Post-Impressionism




 



Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map



 






 


 








 


Vincent van Gogh is one of the world's most renowned and influential artists.
The legend of his tortured soul and tragic life has long fascinated art lovers,
shaping the way we view and interpret his work.
But Van Gogh, the artist and the man,
was also inspired by the beauty and colors of nature,
and brought his passion to life in some of the most vibrant depictions
of the natural world ever put to canvas.

Van Gogh Fields and Flowers
offers a refreshing look at this side of the artist's life and work.

 
 

 

 

 
 


Photograph of Vincent, aged 19

Throughout his brief but passionate life, Vincent van Gogh drew much solace from the beauty of nature. In his youth he roamed through the woods near his home, fascinated by the plants and insects. As a man Vincent believed that the countryside was a sanctuary of health, the natural rhythms of life demonstrating the restorative power of nature. He saw in nature the model for beauty, balance, and harmony in his art, explaining,
" I study nature, so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable"

(Letter 429)
.

And in his natural subjects, such as bright bouquets, blossoming trees, favorite flowers, and verdant fields, he expressed his most personal passions. Vincent's paintings of these subjects reflect his belief in a bond between humanity and the natural world. Through them, he affirmed meaning in his life and they remain a testament to his unwavering faith in nature and in the arts.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in the village of Groot-Zundert m the province of Brabant in the Netherlands. The eldest surviving child of Theodorus wan Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. he was named after their first son. who had been born on the same date one war earlier but died in infancy. Five more children followed Vincent: Anna Cornelia, Theodorus, Elisabetha, Willemina, know  as Wil, and Cornelius Vincent.
Vincents father, Theodorus van Gogh, was descended from a well-established bourgeois family. After studying theology, he became a Dutch Reformed pastor and an active practitioner of Christian Humanism. His wife Anna ran the modest household but was also an avid amateur botanist, recording her observations of flowering plants in accomplished watercolor sketches.
In addition to home instruction, Vincent attended the village school m Zundert for a year (1861) and was later sent to boarding schools in Zevenbergen (1864—1866) and Tilburg (1866—1868). A competent, but not distinguished, student, Vincent did possess a natural talent for languages and rapidly learned both French and English. He was an enthusiastic reader and from boyhood he enjoyed fiction as well as works on the natural sciences.
There was little in Vincent's youth to indicate any special inclination toward the arts. His earliest surviving drawings date to the time before he entered his first term at boarding school, but they appear to be copy work with little evidence of skill. The academy at Tilburg had a progressive drawing master named C. C. Huysman, who encouraged his students to study directly from nature as well as to make copies of masterworks. The extent to which he influenced Vincent cannot be judged, but even before his schooling young Vincent had been fascinated by first-hand observation of nature. From his early childhood, his parents had taken him on long walks through the woods where, perhaps following his mother's interest, he assembled collections of wild flowers, birds' nests, and insects.
Vincent left school at the age of sixteen to work and contribute to the family's finances. Through the influence of his Uncle Vincent, known as "Cent," he obtained a post as a junior clerk in a branch of art dealer and publisher Goupil et Cie in The Hague. Vincent proved to be both adept and enthusiastic in his work, and in June 1873, the company transferred him to their London establishment. Theo, his younger brother, followed him into the business, taking his position in The Hague. Always close, the brothers began a regular correspondence. In his letters Vincent confided his most private thoughts and he came to rely upon Theo's sympathy and support throughout his life.
New influences shaped Vincent's interest in England. While he admired a few English artists—including John Everett Millais and George Boughton—he also became fascinated with popular illustrated journals, particularly the Illustrated London News and the Graphic. He favored social realist images, depicting the struggle of the poor, which he clipped out and kept in a file for reference. His heightened sensitivity toward the less privileged was accompanied by an intensifying spirit of piety. Vincent's interest in the business of art waned in the wake of a mounting desire to give service to needy communities.
When Vincent failed to fulfill his initial promise in the business, the Goupil company transferred him from city to city, ultimately dismissing him in April 1876. A period of restlessness—fueled by his pious aspirations—followed. He served briefly as an assistant to a school master in England, but, seized with a passion to preach, he returned to Holland, seeking the support of his family in his new mission. Uncle Cent found him a position as a clerk in a bookstore in Dordrecht, hoping that the salary would be put toward his education. But Vincent did not stay in the job, and in May 1877 he moved to Amsterdam to prepare for the qualifying examinations for a university course in theology. Once there, he neglected his studies, devoting his time instead to projects such as making a multilingual translation of the Bible and drawing meticulous maps of the Holy Land.
By July 1878, Vincent had abandoned his university plans. He began training for an evangelical ministry, but after the three-month probationary period he was denied an official post. Relying on his family's support, he moved to a community in the Borinage, a poor Belgian mining district beset with labor disputes, where he became a lay preacher. Vincent's now fanatical devotion led him to live a life of self-imposed sacrifice. Equating abstention with piety, he lived in a shack, ate only enough to stay alive, and dressed in rags, having given away most of his possessions to the local poor. In July 1879 his superiors in the church intervened, and Vincent was prohibited from preaching. By the end of the year, the deeply religious tone of his letters to Theo had changed, revealing a different sense of mission: Vincent declared his desire to become an artist.

 


A Pair of Shoes
Late 1886
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

 


The subject of this painting—a pair of battered work boots—reflects Vincent's interest in ordinary, well-worn objects so routinely used that they are scarcely noticed. He uses a dark palette, featuring earth tones of somber brown and ocher, heavily shadowed in black, to express the spirit of the life of the rural poor. The thickening impasto (the piling up of paint for texture) and subtle golden highlights forecast the stylistic changes associated with his work in Paris.
 

 
 
 
 

A new vocation


Vincent embraced his new vocation with the intensity of his recent religious calling. In letters to Theo and to his former employer Tersteeg, he asked for art materials, prints to copy, and Charles Bargue's drawing manual, Exercises au fusain. Theo, now promoted to the Paris office of Goupil et Cie, began to send his brother a monthly allowance; his generous support would continue throughout Vincent's life. Vincent's early subjects revealed his enduring sympathy with the downtrodden; beginning with drawings of the miners of the Borinage, he defined himself as an artist of working people and ordinary things.
Now a different kind of restlessness set in. Torn between a desire to work on his own and the recognition that formal study would improve his technique, Vincent moved back and forth from the city to the countryside. In October 1880, he enrolled in the academy in Brussels for classes in anatomical drawing and perspective. By April 1881, he tired of the regimen and left for an extended stay at his parents' home in Etten, where he drew landscapes, as well as figures. Over the summer, on Tersteeg's advice, he cultivated a relationship with Anton Mauve, his cousin by marriage and a member of The Hague School. In December, Vincent moved to The Hague, where Mauve gave him informal instruction in color theory.
During this period, Vincent suffered a physical decline. His poor nutrition caused stomach disorders and dental problems, and a stubborn case of gonorrhea required a three-week hospitalization. Relations with his parents became strained. They believed that their eldest son was chasing a capricious dream, and his behavior—refusing to join the family at Christmas, openly living with a prostitute and her children, and declaring his intention to marry her—struck them as deliberately defiant. Angry with his decisions, his parents also feared for his health and stability.
In the autumn of 1883, Vincent left The Hague, feeling that Mauve had no more to teach him and that family life and a career in the arts were irreconcilable. He traveled to Drenthe in northern Holland, again seeking inspiration among the rural workers. By December, plagued by intense loneliness, he joined his parents in Nuenen, where the previous year his father had been assigned to a parish post. Although emotionally estranged from his family, Vincent attended to his mother when she was bedridden with a broken leg in January 1884, and he was grief-stricken at the death of his father in March of the following year.
Vincent worked ceaselessly in Nuenen, drawing figures and portraits of the local farm workers. His first distinctive style emerged in The Potato haters (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), painted in the spring of 1885. The somber palette, dominated by tones of brown, and the roughly drawn faces of the rugged peasants, expressed Vincent's desire to paint the spirit of the earth. But by autumn, he sought a change in his environment, moving briefly to Amsterdam, and then settling in Antwerp at the end of November. He enrolled in classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts early in the new year, but repeatedly expressed a need for a change of scenery in his letters to Theo. He proposed to visit Theo in June, after spending the spring in Nuenen. But, early in March, Theo received a note scrawled in black crayon from a railroad porter, imploring,
"Do not be cross with me for having come all at once like this; I have thought about it so much, and 1 believe that in this way we shall save time. Shall be at the Louvre from midday on or sooner if you like" (Letter 459).

Vincent had come to live with his brother in Paris.

 

The Potato Eaters
 

1885  

 

Vegetable Gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre
February-March 1887
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
 

 

 
Following the path pioneered by the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, Vincent believed m the integrity of plein-air painting. By working on the spot, he gained a sensitivity to the visual effects of light and color, seen in the nuances of tone in the sky and the flickering white touches on the fields in this painting. In the later years of the nineteenth century, the outskirts of the district of Montmartre were undeveloped and featured communal allotments, outage gardens, and windmills. Emile Bernard attributed Vincent's urge to paint "the humble shanties of Montmartre where the lower middle classes come to cultivate their tiny pieces of sand in the early morning sun," to his reading of Emile Zola's naturalist novels, but whenever Vincent lived in the city he longed for the countryside.
 

 
 
 

An artistic community

Sharing his brother's apartment in Montmartre, Vincent was able to take part in the most advanced artistic community in Europe. Theo, now working for Boussod and Valadon (who had taken over the administration of Goupil et Cie), managed a gallery in Montmartre, featuring contemporary work. Through his brother, Vincent met many of the artists involved in the original Impressionist exhibition, including Monet, Degas, and Pissarro. That spring he attended the last Impressionist exhibition, where he saw Georges Seurat's experiment in optical divisionism, Sunday Afternoon in the Isle of the Grand Jatte. It excited him to share his ideas with the more daring painters of the day, including Paul Signac, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin.

Vincent drew energy and inspiration from these new surroundings. He became a devoted plein-air painter, setting up his easel in the roads of Montmartre and in the suburb of Asnieres with fellow painters Paul Signac and Emile Bernard. The claustrophobic quality of his dark Nuenen style disappeared. Most of all, he explored the use of color. Through the summer and well into the autumn he painted more than thirty bouquets, using his study of flowers to master the range of natural hues.
  


The Courtesan
(after Kesai Eisen)
September-October 1887
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Like many of his contemporaries, Vincent was intrigued with Japanese prints. He began to collect them in Antwerp, writing to Theo that his studio room above a paint shop
"is not too bad. especially as 1 have pinned up a number of Japanese prints on the walls which amuse me very much"

(Letter 437)
.

In Paris, during the summer of 1887, Vincent made three closely observed copies of individual prints— Hiroshitre's The Plum Tree Teahouse at Kameido and Sudden Shower on the Great Bridge, and Kesai Eisen's The Courtesan —to gain first-hand knowledge of the aesthetic and to translate its qualities into his own technique. He came to associate everything pure, strong, and natural in art with ]apanese prints; for Vincent, Japan was less a geographic location than an artistic ideal.

Vincent's years in Paris transformed his art and confirmed his own identity as an artist. But the stimulation of urban life and the sophisticated community drained him. He felt awkward in social situations, and he found few chances to display his paintings. Once again, Vincent neglected his health, and the brutal early winter of 1887 convinced him that he needed a change. He chose to go to Aries, believing that the southern climate would improve his well-being and that the countryside would restore his equilibrium. On February 21, the day after he arrived in Aries, Vincent wrote to his brother that he had made the right decision:
"It seems to me almost impossible to work in Paris unless one has some place of retreat where one can recuperate and get one's tranquility and poise back. Without that, one would get hopelessly stultified"
(Letter 463).
 


During the summer of 1887, Vincent made three copies in oil after Japanese prints. One was from the cover of a journal in Vincent's possession, featuring a reproduction of Kesai Eisen's The Courtesan (1820s). For this work, he traced the figure, and overlaid the tracing with squares to transfer the image to his canvas. The result is a free interpretation rather than a strict translation. Although the pattern on the kimono follows the original, Vincent brightened the colors and loosened the rigid formality. He set his figure against a thickly impastoed background of gold, framed in a yellow border. The images behind her—blooming lily pads, feeding cranes, swaying bamboo, and a pair of frogs—were in part borrowed from other sources, including Toyokuni ill's print Geishas in a Landscape and Yoshimaru's volume A New Book of Incests, but their combination in this decorative scheme was Vincent's own invention.
 

 


Cover of Paris Illustre: Le Japon
May 1886
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
 

 
 
The move to Aries

From the beginning, Vincent associated Aries with his personal vision of Japan. Although the harsh weather was a surprise—he had been seeking the sun and warmth of the south—he compared the snowy terrain to a winter scene in a Japanese print. As the seasons changed, Vincent allowed nature to suggest his subjects. In early spring he painted the blossoming trees, and with the onset of summer, he found inspiration in the fields of blooming flowers. Color became his foremost consideration; he observed the bold contrasts in nature and matched the blues and yellows of his palette to the bright fields of irises under the strengthening sun. In Aries, Vincent led a simple life of focused work, modeled on his notion of the life of Japanese craftsmen.
But Vincent longed for companionship, fellow artists to work with him in his "Studio of the South." He extended invitations to Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, and in anticipation, prepared one of the rooms he rented in the "'Yellow House," a small building on the Place Lamartine in Arles. Through the late summer and early fall, he painted many sunflowers to decorate the white walls of the room; for Vincent, the large, bright blossom became a symbol of his dream of an artist's colony.
Sensitive to his brother's loneliness, Theo persuaded Gauguin to make the journey south to Aries. He arrived on October 23, and, at first, he appeared to provide ideal company for Vincent. They worked together, shared their expenses, and Gauguin saw to it that Vincent ate more regularly, cooking him nourishing meals. But their close companionship began to stifle Gauguin and made Vincent feel anxious, and their lively debates about art soon heated into arguments. On December 23. according to Gauguin's account, Vincent confronted him with a razor. Gauguin claimed to have stared him down, and Vincent retreated to the Yellow House where he was found the next morning, bleeding profusely from a self-inflicted wound to his left ear. What drove him to this desperate state remains unclear, but his heightened emotions, exacerbated by his irregular eating habits and abuse of alcohol, may have triggered the first of the psycho-motor seizures that would continue to plague him for the rest of his days.
Vincent was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for blood loss and potential infection. Within a few weeks he was released to convalesce alone—Gauguin had left Aries. Vincent attempted to dismiss his fear in his letters to Theo, describing his recent crisis as "an attack of artistic temperament "but further hospitalizations for his chronic insomnia and intermittent hallucinations followed.
When his neighbors petitioned the mayor of Aries to have him forcibly readmitted to hospital because of his erratic behavior, Vincent relinquished his vision of the Studio of the South. As Theo had recently married he could not consider intruding on him, but he longed for help and companionship. In May, he admitted himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric hospital in nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence. At first, he was confined to the hospital gardens, but as his condition stabilized, he was allowed off the grounds to paint in the company of an attendant. The cypress groves and olive trees, as well as the surrounding fields, restored his sense of connection with nature through his art.
In this sympathetic environment, Vincent managed to regain some sense of strength and purpose. His condition was diagnosed as a form of epilepsy, and even under these controlled circumstances, he suffered from sporadic, but profound, seizures. As a result, Vincent was periodically debilitated, unable to work in the aftermath of an attack. In the intervals between these unpredictable incidents, he was calm and lucid, well aware of the scope of his condition. He wrote to Theo:
"As far as I can judge I am not really mad. You will see that the canvases I've done in the meantime are untroubled and no worse than the others"
(Letter 580).
 


Self-Portrait, Summer
Summer 1887
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

     
 


Vincent began his relentless and highly charged self-investigation through portraiture during his stay in Paris. Many explanations for his fascination with making self-portraits can be cited, one being that without ready funds to hire models, an artist like Vincent could always depict his own visage. But the intensity of his expression and the fixed gaze that demands the attention of the viewer suggest that Vincent used these portraits to explore his deepest emotions. This rich and brooding image was painted during his second summer in Pans. It demonstrates his new command of tone and brush stroke, pointing to the daring contrasts of color and the heavily applied paint that would characterize his mature style.
 

 
     
 
 

The Bedroom
October 1888
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

     
 


Vincent painted this portrait of his bedroom in the Yellow House at Aries while preparing for Gauguin's visit. With its acute perspective and flattened dimensions, The Bedroom has a jarring expressive force, but Vincent told Theo it was meant to convey a sense of rest. In a letter written to his brother about the painting, he describes the furniture of the room as rendered with "sturdy lines" to suggest the peace of "undisturbed rest."
 

 
     
 
Returning north

In October 1889, Camille Pissarro recommended to Theo that Vincent move to Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris, where he could live under the care of Dr. Paul Cachet, a physician and amateur artist. Plans were delayed by a severe attack in December, and it was not until May 1890 that Vincent made the train journey to Auvers. He found his new circumstances comfortable and took an immediate liking to Paul Gachet, whom he described in a letter to his sister Willemina as being "a perfect friend" and almost "'like another brother." Vincent sensed a deep empathy in Gachet: "So alike are we physically, mentally too. He is very nervous and most odd himself."
Vincent embraced his work with new conviction and a sense of tranquility, finding subjects that ranged from the garden at the house of Barbizon painter Charles Daubigny to the vast wheatfields that lay on the outskirts of Auvers.
But, on July 25,Theo received a letter from Vincent that he described in a note to his wife as "quite incomprehensible." Theo sadly wondered, "When will there come a happy time for him?" Two days later, Vincent shot himself in the stomach, while out in the wheatfields that had become the focus of his art.
He died on July 29.

The funeral was held in Auvers, with Theo and a few friends in attendance. In a letter to Albert Aurier, the first critic to recognize the power of Vincent's painting, Emile Bernard described Vincent's coffin, covered with a simple white drape and "masses of flowers, the sunflowers that he so loved, yellow dahlias, yellow flowers everywhere. It was his favorite color, if you remember, symbol of the light that he dreamed of finding in the heart of his artworks."
The story of Vincent van Gogh's turbulent life has been told repeatedly in the century since his death. He, too, left many accounts of his experience: his self-portraits provide an intimate and unflinching view of his troubled inner existence, while his long, heartfelt correspondence with his brother lends insight to the issues on his mind. But another vision of Vincent can be observed in the paintings of fields and flowers that occupied him during the last, and most productive, years of his life. As he painted the bouquets and the flowering trees, the iris and the sunflower, and the vast fields, Vincent celebrated the deep connection of his art with nature. Within that bond, he found a brief and tranquil refuge, and at least for a time, a reason to work and live, feeling joy in his own existence.

 
 


Courtyard in the Hospital at Arles
April 1889
Oscar Reinhart Collection.Winterthur
 

 


While in hospital in Aries, Vincent made several drawings and paintings of the hospital garden. Here, he selected a high point of view, suggesting perhaps that he had set his easel on the balcony above the courtyard. The flowerbeds, radiating in wedge-shaped plots around the fountain in a traditional formal pattern, mark a contrast to the freer compositions he painted off the grounds.
 

 
     
 
 
 


Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
January 1889
Courtauld Institute, London

   
     
 

After the incident of his mutilation of his own ear, Vincent painted two self-portraits while he still wore heavy bandages. In this painting, he appears as a convalescent, wrapped in a thick wool coat, with his fur-trimmed hat pulled down over the dressings. Behind him is a Japanese print, Toyokuni ill's Geishas in a Landscape, which had been in his collection at least since he lived in Paris. The print recalls the hopes he brought to Aries, but his weary posture and sorrowful gaze express the grim recognition that his life had irrevocably changed.




 

     
 

 


The Starry Night
June 1889
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
 

 


Painted in June, just a month after Vincent voluntarily admitted himself to the asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, The Starry Night appears to reflect the turbulent turn of events that led to his self-imposed confinement. But from his first days m Provence, Vincent had expressed a wish to paint a "starry night with cypresses." His room m Samt-Paul-de-Mausole looked out on the eastern sky, presenting a vista to inspire him. Dominated in the foreground by a dark, twisting stand of trees, the panoramic terrain of The Starry Night seems to roll back into the distance under a chaotic sky. The stars, with their swirling auras of thick impasto, vibrate against the bright blue heavens. The orange-yellow of the crescent moon heightens the tonal contrast, recalling Vincent's sense of freedom in the "arbitrary use of color to express [himself] more forcefully."
 

 
 

 


Church at Auvers
1890

 

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