Vincent van Gogh, and his paintings
Vincent van Gogh became a professional painter when he was twenty-seven years old, after many vicissitudes; he died at the age of thirty-seven. During these ten years he made about eight hundred drawings and eight hundred
paintings, which shows that he was a very productive worker. The first two years he drew only, then he started to paint.
Through painting he liberated his mind and strengthened his creative powers; this progress can be noted from period to period. Vincent's first paintings are very dark. The important ones were made at Nuenen, where they culminated in the large canvas The Potato-eaters. In his Anterwerp period they became somewhat lighter. Through his study of Rubens' portraits in the Anterwerp Museum he acquired a brighter color scheme. The first paintings which he executed in Paris, such as The Shoes (his own shoes), continue in the same trend. After he became familiar with impressionist paintings, black, brown and gray disappeared from his palette. Instead he started using bright colors, in the beginning applied with short touches. At the end of the Paris period these were replaced by broad brush strokes. Later on at Arles, in the South of France, he sometimes painted large surfaces in a single color (as in The Sunflowers). At St. Remy, not far from Arles, his palette became somewhat more subdued, but it brightened up again in his last period at Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. In a letter to his youngest sister Vincent describes how he admired the then modern paintings of the Hague school. He writes that these artists made very beautiful and clear paintings, especially landscape, mostly in grayish tones. When, however, these grays are replaced by pure rainbow colors, and when these are applied in such a way as to strengthen each other 'then one comes anew to calmness and harmony'. Color effects become more powerful when a painter puts the complementary colors near to one another (red-green, orange-blue, yellow-violet), or when he uses the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue) side by side. A stronger combination does not exist. The Yellow House (his own house) and The Harvest, both from the Arles period, belong to Vincent's brightest paintings.
The subject of Vincent's painting remains the same from the beginning to the end. He was very versatile though he wrote in one of his letters that his preference was portrait painting. However, usually he did not have money enough to pay for models, and therefore he painted still-life and landscapes. In 'naturalistic' portrait painting there is always the struggle between outward likeness as in a photograph and inner likeness which is an expression of the personality. A good portrait requires that painter and model have a similar social background, otherwise conflicts my arise; envy of status, a feeling of superiority, or stress on outward and superficial characteristics. Vincent's portraits get their liveliness from the fact that he considered himself a worker like the people he depicted. He wrote that he did his best to discover what is noble and dignified in his model and he wanted to render that. In his portraits the people have open faces and strong, attractive expressions, though if met casually they might appear plain and commonplace.
The still-life are always composed of simple things from daily life, and not of beautiful or precious antiquities. They consist of baskets with potatoes, pottery and flowers, cups and cans, pitchers and glasses, books, etc. The landscapes are never viewed from spots which are frequented by tourists. They are fields, shrubbery and hills, always with signs of human activity, houses of figures. Compositions with a rather bare foreground, a large sweep of open sky, and details on the horizon give a feeling of wide spaces. Everywhere Vincent lived he painted or made a drawing of the view from his studio window. It is a great privilege, and it makes one happy, to be able to see what is beautiful in the common things of one's daily surroundings. There was a time at St. Remy, when Vincent's health did not allow him to leave his room, but he nevertheless went on painting. His brother Theo, the only one who admired his work and who supported him morally as well as financially, sent him reproductions of well-known paintings to challenge his attention. Vincent wrote that he would use these the way a musician interprets the works of a composer; he would paint his own vision of the same composition. This is the origin of Vincent's 'Resurrection of Lazarus' (after a detail from an etching by Rembrandt), his 'Pieta' (after Delacroix), and especially of a number of paintings of farm workers after the French painter Jean-Francois Millet. Millet was at that time one of the few artists who painted these subjects; Vincent's paintings are much stronger and more colorful than the originals. Most painter of old and modern times have copied others, taking subjects, compositions, gestures, etc from them. However, their vision is so personal and original that their works become masterpieces in their own right.
People at work always were among Vincent's beloved subjects. He wrote to Theo that by studying very hard he tried to find 'the essential' which is necessary to represent someone in motion with a few lines only. As people in motion keep a pose for only a fraction of a seconds, the painter must retain in his memory the details thereof. This requires a great faculty of observation and concentration and also a great effort. HIs figures are always alive, never wooden puppets. The ability to observe also manifests itself in other ways. All his works have in common not only a grand composition, but also a wealth of details. The latter are usually so accurate that a loom or a drawbridge or a chair could be constructed from Vincent's paintings or drawings.
Vincent's drawings can be divided into several groups. There are those which are signed, indicating that he considered them finished works. There are others not signed but of the same importance; among these must be counted, for instance, the large figures at work of his Nuenen period. Still others are studies for paintings, either for the whole composition or for details. Then there are sketches for study purposes; the letters to Theo are often enlivened by illustrations of the paintings with which he was occupied. What are the emotions evoked in the spectator when contemplating a painting or a drawing? This author once heard Jean Paul Sartre (the French existentialist) explain that the aesthetic pleasure consists first in making a discovery namely of the subject, a thing one has not yet observed so far. This is followed by the associations of thoughts that emerge as the result of the discovery. And finally there is the discovery of the personality of the artist (Sartre speaks of 'the liberty of the other fellow'). The last point is not new. Emile Zola, the French author and art critic, wrote in 1868 that 'art is a little corner of creation seen through a temperament,. The 'temperament' is just another expression for the personality of the artist. This applies not only to painting but also to all the other arts. Vincent van Gogh was of the same opinion. He wrote to his youngest sister:
You read books to draw from them the energy to act... But I read books to find the artist who wrote them... ”
It is the personality of the artist that is the essential thing and not the objects of the still-life or the landscape or the portrait of someone we do not know. A photograph of the same subject would not be interesting to us; it is the artist's vision that makes it so.
Vincent's vision, which radiates from his works, is that of a beautiful world, full of sunshine, warmth and color. It includes love of humanity, family life and close relationships with others.
However, we know from his life history and his letters that he was a difficult person to get along with in everyday living. He had few friends besides Theo; these were simple people only. With others who had an understanding of art he was apt to get into violent discussions. Painting must have been for him a defense against his inner turmoil. It is as if he wanted to tell the public:
It required great will power and much struggle to suppress his feelings of anxiety. He was able to do this for many years, because he had a very strong character; all his tenacity had to come from within for he received little support from the outside world. The appeal of such a human effort is not bound to any time or country. Nor does his work request from the viewer any choice for or against any tendency of a spiritual or social nature. The development of Vincent's vision of life may help to explain somewhat more the strong impact of his work.
Look, how beautiful my world is - worries one talks about are none of my business - I am concerned with the good side of humanity only ”
During the ten years before he became a professional painter, nothing suggested the great power of creativity that he was to show later. When he went out into the world at the age of seventeen he behave like any other intelligent young man, enjoying everything new and interesting he saw. This did not last long; quite soon he started to lose his pleasure in life and gradually withdrew completely into himself, thus letting go by all opportunities of bettering his position. As happens in may such instances he put the blame for his failures on the outside world instead of looking within himself to find the causes. Self-pity and denial of everything within reach that might make life more pleasant, are detrimental to creative work. However this attitude changed in the Borinage, the coal-mining district in South of Belgium where he had become a lay-preacher. There he had reached the limit of his capacity for self-denial - he had given his clothes and his bedding to others who, he said, needed them more than he himself and he had slept on the bare ground. At that point he realized that he could no longer do anything for others. He wrote to Theo that he no longer was a bird enclosed in a cage living like a gentleman at large. He wanted to be compared to a bird changing its plumes. When he acquired his 'new feathers', he started drawing. His letters show an increasing ability to raise himself above his depressing surroundings. Having found this new way of self-expression he succeeded in freeing himself from many conventional sentiments of his environment which frequently clashed with his own experiences. The discrepancy between the teaching he had received and his own feelings often was the source of inner turmoil and passivity; it left Vincent, when he was twenty-five years old, without any ambition of activity.
At that time his emotional dependence on his parents ended. He became autonomous in his thinking and no longer was filled with blind admiration for his father. His spiritual bond with his mother never was very strong, though later on he nurse her devotedly after she had broken her leg; he even painted his father's chapel for her, though she was not interested in his work.
Creative work, in the arts as well as in other fields of endeavor, consist of two phases: giving out and receiving. The first is like assuming the role of the ideal mother (in the eyes of the child) who only gives without expecting any thanks. The second phase can be compared with a child who receives a present without having to say 'thank you'. When doing creative work one is completely on his own and derives pleasure from both actions consciously as well as unconsciously. This enjoyment does not depend on the appreciation or lack of appreciation of the result by the public. Creative ability is not confined to artists; it manifests itself in every kind of human activity: science, technical, business, etc. Vincent's life shows its latent presence even during a period when he seemed to move in the opposite direction.
Creative work - making something that did not exist before or doing something in a new way - is primarily a matter of choosing from an infinite number of possibilities. It is one's unconscious mind, not bound by conscious limits, that produces, often like a flash at some odd moment, the one solution to the problem that satisfies our sensibility; condition being that the unconscious has been provided with material to work on, by conscious effort. Hard work is essential though this does not necessarily lead to direct results. Occasional interruptions can promote creativity; a period of rest seems to give back to one's spirit its power and freshness. Vincent wrote to Theo in one of his letters that he was constantly full of ideas for paintings. He always did a great deal of preparatory works, often making a number of sketches of details; for the 'Potato-eaters' he also painted some fifty portraits of models. Later on hi contrived a number of details in his mind. Standing before a blank canvas he must have found everything ready in his mind, enabling him to work very quickly. From Arles he wrote Theo that he could finish a large painting in an incredibly short time, seldom more than a day.
In looking for the artist's personality in his works, there is always a human difficulty to be reckoned with. He works from an inner urge and being a professional exhibitionist he can but express his most intimate feelings. These include not only his strong points but also his weaknesses. When producing he defends himself against the latter by fighting his desire for destructiveness, anxiety, worry, sadism, self-punishment, guilt and others, trying to shield himself against self-reproach, etc. However he knows that he has to endure the critical attitude of his public and very humanly, like everybody else, he wants to make a good impression on others. If not consciously then unconsciously, he has a tendency to hide his weak points. This is an important factor in introducing or stressing the element of beauty in art which can perform the function of a veil or a screen behind which a retreat would be possible for the initiated.
Such is the case with many paintings of past centuries which were made on order from those in authority: biblical representations, portraits of dignitaries, etc. At best they result in glorious products of handicraft. But one can see the preference of the artist when he makes, for instance, a portrait of his wife or other members of his family, for his own pleasure. In painting of the romantic school, there is a similar situation: behind their sweetness the personality of the artist disappears altogether. The same is the case with a class of modern paintings qualified as realism of some sort or other. Often they show an outward sweetness or romanticism, but at other times express sadism or propaganda. The personality of the painter cannot be felt, and therefore an appreciative or other reaction of any strength is not provoked, which makes them unimportant.
The situation is different in many modern schools of painting where it is easier to discover the artist: cubist, futurist, abstract, tachist, and other schools. The expression of feelings of anxiety, cunningness, destructiveness, etc. one finds on the surface, but this in itself does not make for a respectable work of art. There must also be positive elements of human dignity, and when they are lacking, one turns away. This is the case with works by the artist who takes refuge from the visual reality of his surroundings because he is inwardly afraid of the world or of society. It is the same if the painter realizes his shortcomings, but does not really struggle to master them.
The appreciation of a work of art by the contemplator depends on its clarifying his own outlook, confirming or influencing his sentiments. What he wants is not to be afraid of the world he lives in; he does recognize its uncertainties but he does not want these to spoil his life. The attitude forms part of the struggle for existence which gives every individual a certain amount of dignity. This is what one finds in every great work of art and this cannot be replaced by any form of aesthetics. In Vincent's work there is the reflection of this human dignity. It is as if he wants his paintings to say: if our struggle is strong enough, we can see how marvelous our world is and what a fine place to live in it might be.
There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. ” - Vincent van Gogh