fairness of the hair, arrive at tones of orange, chrome, pale yellow. Behind the head … I shall paint infinity, I shall do a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can contrive … I shall obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep blue sky.” For van Gogh, it was not necessarily the subject matter that evoked a piece’s affect, but rather its formal elements.
His 1888 painting Sunflowers explores how empathic, thickly layered brushstrokes, known as impasto, can also elicit certain emotion. The dead flowers are particularly heavy with paint, creating a juxtaposition with the lively action that van Gogh as the artist suffused them with. Similarly, the bright, energizing yellow that permeates the canvas contrasts with the spiky and droopy petals and barren seed heads. They were painted for fellow Post-Impressionist Gauguin to decorate the yellow house they were meant to share in Arles, France, but the clash of these two bold personalities eventually culminated in the iconic yet controversial severing of van Gogh’s left ear.
Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers, 1888. Oil on canvas. 36.25” x 28.75”. The National Gallery, London.
The intimacy and expressive potentialities of van Gogh’s art, conjured through a dialogue between his formal qualities, is mastered in Bedroom in Arles (1888), depicting a personal space that simultaneously accesses complex psychological states. The yellow and blues complement and dominate the space, put off kilter with the striking red bed sheets. There’s also a sense of anxious duality: two portraits hang on the wall; two chairs face away from each other; two doors remain closed on either side of the room. Its wobbly perspective is a sign of claustrophobic unease, while also inviting the viewer into van Gogh’s own artistic community and psyche, the domestic setting at odds with the decorum of the Parisian art world.
Vincent van Gogh. Bedroom in Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas. 28.3” x 35.4”. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas. 29” x 36.25”. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
Yet it is through the raw energy and dreamy mystique of van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) that most people come into contact with him. Like the Impressionists before him, van Gogh loved to paint landscapes en plein air, but this piece is a rare exception, painted from memory while he was in an asylum. The swirling, virtuosic linework and the boundless blues captivate the viewer, the stars dancing effervescently. The flaming cypress echoes the peak of the church spire, both reaching up toward the heavens in universal harmony.
Though never finding success during his lifetime, van Gogh has come to be recognized as one of the greatest precursors to 20th-century art and influenced movements such as Fauvism and Expressionism.
“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” – Vincent Van Gogh
“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” – Vincent Van Gogh
“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent Van Gogh
“I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.” – Vincent Van Gogh
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent Van Gogh
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