Van Gogh's artistic expression

Two Cut Sunflowers, c.1887




Two Cut Sunflowers Art Print
van Gogh, Vincent
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Vincent Van Gogh found in Millet the basis of a primitive popular art, models for portraits of humanity. He made the gravity of Millet graver, I might almost say more Lutheran. The ancient Greek spirit which breathes from many of Millet's soft pencil drawings like a natural sound, gives place in him to a gigantic instinct, in relation to which the Millet form appears only as as oftening element. There is nothing classical about him; he reminds us rather of the early Gothic stone masons; the technique of his drawings is that of the old wood-carvers; some of his faces look as if they had been cut with a blunt knife in hard wood. The ugliness of his personages, the "mangeurs de pommesde terre," carries the primitive ruggedness of the older painters to the region of the colossal, where it occasionally resembles materialised phantoms of horror.

Heprojected such things as La Berceuse not for amateurs, but for common folks, and it was one of his--all too natural--disappointments, that no peasant would give himself up to sitting. In his painted portraits, the hard wood of the drawingsseems sometimes to be blent with gleaming metal. Schuffenecker owns the most masterly of his portraits of himself. No-one who has seen this tremendous headwith the square forehead, the staring eyes and despairing jaw can ever forget it. It is so full of a terrible grandeur of line, color, and psychology, that it takes away one's breath, and it is hard to know whether one is repelled by its monstrousexaggeration of beauty, or by the lurking madness in the head that conceived it.

Van Gogh's self-destruction in the cause of artistic expression is tragic, because it was a natural sacrifice, not a self-defilement, the act of a perfectly healthy consciousness, shattered by insufficient physical powers of resistance. "The more ill I am, the more of an artist do I become," he writes, with no thoughts of verse joys in his mind. He records the same simple fact with which Delacroix reckoned, and Rembrandt, "the old wounded lion with a cloth round his head,still grasping his palette." The tragic result was inevitable, because it fulfilled a natural doom. The only means by which he could escape despair, retain his self-respect, and repay the devotion of the brother who had spent so much on canvas and colors was, to make constant progress, to loosen more and more the slenderthreads that bound his individuality to a failing body, and penetrate ever more deeply into the mystery that dazzles the eyes, to give bodily substance to theartistic soul, even when it was parting soul and body. It was heroism, becausethe result was hardly doubtful to him, a peasant's heroism, because it went straighton its way without any dramatic gesture, simply and naturally. In one of hisletters Vincent speaks of a worthy fellow who died for lack of a proper doctor: "He bore it quietly and reasonably, only saying: 'It is a pity I can't have anyother doctor.' He died with a shrug of the shoulders that I shall never forget."

In some such fashion Vincent's death must be explained. Even in the early days at Arles, when Gauguin was with him, be once threatened to cast off the weary flesh. He came to himself again, and went voluntarily to the Arles asylum, where he painted some wonderful things, among others the Schuffenecker portrait of himself, the cloistered garden of the asylum with the splendid flower-beds (belong shying to Hessel), and some beautiful flower-pieces. In his letters to Theo he revealsa marvellous memory, clinging to childish recollections, as if to interpose his home between himself and the strange power that sought his life; he recovered so far, that he went to Saint Rémy, to find a new field of activity there. But his brother was in trouble, and when Vincent came to visit him in Paris he recognised his own danger, and looked about him for help. He found it in Dr. Gachet.

Gachet, who still pursues his avocation and his art robustly, had a comfortable, hospitable house at Auvers-sur-Oise, near Valmandois, where Daumier spent his lastyears of blindness. Daubigny painted there, Cézanne came thither in 1880 at Gachet's recommendation, and lived there for several years, painting many finethings; to many others the happy land and the old artist-doctor's table were a solace. Even Van Gogh seemed to have painted himself into health at Auvers. He came in the middle of 1889. His Auvers pictures have not, of course, the intoxicating richness of strong colour revealed to him by the south; but on the other hand, he achieved an unprecedented development in his play of line. His own portrait and his portrait of Gachet are purely rhythmic works, quite free from hardness, marked by a perfectly conscious application of his unrivalled talent for decorative tasks. In the roses, and in the arrangement of chestnut leaves and blossoms, a happy harmonious spirit seems to be weaving its beautiful dreams, remote from all dramatic violence.

Van Gogh - nature of all modern color theories

Landscape with Olive Trees


Landscape with Olive Trees Art Print
van Gogh, Vincent
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We must grasp Van Gogh thoroughly, to recognise the relative nature of all modern color theories, and above all, to get some definite idea of the inscrutable laws that govern the quantitative distribution of color-masses. Roughly speaking, it might almost be supposed that the quantity of a colour juxtaposed to one or more other colors, is of greater importance than the quality, and behind this is concealed again, the old, inestimable importance of composition in a picture. Hence it may perhaps be said that Van Gogh finest work is Le Bon Samaritain, which is a free rendering of Delacroix' lithograph. In this work of from 60 to 70 cm. Van Gogh exhausted his whole palette. The dominant is blue, and to this all the colors of the picture are brought into relation. It begins in the background, which contains in nuce all those elements that are brought into vigourous contrast in the dramatic group. The light blue tones, which also distinguish the famous contemporary ravine-pictures painted at Arles, predominate in the background. They are enriched with white, occasionally with pink, light green, and to the left, with dark orange. The contours of the mountains rise in delicate gradations to pale pink, and at the highest point to pale green, and are given in waved brush-strokes, which accentuate the direction of the inner hatchings. The group is composed of the somewhat rusty but brilliant colour of the mule,(produced by a mixture of lac de garance, white and blue), the Prussian blue of the wounded man's drapery, and the orange of the Samaritan's. But such dry enumerations as these fail to suggest any idea of the richness of effect, even when reinforced by our excellent reproduction. The beast in particular, whose strangely deep colour is the focus of the whole picture, defies description. It forms a mysterious ground tone for the still more mysterious flesh-tones of the sufferer and the dark skin of the Samaritan. The blue swells arvellously from the back­ ground to the foreground, i.e., from above to below, reaching its utmost volume in the Samaritan's breeches, where it blends into a resonant chord with the orange of the tunic, and the greenish yellow tones of the legs. On the other side, the orange stands on a field made up of strong, bright green splashes of colour on the fading blue. Here the light pink of the road winds upwards into the mountains, is repeated in the soil of the foreground, and above near the pale green of the cleft etween the mountains; it strikes a stronger note in the border of the Samaritan's urban, where it leads up from the tawny flesh tones to the isolated deep-red of the fez, that glows ruby-like in the centre, the fiery eye of the picture.

Apart from Delacroix and Daumier, Van Gogh, when he sought inspiration from others in composition, relied on Millet with a sort of fervid veneration--on that Millet, be it understood, who comprised Daumier. Theodore van Gogh's widow at Bassum has a number of drawings, which Vincent borrowed more or less from Millet. He looked upon Millet, not as a rival to be surpassed, but as the embodiment of a doctrine, almost of a religion, in which he believed. " Rembrandt and Delacroix," be wrote, "painted the person of Jesus, Millet his teaching."

Of this teaching, we are here concerned only with those traditional elements to which Millet gave form. For Van Gogh it was a kind of haven, and I pass over the superfluous question how much he added to Millet, or Millet to him. It was not poverty of invention that drew him to Millet and Delacroix, but rather an excess of productive energy, which he was only able to curb by keeping it within the limits of a prescribed alien form. Let us hear what he says himself in one of his letters:

"Eussé-je eu les forces pour continuer, j'aurais fait des saints et des saintes femmes d'après nature, qui auraient paru d'un autre âge: ç'auraient été des bourgeois d' à présent, ayant pourtant des rapports avec des chrétiéns fort primitifs. --Les émotions que cela cause sont cependant trop fortes. J'y resterais.

"Mais plus tard, plus tard je ne dis pas que je ne viendrai pas à la charge. . . . Il ne faut pas songer à tout cela, il faut faire, fût-ce des études de choux et de salade pour se calmer, et après avoir été calmé, alors . . . ce dont on sera capable."

Well, he painted his saints, after all. Every picture he painted was holy ecstasy, even when the theme was a bunch of lettuces.

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It is difficult to express Van Gogh in terms of art. It is always absolutely vital, because it is power; and power is always beauty. His harmonies are of a physical order, and therefore outside the melancholy or the delight to which the mind is stirred by other sorrowful or cheerful pictures. The reaction induced by his works is at first a purely physical one. The planes of his canvases, which seem to have been pro­duced, not by brushes, but by the stonemason's implements, scream, and we are sometimes tempted to scream in unison, just as we feel inclined during a storm to shout aloud with the thunder. It is the cry of the human animal, whose blood is quickened by the enigmatic relation of the individual to the cosmos, who yearns to penetrate into his environment, into Nature, and destroys either this or himself if he does not succeed. Van Gogh did not produce his art; it was as much a part of himself as is some material function a part of the body; it was not something external to him, but his closest idiosyncrasy, joy or suffering. To this man, who first turned to art in his later years, and then perhaps only as to a pisaller, it was apparently a thing inherent, with which perforce he had to live and die.

That this pathological phenomenon should have resulted in aesthetic achieve­ment is no more remarkable than that Nature, of whatever kind it may be, produces beauty. Van Gogh regarded a striving after perfection as a natural morality. He was a cleanly animal. He owed more to Daumier and to Delacroix than to all the Impressionists. Here the peasant, who regretted that Paris did not possess more "tableaux en sabots," found a kindred spirit. When he took the group of the three topers with the child at the table, from Daumier Buveurs,† he did Daumier the highest honour in his power and--like Delacroix, when he used Raphael's composition in the Vatican for his Heliodorus in St. Sulpice--added to his own laurels by producing one of his most individual pictures. He found in Daumier the justification of his own linear exaggerations, the flaming play of his aspiring lines, that seem to crouch in order to strike more surely. He had also a great admira­tion for Cézanne, and an unbounded veneration for Monticelli, to whom he was drawn more closely by that magic South where Cézanne painted his fruits and the old gipsy his marvellous colour fantasies. In a letter to Aurier, containing perhaps the most complete revelation of an artist's psychology ever penned--it appears in Aurier Œuvres Posthumes--he almost indignantly assigns the praise awarded to himself to Monticelli, even ranking Jeannin's and the aged Guost's flower-pieces above his own works. He esteemed Meissonier, because Mauve thought highly of him, and venerated Ziem, because Ziem venerated Delacroix. This naivete does not, however, preclude very delicate appreciations. He speaks of a Monticelli at Lille, "autrement riche et certes non moins français que le Départ pour Cythère de Watteau," and opines that no other artist has approved himself so directly the heir of Delacroix, though Monticelli received Delacroix' teaching at secondhand, through Diaz and Ziem. . . .

These few lines also contain all the physiology of Monticelli that was valuable to Van Gogh. He made his start under the spell of the Impressionists. Pissarro had the same influence upon him as upon Gauguin and later upon Bernard. His Quatorze Juillet à Asnières, one of the very best of his pre-Arlesian pictures, is painted very thinly, the colour divided into minute green and yellow particles on a gray ground. At Arles he came to think this technique insufficient. He was temperamentally incapable of consistent work on this system, by which Signac fixed the vapourous quality of Southern landscape; and further, he had not time for it. The exact opposite attracted him in Monticelli: the heavy fabric of loaded colour, with which the old magician produced his thousand accidents. Van Gogh exaggerated this, but at the same time, he simplified it, he rejected what was petty and incidental, reduced the palette to single pure colours, laid on in large, coarse fragments, and added his own temperament as the amalgam.

There are many pictures in a single picture by Van Gogh. His brush strokes not only give things that force themselves upon the eye from a distance with elemental power, but they combine to produce an extraordinary play on the surface, forming a free and varied ornament and giving a mysterious animation to the background, as well as a rare splendour of texture to things that stand out against it in sharply defined contours. Fundamentally it is, of course, nothing but a development of the granulations which give the quality to every surface in painting; a special structure of the brush-strokes, in short, that development of the manual element in brushing which the Venetians began; that which distinguishes the later painting from that of the Primitives; that which, apart from colour and composition in the vulgar sense, delights us in Titian and Tintoretto, Rubens and Watteau, Delacroix and Monet, that on which the majority of contemporary painters base the whole of their art. But Van Gogh uses it as a means which determines the character of his pictures more clearly than any other element in them, a means whereby he concentrates his material in a colour-extract of all possible materials. Nothing was farther from his purpose than optical illusion; no modelling tempts us to believe in a corporeal presence, his picture is always as flat as a Gobelin tapestry; but it has a richness no textile could approach, even if woven of gold and precious stones, and this richness is so organic, that it affects us like Nature itself. His palette may be told off on the fingers of one hand. Prussian blue, pure yellow to orange, emerald and Veronese green, and red were to him what white, gray, rose-colour and black were to Velazquez, lemon yellow, pale blue, and pearl gray to Vermeer.

The problem of com­plementary colours was in his hand, so to speak, rather than in his head; it did not dominate him. He ventured on the most daring combinations, juxtaposed a resonant Prussian blue and a tender red, but chose his quantities so unerringly that his most audacious effects seem the most natural. He never used blue without an accompanying yellow, or his luminous red without orange. M. Aghion's extra-ordinary picture, the avenue with the Roman tombs at Arles, is a marvellous example of this system. Into the two mighty rows of trees, that stand in front against the blue, and behind run into the pure yellow of the sky, brought to a narrow strip by the perspective, shoot streams of orange tinged with red, forming deep blood-red pools upon the ground. It is a colossal combat of colours, that take on an almost objective significance, so convincing is the manner in which they are used.

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The influence of Paris upon Van Gogh was not altogether happy; it sought to divide a being who was an absolute unity. He made the acquaintance of the Impressionists, whose analytic art was the antithesis of his own, which aimed, above all things, at concentration, but whose logical deductions forced themselves upon his intelligence. The pictures he painted at this time betray the influence of Pissarro; when he came to know and reverence Seurat, he even attempted division. The best picture he painted in Paris was the Quatorze Juillet, to which I shall return presently; in others--the medallion, for instance, now belonging to Vollard--his individuality seems entirely obscured. In all we are conscious of an arrest of his powers, the uncertainty the vast city induced in him (he speaks of it in later letters referring to this time). But we must not think of Van Gogh as the peasant, falling under the wheels in the city. Rather did his danger lie in his remarkable instinct for culture, eager to embrace everything, and insistent upon order, where disorder is habitual in all relations of life. Julien Leclerc, who made his acquaintance in 1888, describes him as a nervous, chilly individual, suggestive of Spinoza, and concealing a violent intellectual activity under an exterior reserve.

Vincent breathed freely again, when he found himself once more among peasants at Arles. His letters to Emile Bernard and to his brother, published by the "Mercure de France," reveal his conception of art, a conception which would only have excited the laughter of the boulevardier. "Christ," he says, "was the greatest of all artists, because He made immortal men, and not works of art, because His words, which He, as a grand seigneur, disdained to set down in writing, were mightier in their power over others than marbles and pictures, because He knew that they would endure, when the forms of the world in which He lived had long passed away." Here we have the whole of Van Gogh, the man who believed, even more fervently than in art, in a tremendous pure creative power given to men to make others happy; which urges the individual not to gratify his own vanity by his art, but to find satisfaction in the hard fate of a great artist such as he himself was. He repeatedly lamented to his brother, that pictures and statues were not living things. It depressed him to think "that life is created with less effort than art."

It was natural that Millet should influence him: Millet, whose attitude to Christianity was akin to his own, and who invented the divine gesture of his Sower to express it. But Millet was made of other stuff. He enjoyed the Nature he painted. The gravity that breathes from his pictures is that of the country­ man, familiar with hard work, but confident of its results. Van Gogh is all harsh tragedy; he did not go to Nature; she dragged him to her. To be nearer to her, he, the Dutchman, nourished in the northern calm of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Vermeer, went to the wonderland of France, to Provence, where the sun bathes the earth in pure colour, and men and things are still as simple and as great as when the Romans built their arenas there.

Frans Hals was the Dutch element in Van Gogh, who always retained his peculiar vehement handling. With all the impetuosity Frans Hals employed to give life and colour to his portraits, with all the turbulent vigour Daumier used to kindle his darkest sauce to flames, and with an irresistible impulse towards symbolism, Van Gogh rushed upon the new country, in which all the conditions were sharply opposed to those of his own nation: flame met flame. All his pictures are battle; battle in the literal sense; he painted, buffeted by the mistral; the effects he sought lasted sometimes but a few moments, and had to be got in one sitting. And even more urgently was he driven forward by the frantic fire within, that blazed high under the burning skies above him: creating, creating--"Vite, vite, vite et pressé comme le moissonneur qui se tait sous le soleil ardent, se concentre pour en abattre."

Van Gogh seemed hardly to paint his pictures, but rather to breathe them on to the canvas, panting and gasping. We may take it that he painted about three-fifths of his pictures at Arles. His stay here lasted from 1887 to the middle of 1889. In this space of a little over two years, he painted several hundred pictures. These were slight superficial manifestations, implying long and ex­ hausting preparation. Van Gogh may aptly be called a Vulcan; the phrase a Romantic writer applied to Delacroix was no less descriptive of him: he carried about a sun in his head and a hurricane in his heart. But in his case, a certain pathological significance must be read into the poetic words. All that this man undertook was carried to a terrific pitch. It is gruesome to see him paint--a kind of orgy, in which the colours were splashed about like blood. He did not paint with hands, but with naked senses; special organs were given him.

He became one with the Nature he created, and painted himself in the flaming clouds, wherein a thousand suns threaten the earth with destruction, in the startled trees that seem to cry aloud to Heaven, in the awful immensity of his plains. He seems sometimes to have made himself a hole in the earth and to have painted from it. This was how he executed the picture belonging to the younger Bernheim, which so delighted Monet, Les Coquelicots, a landscape without a sky, a kind of microscopic slide, showing a bit of fruitful earth. He ventured upon still-life, the genre in which Cézanne did his best work. Van Gogh's idea was to calm himself with these essays. He was fond of setting a fruit-basket diagonally across the canvas and filling it with apples. With the great Cézanne these subjects were actually "still-life," a splendid and grandiose version of the Dutch "nature morte," the most remarkable creation of a brilliantly selected palette.

With Van Gogh, the term "still-life," applied to these amazingly vital masses of fruit seems almost an irony. Vallotton owns one of the "sedatives," as Vincent called them. The apples glow, they seem to be on the point of bursting; the whole essence of their species seems to be concentrated in them; a piece of furious vitality has fallen by chance into this basket. We marvel at the extraordinary and unerring taste that has placed the basket thus and not otherwise, and piled the fruits just in this fashion. We are often surprised at Cézanne's arbitrariness, his indifference to questions of arrangement in spite of his careful calculation of effects. In the wildest of Van Gogh's fantasies one can always trace a strong, methodical hand, co-ordinating images and welding them into pictures, occasionally by an almost superhuman effort, and often achieving extraordinary delicacy the while. M. Maurice Fabre Gipsies with their van, M. Schuffenecker Route de Provence with the mail-coach, and M. Hessel Drawbridge are lyric harmonies full of the most dainty passages, in which the painter's temperament only serves to make the grace he saw as vital as possible. Of course we must not look for sentimen­ tal charm in this grace, and we must accept the means of which it makes use.

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Van Gogh was born at Groot Zundert on March 30, 1853, and up to his thirtieth year had not found his vocation. Everything and nothing revealed the artist in him; everything, because he had within him a consciousness of the divine fire, a veritably elemental craving to express himself; and nothing, because painting by no means presented itself to him as the natural manifestation of this craving. He was of the stuff of which, in earlier days, the great benefactors of the human race were made; he was essentially an idealist, consumed with a yearning affection for humanity, a man who, under all circumstances, would always have been eager to do good. A natural inclination, the sole commercial element in which was a desire to occupy himself usefully with beautiful things, led him as a young man to seek employment with art-dealers. For several years he was with the well-known firm of Goupil in London, Paris, and the Hague. In 1876 he renounced business; and, obeying his dearest instincts, became a teacher in a school in England, working till the end of the year at Ramsgate and at Isleworth. Difficulties of all kinds only served to strengthen his convictions, and finally to make him resolve to extend his sphere of usefulness by becoming a clergyman. He was a Protestant; his father, the pastor of a small congregation, encouraged him in his determination, and in 1877 Vincent went to Amsterdam to begin his theological studies. But the struggle with all the forms and superficialities that overlie the essentials of faith, became too irksome to him. These were dark days; he felt impelled to change his calling once more; his family looked upon him as a castaway. The following year he left his native land again, this time for Brussels, and accepted a mission from the Protestant congregation to the workmen in the Borinage, reading the Scriptures to them, and expounding the primitive Gospel as he himself understood it.

This period, about the year 1880, was a decisive one in his life. His experiences among his miners were those of every warm-hearted person who is brought into contact with miners for the first time. Intelligent enough not to blind himself to the fact that his unpractised speech could offer little indeed to these mute victims of a sombre lot, everything that he saw increased his longing for a medium of expression; for him there was but one idea in these surroundings, where everything tended naturally to become a symbol to him; this was, to show his sympathy by some means or the other. He did so by recording what he saw on paper. Thus, that which had thrust him from one calling into another, from one country into another, became a means of salvation to him.

This time his choice was final. In 1881 we find him again in Holland with his parents in the little village of Etten in North Brabant, drawing everything that came to his hand. One of his cousins was married to the painter, Anton Mauve. Mauve's advice was sought, and he took Vincent into his studio at the Hague. Here Van Gogh learned to paint. But the pupil and the teacher did not get on well together--which is hardly surprising! Anything Van Gogh could have learnt from Mauve must have been acquired in a few weeks! His brother Theodore gave him the means to set up a tiny studio of his own at the Hague. Here his teachers were those great Dutchmen of the seventeenth century, who silently proclaim their immortal tenets in the Mauritshuis, rather than his contemporaries. In 1883 he returned to the country, painting those powerful studies of Brabant peasants, in whose faces he discovered his own original physiognomy. The Mangeurs de Pommes de Terre dates from this period--he painted it at Nuenen in 1885--the grandest portrait ever painted of this être sacré de pure vérité, as Van de Velde calls the peasant in his beautiful study, Du Paysan en Peinture. Earlier painters of rural subjects had exercised their wit, their sense of the grotesque, their cynicism upon him; the modern who misread Millet sought in him a legitimate outlet for sentimental emotion; to the aestheticism of a Huysmans he was simply repulsive. Van Gogh saw in him a Titanic healthfulness, rising like some rugged monument out of the prevailing corruption of the times.

Even then the real Van Gogh was complete. But he would not trust himself. In 1885 he was a pupil of the Academy at Antwerp for a few months. It was perhaps here that he conceived his gloomy prison-yard scenes. In 1886 he at last went to France, where the quality of his art that still lay dormant, colour, likewise developed with amazing rapidity. Here be found the few friends of his life, or rather they found him in the little shop in the Rue Clauzel belonging to Père Tanguy, the only dealer who took up his pictures. Van Gogh commemorated him afterwards in the fine portrait belonging to Rodin, of the man against a wall hung with Japanese coloured prints. The chief of these friends were Gauguin and Emile Bernard. Vincent worked for a time with the latter in Cormon's studio, which Lautrec had quitted the year before.