Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Vincent van Gogh - A Life of Beautiful Sadness

Vincent van Gogh

"I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process." - Vincent van Gogh

            Few names are better known than that of Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. Vincent van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter born on the thirtieth of March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. He is well known for paintings such as Starry Night (1889), the Sunflowers series, Irises (1890), and Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890). In this essay I will examine the details of Vincent van Gogh’s life, work and contribution to art.
"Portrait of Dr. Gachet"
Oil on canvas, 1890
On the list of the 42 most expensive paintings, Vincent van Gogh reserves 7 spots, one being “Portrait of Dr. Gachet" (1890) which is the fourth most expensive painting in the world being estimated at 144,100,000 American dollars. How can a painting be worth so much? We know that much of this price has to do with the tiny signature located at the bottom right of the painting. So why is that signature worth any money at all? Why does it increase the price so much? When you buy a painting such as this you are not only buying the canvas, paint and concepts portrayed, but you are buying a piece of history, and really a piece of the artist.
            Vincent van Gogh may be firstly remembered for his artistic skill but he may be just as well known for his outrageous and exuberant lifestyle. He is a spectacle and an oddity; a paradox. His life invites examination and interpretation.
            Vincent van Gogh from childhood was an artist; he was largely self-taught and began drawing as a young child. He continued making drawings throughout his early years leading him to his eventual decision to become a professional artist. This decision did not occur until 1880 at the age of twenty-seven.
"Road with Pollard Willows and Man with Broom"
 Drawing, Pencil, washed 1881
During his early years as a professional artist he felt that he had to master black and white before working with color, and thus he concentrated on learning the basics of figure drawing and landscapes in a correct perspective. Van Gogh did not receive formal training until 1882 when he moved to Hague where he received three weeks of formal instruction from his cousin Anton Mauve, a Hague School artist. Anton was a realist painter, a close friend, a sponsor, and an important artistic influence of Van Gogh. Anton introduced Vincent to oil painting and watercolor which would shape his life from then on. Vincent also got support from his brother Theodorus (Theo) van Gogh. In the winter of 1880 Theo started supporting Vincent financially and would  later manage and sell his paintings.
Van Gogh continued on as a generally unappreciated aspiring artist occasionally moving from city to city until in April 1885 Vincent finally made painting that got recognition and would generally be considered his first work. The work was entitled, “The Potato Eaters”, an oil painting on canvas. The painting attempted to depict the working class as they really were. He purposefully chose rough and ugly models so as to be natural and unspoiled in his finished work and to show that they “have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and — that they have thus honestly earned their food.”
"The Potato Eaters"
 Oil on canvas, 1885
"Impression, Sunrise"
Claude Monet, Oil on canvas, 1872
This painting, and Van Gogh’s style in general are thought to be “impressionism” which stemmed from Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” and is characterized by small, thin, visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities, ordinary subject matter, and unusual visual angles. However, Van Gogh stated in 1884 to his brother Theo van Gogh:
When I hear you talk about a lot of new names, it’s not always possible for me to understand when I've seen absolutely nothing by them. And from what you said about ‘Impressionism', I’ve grasped that it’s something different from what I thought it was, but it’s still not entirely clear to me what one should understand by it.
            This letter is revealing as it shows that Van Gogh was not merely coping a style or working off of what he knew to be impressionism, but rather his roots more likely lay much closer to home in the artists of the Hague school such as Anton Mauve and Jozef Israels.
"Still Life with a basket of Potatoes, Surrounded
 by  Autumn Leaves and Vegetables"
Oil on canvas 1885
            Van Gogh’s early paintings are generally not the "Van Gogh’s" we think of now with bright vivid colors, but rather they were smooth with meticulous brushwork and fine shading of colors. His palette consisted mainly of somber earth tones in contrast with his later brilliant colors and hues. At this time Vincent was known by some, but his paintings were not selling. Vincent sent a letter to Theo chastising him for not putting enough effort into selling his paintings to which Theo replied that his paintings were too dark and not concordant with the style of bright popular Impressionist paintings of the day, a problem that Vincent would soon remedy.
"Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers"
Oil on canvas, 1888
            1886 he moved to Antwerp, Belgium and applied himself to the study of color theory. He spent time in museums, he studied the works of Peter Paul Rubens, a Baroque style artist that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality, and also studied Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli, an impressionist. Both of these artists encouraged him to broaden his palette and to include bolder colors, particularly carmine, cobalt and emerald green. At this time Van Gogh also attended the higher-level admission exams at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp; this was a time of learning and reshaping for Vincent.
            Van Gogh may be best known for an event that transpired on December 23, 1888. Van Gogh was living with one much respected friend Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin, a French Post-Impressionist. However, Van Gogh felt that Gauguin did not treat him as an equal. Frustrated, Vincent confronted Gauguin with a razor blade, but shortly he left the apartment scared and escaped to a nearby brothel. While he was there, he cut off the lower part of his left ear, wrapped the severed ear in newspaper and handed it to a prostitute. He then staggered home where he was later found by Gauguin lying unconscious with his head covered in blood.
"Corridor of Saint Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy"
Watercolor, Black Chalk and Gouache on pink ingres paper,

            At this point Van Gogh continued to unravel suffering from hallucinations and delusions that he was being poisoned. Due to these delusions he spent his time in and out of a hospital in Arles. In March of 1889 the police closed his house due to a petition from 30 townspeople who angrily called him "fou roux” meaning “the redheaded madman.”
            Van Gogh was eventually released from the hospital but suffered a severe mental setback in 1889 which he described as a "crisis that was worse than all the preceding ones."
On 27 July 1890, aged 37, a distraught van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. However, the bullet he was shot with did not hit any organs and he survived. The following morning Theo rushed to be with Vincent and found him in apparently good shape; however, within hours the result of untreated infection in the wound took its toll and inflicted death upon Vincent. Theo reported that his brother's last words were, "the sadness will last forever," a sad epitaph for a troubled life.
Van Gogh has been dead for over 100 years now, but yet his contribution to art and the impressionist movement is still felt strongly today. He was a departure from Monet with the broader brush strokes and livelier colors. Further, his work was unique because it purposely showed the hand of the artist in the production of the piece rather than trying to hide the presence of the artist, as is typical in Renaissance or Baroque forms of art.
"Starry Night"
                       Oil on canvas, 1889
As a crucial part of the impressionist and post-impressionist scene, Van Gogh contributed to the breakdown of the strict realism of paintings and expression and allowed ways for artists to better communicate emotions and concepts.
Van Gogh was a mix of styles: impressionism, post impressionism and even some say early surrealism. He painted in oil and in watercolor and made vast amounts of sketches. Overall, he produced more than 2,100 pieces of artwork in the relatively short period of time he was an active artist. During his life he came to little and only local success, and went largely unrecognized. It was only during his last year of life that his works started spreading to France and Belgium. However since that time his works spread further and further being treated with revere and reverenceToday anything with his name on it will sell; even those painting that were most rejected and unwanted sell for thousands of dollars. His name is known to all and his fame is indisputable, he is arguably the best known painter in all of human history.
"Old Man with his Head in his Hands (at Eternity's Gate)"
Graphic, Lithograph, 1882
            Vincent van Gogh has left a great legacy of originality, innovation and emotion in the art world. He truly has changed the world of art forever and there are thousands that receive inspiration from him and aspire to be like him however we must not overlook the entirety of the man; his life was tragic and lonely. Despite his genius, despite the beauty, despite his life of observation, despite even his rising success he was miserable, it was not enough for him. His affections seemed unreciprocated and unwanted; he was rejected by Gauguin in his hour of most need, ejected out his home, his only source of normality in his later years. The only caring soul seemed to be his brother Theo, his loving brother who was in regular corresponding with. Theo himself did not long outlive his brother Vincent by more than six months. 
            Theo was heavily affected by his brother death; Within months of Vincent's death Theo had been admitted into the Willem Arntz Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, and diagnosed with dementia paralytica, a syphilitic infection of the brain. He died on 25 January, 1891, due to "heredity, chronic disease, over work, [and] sadness".  Undoubtedly Vincent's death had a great affect on Theo's own death. In 1914 his body was exhumed and buried next to Vincent.  They were true brothers, they lived together, worked together, shared together, died together, and now they rest together 
            Through examination of Vincent's life you can see his plea for attention; his thirst for friendship and familiarity. While beauty exudes from him, he himself did not the find the beauty in life, at the end he did not find life worth living. As if a child starved for attention he attempted to attract people to him by threats, self mutilations, and suicidal attempts. He wanted happiness and affirmation, something that through his actions and choices he continually made impossible for himself to find. While his art had beauty it was a mask and a false representation of his life. He lead a beautiful yet very sad life. If the sadness truly will last forever there are none more responsible for this than Vincent himself. 

Work Cited
Hughes (2002), 8        
Hulsker (1980), 480–483
Hulsker (1990), 395, 404
Veen, Wouter Van Der, Vincent Van Gogh, and Peter Knapp. Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last days. New York, 2010. Print
 "Letter 497". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.
"Letter 450". Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum.


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