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Ball at the Moulin De La Galette
24 in. x 18 in.
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Blossoming Almond Tree by Van Gogh Coffee Mug by hizli_art
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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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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.