The life of Vincent Van Gogh (1851-1891) has been well documented over time in writing and film, which often focus on the artist’s madness and his archetypal appearance of the suffering genius. When I visited the recent exhibition Van Gogh and Britain at the Tate Gallery London, I came away with a more a positive sense of his immense passion and motivation in learning to creating art.
The exhibition naturally featured the famous paintings ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’ and ‘Sunflowers’ but I equally enjoyed viewing his lesser known works and drawing studies which showed his integrity and willingness to improve his art. The exhibition contained a wide collection of artefacts that shed an insightful view into Van Gogh’s life including books and illustrative magazines (as a multilingual he was a huge admirer of Charles Dickens, who’s novels inspired much of Van Gogh’s depictions of urban city life).
Many of his paintings on display were hung alongside artists that he revered, such as John Constable and James Whistler (‘Nocturne in Grey and Gold’ 1871 is a brooding dusky Thames night scene whose influence clearly shows up in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’ 1888.)
Largely self taught, Van Gogh soaked up influences like a sponge and he eagerly associated with leading contemporary artists of the day (Paul Gauguin, of course, being a famous companion) where he would share knowledge and discuss art practice and philosophy.
He was not a virtuoso draughtsman (according to his writings he did not have the patience to complete formal drawing classes), nonetheless he was highly dedicated to his craft and his had a an honest and keen sense of observation and thoughtfulness. ‘Woman with Wheel Barrow’ is a quick observational sketch with cross hatched lines and shows his ability to bring a sense of depth to simple sketches. His output was prolific over a relatively short period of time (he started painting in 1880) and he soon developed a sophisticated palette of colours and constructed composition in a confident way.
‘Horse Chestnut Tree in Blossom’ shows the pointillist mark making approach typically associated with Van Gogh and also championed by another short-lived contemporary artist George Seurat (1859-1891). Both artists began to have an influence on their contemporaries and even older established artists such as Impressionist Camille Pissarro, who had a pointillist painting on display at the Tate exhibition. (As an aside, Paul Cézanne considered Pissarro a ‘God-like figure’ amongst the Impressionists but was disappointed with Pissarro’s change of direction when he adopted Pointillism.)
Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Prison Courtyard’ is a copy of an engraving entitled ‘Newgate Prison Exercise Yard’ by Gustavo Doré. Despite being a copy, perhaps a painting like this poignantly reflects Van Gogh’s mental wellbeing (and his fascination for Charles Dickens novels).
In the exhibition the famous yellow version painting of ‘Sunflowers’ was set alongside sunflower paintings produced by subsequent generations of artists such as William Nicholson and Raoul Dufy. Van Gogh’s painting stood out from the others in that it challenged the perception of sentimentalism that is often associated with still-life flower painting. His sunflowers appear dark when set against the light lemon coloured background and stand nervously inside the picture frame.
It’s unfortunate that Van Gogh’s legacy today is so often misinterpreted by artists who believe that his work gives licence to produce cack-handed and naively rendered thick-lined paintings using garish primary coloured splotches.
It’s true that there was an element of naivety in his work… he was, after all, essentially self taught but he learned quickly to produce a balanced and sophisticated palette of colours and a consistent style of his own, through graft and practice. His appreciation of art and an admiration for other artists and a willingness to learn from them is what I feel made him an artist in his own right.