[2/3] Paul Gauguin: Goodbye Matte!

In the autumn of 1888, there was a break in Gauguin’s isolation in Brittany. Vincent van Gogh, whom Gauguin had met in Paris in 1886, had been asking him to come to Arles for a long time. Vincent had a dream: to create in the south of France a community of painters that could help them all to overcome the difficulties of life. Theo van Gogh had negotiated a contract with Gauguin according to which the painter had to carry out twelve paintings per year for him whilst Theo would pay him 150 francs of monthly salary. On October 21, 1888, Gauguin finally made the journey to Arles.

For the rational Gauguin, the splendor of Arles did not make the same impact on him as it did on the spontaneous Van Gogh. The absence of shades in the south only reinforced his belief that color was to be laid on canvas with heavy patches of maximum intensity. Gauguin failed in becoming accustomed to Arles and Van Gogh. Nevertheless Gauguin was convinced that he had much to learn from Van Gogh. Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh in front of his easel remains as a reminder of their short life together (Van Gogh’s Portrait). Gauguin’s permanent bad temper and Van Gogh’s sensitiveness had a tragic outcome: during a fit of madness Van Gogh cut his ear and was taken to hospital.

On December 26, 1888, Gauguin returned to Paris. He attended the World’s Fair with enthusiasm and he spent a lot of time there. Everything was of interest to him, to begin with the modern building of the various pavilions and the Eiffel Tower. The exhibitors of the pavilions dedicated to colonial culture greatly satisfied his penchant for the exoticism of the East and of faraway islands.

Apart from some short stays in Paris, Gauguin spent most of 1889 and 1890 in Pont-Aven. Still staying at Gloanec’s inn, Gauguin once more shocked the inhabitants of Pont-Aven and the conservative side of the painters that used to meet up there with his Beautiful Angèle.

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The Beautiful Angèle, 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The portrait of Mrs. Satre, the very beautiful wife of a respected man who was to become the mayor of Pont-Aven, was perceived as truly offensive to the model. Angèle Satre herself felt outraged by it and refused the portrait.

Gauguin was an artist whose work precisely needed Brittany. Traditional crosses made of stone and calvaries, often of complex compositions and numerous characters dating from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, were found at crossroads. Gauguin used one of them as a motif in one of his paintings: Breton Calvary (The Green Christ), where the sculpture of a group of women with the dead body of Christ is put together over a single green patch contrasting strikingly with the orange rocks in the background.

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The Breton Calvary (The Green Christ), 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73.5 cm.
Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

The calvary of the painting stands in the village of Nizon near Pont-Aven. In the same way, as one goes out of the Bois d’amour made famous by the school of Pont-Aven, there is a stone chapel in the Gothic style. There the arms of Guillaume du Plessis are kept along with the date of the building, 1558. Inside there are stone sculptures and a painted wooden crucifix from the seventeenth century. Gauguin painted it several times and represented it in two of his paintings. In The Yellow Christ, this ancient crucifix dominates a Breton landscape with its fields and hills laid as far as to reach the distant horizon. Moreover, the nearly schematic face of Christ reminds one of Gauguin’s own face.

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The Yellow Christ, 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

In the The Yellow Christ, that symbolic similarity is manifest. Gauguin has already represented his face much earlier in the past in many drawings and in the portrait for Van Gogh. Here, he reproduces it on the background of two of his own creations: The Yellow Christ and the ceramic Pot Portrait in the Form of a Grotesque Head. The painter thus appears in three different ways, each of them symbolizing one of the aspects of his nature.

Gauguin was pleased with his paintings of the autumn 1889. It seems like he had done everything that he could in Europe; it was time for him to embark for distant lands again. Gauguin was still dreaming of a studio in the Tropics, an idealistic community of painters. He was hoping that Bernard and De Haan would go with him and he dreamt of living there out of “ecstasy, calm and art”.

At the beginning of March he went to Copenhagen for the last time in order to say goodbye to Mette and the children. At the end of the month, he received the reply to his inquiry: the ministry of Education and the Beaux-Arts Academy had accepted to pay for him to go on an official mission in Tahiti to study and represent nature as well as the customs of the island. On April 1, Gauguin embarked on the Oceania from Marseille.

On June 9, 1891, Gauguin arrived in Tahiti’s capital city, Papeete. Early on it seems that circumstances were rather in his favor and that he could rely on French civil servants to help him. He observed, listened and was seduced by everything: Tahiti’s nature, its mysterious nights, its inhabitants. Immediately Gauguin started to learn the local language…


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[1/3] Paul Gauguin: The Temptation of the Orchid Woman

At the autumn of 1891, Gauguin decided to leave the civilized city of Papeete for the village of Mataiea where aborigines were living a natural life. He painted the sand on a shore, immense trees and mountains. He caught the effects of the blazing sun revealed by the sculpted volume of the tree. It mattered to him to give each painting a title in Tahitian. (Fatata te Mouà (At the Foot of a Mountain).

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Fatata te Mouà (At the Foot of a Mountain), 1892. Oil on canvas, 68 x 92 cm.
The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

He delineated flats of bright colors patches with contours. Little figures of Tahitian women – whom Gauguin never stopped drawing pictures of doing their activities – began to appear in the landscape. (Matamoea (Landscape with Peacocks).

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Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks), 1892. Oil on canvas, 115 x 86 cm.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts , Moscow.

Little by little, Gauguin got used to his new environment. He admired young Tahitian women, their sturdy beauty and their spontaneity. But Gauguin kept in mind everything that he had seen at the Louvre and during his travels around the world. The real market scene gets transformed into a stylized frieze recalling the memory of friezes in ancient Greece, Egyptian bas relief and Gauguin’s own Breton paintings (Ta Matete’ (The Market)).

The painter’s wife was called Tehura. She knew all the customs of aboriginal life, told Gauguin the local legends and initiated him to Tahitian gods. Gauguin painted a Tahitian Madonna wrapped in a red pareo with a Christian aureole round her head. (La orana Maria (Ave Maria).

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La Orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891. Oil on canvas, 113.7 x 87.6 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

One particular painting sums up this mature style: Tahitian Pastorals. In this painting a Tahitian woman plays the vivo whilst another listens to it motionlessly. Her blind look, the ritual vase and the strange orange dog in the foreground constitute a network of mysterious symbols. The exotic world here is made of patches of colors – red, green, pink, black, yellow – delineated with contours.

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Tahitian Pastorals, 1892. Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 113.7 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

On June 4, 1893, Gauguin left to return to France. The period before his departure was difficult. Gauguin became seriously ill; he lacked money to buy canvases but the state that he was in didn’t allow him to work. The distant tropical islands now appeared to him like a paradise. In Paris, he painted something strange that he called Nave Nave moe which meant ‘Delicious mystery’ according to him but ‘Sweet dreams’ would be a more accurate translation. Nowadays that painting is known by the name that it received later, Delectable Waters. On June 28, 1895, he said goodbye to his friends and got on the train for Marseille where he embarked for Oceania again.

Gauguin arrived in Papeete on September 9, 1895. He had brought with him two landscapes that he had painted in Brittany (Breton Village under the Snow). Many things had changed in Tahiti: civilization had brought its sad fruit. The colonial authorities could not maintain order and the army could turn up on the islands at any time. Gauguin was annoyed by everything from political speeches to electric lighting. He started to envisage going further to Saint- Dominique in the Marquisas archipelago where he had planned to live a quiet life cheaply, but things were not that simple. Gauguin had brought back a range of infections from Europe.

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Breton Village under the Snow, 1894. Oil on canvas, 62 x 87 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

He had no money left at all. He was in total despair. In April 1897, he got the news of his beloved daughter’s death, Aline, at twenty. He hardly had any energy left to paint. Nevertheless he carried out some remarkable works. In 1896, he painted Te arii vahine (The King’s Wife). It shows a beautiful Tahitian woman of which Pahura is likely to have been the model; she is represented like Giorgione’s Venus or Manet’s Olympia. And the artist was right to be proud: his Tahitian Venus/ Olympia can stand aside its classical predecessors.

Suffering and adversity forced Gauguin to try and interpret the world in a philosophical way. Several drawings and painted studies were the basis for a large painting, summing up, his whole life in a way: Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?

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Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-1898.
Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm. Museum of Fine Arts , Boston.

Painting was Gauguin’s only language and one that was unconventional. On several occasions, he managed to get some work doing drawings for the civil service. Misfortune continued to strike him: he could not paint anymore, his house was destroyed, rats ate his drawings and, being ill, he did not manage to send his paintings on time for the World’s Fair of 1900. At last on September 10, 1901, he managed to embark on a ship for the Marquesas Islands.

He arrived on Hiva Oa Island and settled in Atuana with a new woman, but life was no easier there. Gauguin was still as sick as before. Despite all these hardships, Gauguin carried out many paintings during the last years of his life. There are paintings of a particularly tragic tone amongst the scenes of local life that he painted in Tahiti and Hiva Oa. In 1896, Pahura gave birth to a girl who lived for ten days only. That was probably the trigger for the painting Baby (Nativity).

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Baby (Nativity of Tahitian Christ), 1896. Oil on canvas, 66 x 75 cm. The State Hermitage Museum , St Petersburg.

An ugly Tahitian woman with a dead child and the green Angel of Death are represented with a traditional Christian nativity scene in the background. Those gloomy paintings amplified Gauguin’s exceptionally dark palette. Because he did not have the canvases that he needed, he painted on burlap, often with nothing under it hence the colors were absorbed by the material and the painting was irreversibly darkened.

Gauguin’s last house in Atuana, built in 1902, showed joy in life in its entire decor. Gauguin called it the Maison du jouir (House of enjoyment). That name was represented on a horizontal panel with naked female figures along both edges. There were sculptures everywhere in that house, and no reminder of Christian art; these sculptures were intensively primitive. The bedroom’s entrance is trimmed with wooden panels bearing Gauguin’s favorite watchwords: Soyez mystérieuses (Be mysterious) and Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses (Be in love and you will be happy). These basreliefs are some of only a small number of surviving artifacts from the last period of his life. Gauguin died on May 8, 1903. He was buried on a hill near.


[Part 5/5] Vincent Van Gogh: End of trajectory: Auvers-sur-Oise

Van Gogh drew everything he saw: a “death’s head” moth, grasshoppers, irises and even simple blades of grass. As soon as he was allowed to go beyond the gate, he started to paint blossoming meadows, and later yellow fields. He painted olive trees and the huge plane trees on the streets of the small town of Saint-Rémy.

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Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 103 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh was not going to surrender. He drew and painted as if possessed, hoping that his thirst for work would help him recover. When there was no model, he copied with oil the engravings that his brother had sent to him at his request. He had always loved Millet, and now copied his scenes of labouring peasants. Van Gogh’s copies, painted with his nervous energy and passion, gained a life of their own, independent of their original source.

In his letters to Theo, he never mentioned the studies he painted at night. In Arles, Van Gogh had already been captivated by the unusual beauty of the southern night sky, which he immediately pictured with the colours of his palette, “The dark blue sky was studded with darker clouds, bluer than the most intense cobalt, or paler than the bluish whiteness of the Milky Way. Against this blue background stars shone bright: greenish, yellow, white, pink; shinier, more similar to jewels, than what we have in our country and even in Paris; they can be compared to opals, emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires” (The Starry Night).

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Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art , New York.

In his present condition, when days full of despair alternated with moments of hope, the night sky shone with new beauty. Dark blue, stretched above tiny houses, the sky in this painting is filled with that mysterious life beyond human perception. The stars and the moon are brightly wreathed, while celestial bodies move among one another in entangled spirals. And man appears small and helpless in the vortex of life in the universe (Starry Night). In this world all scales are modified.

Small human figures dream on a terrible, rough path resembling an impetuous river. Huge cypresses rush into the night sky like flames. (Country Road in Provence by Night).

Vincent van Gogh, Country Road in Provence by Night, 1890. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum.

Until then, no one before Van Gogh had managed or even tried to express human passions so powerfully through colours on canvas.

But Van Gogh was still hopeful. Theo wrote to him about a remarkable physician named Dr. Gachet, who was a friend of the impressionist artists and cured with homeopathy. In the spring of 1890, Van Gogh wrote to his brother that his last attack had passed like a storm, and that he was working with frenzied fervour. He was ready to return to Paris. On May 17, 1890 Theo met his brother at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Van Gogh made the acquaintance of Theo’s wife and their young son, then three days later, on May 20, left for Auvers-sur-Oise.

Van Gogh began working on Dr. Gachet’s portrait at once. In a letter from June 4, he described his colour plan to Theo, “…the head with a white cap, very fair, bright hair, his fingers are also light-coloured, a blue jacket against a cobalt blue background. He is sitting, leaning on a red table on which lies a yellow book and a twig of violet fox-glove”(Dr. Paul Gachet).

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Vincent van Gogh, Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890. Oil on canvas, 68 x 57 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The extraordinary intensity of the colours, their sharp contrast, the deformed features of the doctor’s face and the twisting line of the contour contribute to the image of a nervous, unbalanced and sad person, as Van Gogh saw him. It is difficult to determine just whose character was revealed in this painting – the model’s or the artist himself ? For Van Gogh, each painting, regardless of its subject, was an opportunity and a means for immodest disclosure of his own private world, his pains and despair.

Van Gogh left the hotel where he had been staying, to move to a tiny room at Ravoux’s on the main street, opposite the town-hall. He worked with unprecedented energy, even for him, spending each day painting. He had many projects, encompassing all possible motifs in Auvers.

The local church received the most fantastic embodiment in Van Gogh’s painting. A Roman construction finished in Gothic style, this church stood above the village, next to the hill where a rural cemetery lay nearby. On Van Gogh’s canvas, the broken lines set the church in motion, the sandy paths run about the building like rivers, and the contrast of the red tiles with the blue sky filled the painting with anguish (The Church of Auvers-sur-Oise seen from the Chevet).

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Vincent van Gogh, The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise seen from the Chevet, 1890.
Oil on canvas, 94 x 74.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

He and Dr. Gachet did indeed become friends. He painted the portrait of Dr. Gachet’s nineteen-year-old daughter sitting at a piano. When it was possible to find models in the village, he painted the local countrywomen. Most of all, Van Gogh was drawn by the fields. He went to the neighbouring hills to paint the wide spaces that surrounded him “with green, yellow and green-blue tones” in the same way he had painted the panorama of Provence from the hills of Arles (Landscape near Auvers After the Rain). He went to the fields every day, like going to work.

He lived in a constant state of agitation, and Dr. Gachet, who was also too nervous, was not living up to his expectations. Van Gogh saw him as another sick individual. Van Gogh was afraid of renewed attacks and wanted to have enough time to concentrate as much as possible on his painting. He worked under such strain that it led to complete exhaustion. On July 27, Van Gogh went to the cornfields and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Vincent died on July 29 in Auvers, in the presence of Dr. Gachet and Theo van Gogh, who had come from Paris. He was buried in the rural cemetery on the hill behind the church. Later, his brother Theo joined him there for his last sleep. Auvers became a monument of Vincent van Gogh’s tragic destiny and dazzling creativity.

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[Part 4/5] Vincent Van Gogh: The mystery of an ear

On the subject of his new motifs, Van Gogh had to solve the problem of black and white. In Impressionist and Pointillist painting, the world was full of colour overtones; black or white did not exist. For Van Gogh, colour consisted of a little of both, but he refused to abandon black and white, and attempted to integrate them into his contrast system to strengthen colours.

Another motif was the people of Provence. From the very beginning, Van Gogh’s eye caught the remarkable variety in Arles: young and old women, loaders on barges, fishermen.

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Vincent van Gogh, Morning: Going out to work (after Millet), 1890. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Gradually, he began distinguishing among them those that interested him the most. In his portraits, colour was just as important as character. From that time on, colour was an expression of his tension, of his all-consuming passion for self-expression, his zeal to capture with paint the rhythm of life.

It was in Arles that he became the Van Gogh who blazed a trail where no one had gone before. Van Gogh was finally able to rent a small house to work, but also to house a future community of artists, a dream he had never ceased to have. In September 1888 he moved into the house and began decorating it. To Theo he wrote, “One fine day you will receive a painting that represents my small house on a sunny day”. He painted the bedroom of the house. The yellow furniture, yellow floor, and red blanket contrasted with the blue shadows of the white walls. Despite the closed shutters, the room appeared filled with light.

“In the room where you or Gauguin will stay, if he comes, the white walls are decorated with large yellow sunflowers,” continued Van Gogh. He had already painted sunflowers in Paris. The dazzling yellow sunflowers from Arles shone in a ceramic vase before a blue wall. Van Gogh painted them several times. The painter sculpted the heart of the flower in dense layers, producing the feeling of real and rough brushwork the hand wants to touch.

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888 or 1889. Oil on canvas, 92.4 x 71.1 cm.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Van Gogh worked remarkably in Provence, but it did not give him a sense of peace and well-being. Van Gogh was thinking more and more often of Holland. In November 1888, he made a painting of two girls from Arles walking in the garden; this garden was surprisingly similar to the garden of his parents in the village of Etten (Arlésiennes. Souvenir of the Garden of Etten).

All these months Van Gogh had worked frantically, under constant pressure. Thus, it was truly in Arles that the great painter Van Gogh was “born”. In this period, Vincent was already working with Gauguin. Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles on October 20, 1888. Van Gogh’s dream to organise an association of artists came true, even if Gauguin was the only one who had agreed to participate in his project.

Despite this, Van Gogh considered Gauguin to be a great artist and wanted to give him the opportunity to breathe and work quietly and peacefully, in a style befitting a free artist.” He hoped that by working together in a few years they would end up becoming successful.

Van Gogh’s letters were full of admiration for Gauguin’s talent and human qualities. He was proud that Gauguin praised his paintings. Van Gogh very much wanted their communal life to work. Gauguin, however, did not share Van Gogh’s naive confidence.

Their diverging opinions regarding painting were the greatest obstacle to a peaceful communal life. They went to Montpellier to visit a museum where they saw the paintings of Delacroix, Courbet and many other artists. “Gauguin and I discussed at length Delacroix, Rembrandt, etc. Our discussions were extremely heated. And after them we sometimes felt as empty as a discharged electric battery.”

This was the cause of the tragedy that occurred December 23. Van Gogh brought part of an ear that he had cut off to one of the prostitutes in a local brothel. The increasingly heated atmosphere in their common house, as well as Gauguin’s constant teasing, set off Van Gogh’s first attack. Finding Van Gogh in a pool of blood in his bedroom, the terrified Gauguin had his friend sent to hospital and called Theo to Arles. He then left for Paris and never saw Van Gogh again.

In hospital Van Gogh was placed under the care of Doctor Rey, a twenty-three-year-old physician. The doctor reassured Theo, assuring him that his brother would quickly recover. When he left the hospital on January 7, Van Gogh showed the studio to Rey. Thankful for the doctor’s care and friendship, Vincent painted his portrait (Portrait of Dr. Rey). He tried to reassure his family in every possible way, and believed himself, that he had escaped with nothing worse than a fright.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Rey, 1889. Oil on canvas, 64 x 53 cm.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Right after his discharge from the hospital, Van Gogh painted a self-portrait with his bandaged ear. In it, he appears to be very calm. There is no despair in his face.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm. Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

At the beginning of February his strength seemed to have returned, and he wanted to work in the open air. But on February 9, he was re-admitted to hospital, having suffered from hallucinations. February 22, Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “The weather remains sunny and windy. I am spending a lot of time outdoors, but still sleep and board in the clinic.” The doctors were going to send him to Aix for treatment, but Van Gogh felt better in Arles, to which he was accustomed, and where he had friends.

However, in March neighbours complained of his behaviour to the mayor of Arles, who ordered Van Gogh to again be sent hospital. This time, in his own words, “in a locked, solitary cell, under the supervision of a nurse”. The house where he worked had been sealed up. It could be opened only with the help of Signac, who had arrived in Arles to took an active part in Van Gogh’s destiny. Despite his constant agitation, Van Gogh only painted when he felt capable of doing so. Several times he rented a small room at Dr. Rey’s, who gave him his support. But even Van Gogh himself felt that he had to leave for his recovery and agreed to treatment at the asylum of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

The director of the hospital in Saint-Rémy allowed Van Gogh to work and even gave him a studio – there were many free rooms at the hospital. Van Gogh started painting what he saw. He was not allowed to go outside the limits of the hospital garden, but that did not bother him…

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[Part 3/5] Vincent Van Gogh: When sunflowers become a bouquet of art

In 1887 Vincent met Émile Bernard with Signac at the paint dealer “Père” Tanguy. Van Gogh saw Cézanne’s paintings for the first time in this shop. Its owner was such a picturesque person that Vincent immediately began painting portraits of Père Tanguy, Madame Tanguy and their friends. Van Gogh had placed great hope in these portraits, thinking in this manner he would be able to generate orders in Paris. Like many other artists, his hope was not justified.

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Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux
(née Marie Julien, 1848-1911), 1888-1889. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 73.7 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

His portraits were fine and expressive, but lacked even a hint of the lustre sought by customers. What’s more, the artist’s manner of painting seemed strange, careless and non-professional. This type of painting remained limited to portraits of close friends and self-portraits. Since painting his own portrait, the middle-aged Dutchman with the ill-fitting felt hat regarded the world with suspicion and caution (Self-Portrait with Felt Hat). The brown brushstrokes of paint in his beard alternated with red and green, and the hat shone against the background of the dark green through oblong dark green brushstrokes – Signac’s lessons had not been wasted!

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Vincent van Gogh, The Exercise Yard (after Gustave Doré), 1890. Oil on canvas, 80 x 64 cm. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Before that, in November 1886, Vincent van Gogh had met Gauguin, who had come back to Paris from Brittany. Vincent succumbed to the Parisian craze for Japanese art. He frequently visited the Bing gallery which specialised in Eastern art, buying Japanese engravings and even exhibiting them in Tambourin during the period of his friendship with Segatori. Using oil, Vincent copied Hiroshige’s landscapes and figures in Japanese clothes. On one hand, these copies are evidence of his admiration of the Japanese. On the other, these studies applied the Japanese system of perspective to European landscapes.

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888. Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Living in a new environment as restless as Paris was not easy for Vincent, who was of a nervous and unbalanced nature. His feeble physical health could not take the experience of Paris. It was even more difficult for his brother Theo. “Life at home is nearly intolerable”, he wrote to the sister, “Nobody wants to visit any more because each visit ends in a scene; besides that he is so sloppy our apartment has taken on a repulsive look”. Even so, Theo had resolutely decided to continue backing his brother; he believed in his talent and his great future. However, it had become clear to everybody that Vincent could no longer live such a life. In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh went to Provence. Later, from Arles, he wrote to Theo: “All the same, Paris is an odd city: you have to die to survive and only when you’re half dead can you do something.”

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Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888 or 1889. Oil on canvas, 92.4 x 71.1 cm.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

He immediately began to paint and draw small studies to become accustomed to the new environment. He produced the small, characteristic details of Provencal nature: stones, squat pines hardened by local winds, gnarly olive trees or wide panoramas: ploughed meadows and fields on parallel, horizontal planes that stretched into the distance. Van Gogh’s early Dutch drawings already distinguished themselves by their remarkable expression.

Presently, his schoolboy shyness had disappeared – his hand became firm, his stroke assured. – Instead of a student’s washed-tint shading, he was using small, dispersed strokes he’d got from the pointillists. Each of Van Gogh’s Provencal drawings constitutes a work of art on its own, surpassing the minor role of preparation for a future composition.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Rey, 1889. Oil on canvas, 64 x 53 cm.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

In Provence’s unique nature, Vincent was meticulously choosy in what amounted to his new conception of new painting. This is why there are no depictions of Arles in his works. Van Gogh did not draw the majestic Roman arenas that capture the imagination of everyone visiting the city. He had no interest in the Medieval heritage of which the people of Arles were so justifiably proud.

The only aspect he would use in his painting was the crowd of the bullfight (Arena in Arles). He made quite an impressionistic, fragmentary composition, with figures of spectators turning in various directions and cut off by the edges of the canvas, and barely perceptible in the background were the silhouettes of the bulls. He was much more attracted by the fields of wheat under the harsh sun of Provence. He painted them in the open air, suffering from the burning sun, sometimes to the limit of his physical strength. In the past, when he had lived in Holland, he had been fond of Millet’s “Sower”.

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Vincent van Gogh, La Berceuse (Portrait of Augustine Roulin), 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

The Provencal landscape had once again aroused in him a desire to turn to this theme by placing peasant figures in the fields; the symbolical meaning was found in the motif itself: the golden fields symbolised the world’s invaluable riches created by Man. In his painting the important element was colour, which should give the picture symbolic meaning. Van Gogh struggled with different variations of this painting for more than a month. “Yesterday and today I worked on ‘Sower’ which I have completely finished,” he wrote Theo in mid summer. “The sky is yellow and green, the ground violet and orange”. (The Sower (after Millet)). Later, he had to recognise The Sower as a failure. Although he aspired to working with nature, working without it suited him better.

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Vincent van Gogh, The Ward in the Hospital at Arles, 1889. Oil on canvas, 74 x 92 cm. The Oskar Reihart Collection “Am Römerholz” Winterthour.

All the same, the path to painting from imagination lay in nature, which was so rich in Provence that it left Van Gogh no opportunity to preserve even an instant. Vincent tirelessly drew and painted the blossoming fields, gipsy tilt carts, gardens, olive groves, vineyards and streets of Arles. Finally, he discovered the Mediterranean sea; the old fishing port Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer was near Arles, and Vincent went there to spend a few days. He painted fishing boats on the high sea (Fishing Boats at Sea) and beached on the sand (Fishing Boats on the Beach). At times these motifs again evoked memories of the Japanese engravings. Van Gogh had already painted the sea in Holland, and now water had become one of his preferred motifs for colour…

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Keywords: Vincent van Gogh , SignacGauguin , The Metropolitan Museum of Art , The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts , The National Gallery , Philadelphia Museum of Art , Kröller-Müller MuseumVan Gogh Museum , Parkstone International , Art , Painting , Ebook Gallery, Image-Bar , Amazon Australia, Amazon Italy, Amazon Japan , Amazon China , Amazon India , Amazon Mexico, Amazon UK , Amazon Canada, Amazon Spain, Amazon France , Amazon Germany , Kobo , Douban , Taobao

[Part 2/5] Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ sold for $101M/ how much for Van Gogh’s ear?

The discussions with Rappard regarding the role the technical aspect of art should play helped Van Gogh formulate his own credo of painting at that time: “I’m simply saying that correctly drawing a figure according to academic recipe, with a uniform and studied brushstroke, does not respond to the pressing demands of the modern period regarding pictorial art.” Regarding themes of painting, Vincent was convinced that he should “paint the peasant at home, among the members of his entourage.” In 1885, he achieved his goal by creating his first masterpiece.

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The Potato Eaters (p. 83) was painted in the village of Nuenen, where Van Gogh’s parents had lived since 1883. Vincent lived there for two years – 1884 and 1885. At that time he had already done 250 drawings and 190 paintings. He sent The Potato Eaters to his brother Theo into Paris. “It is not impossible”, wrote Vincent, “that I had done a real country picture. I even know that it is so”. For Van Gogh it was a success, independently from the reception of the work. He had painted it exactly as he had wanted to paint it. Van Gogh said himself that he had worked hard to express what these people felt: these men dug in the ground with the same hands that they used to pick up their boiled potatoes. They possessed an expressivity never before seen – a quality hopelessly lost in the academic art of his contemporaries. He was even pleased then that he had never studied painting…

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Vincent van Gogh, Vincent’s Chair with his Pipe, 1888. Oil on canvas, 91.8 x 73 cm. The National Gallery, London.

The Potato Eaters arrived in Paris before Vincent. He went there to continue studying and the first thing he did was find a teacher. Vincent chose the studio of Félix Cormon who was well-known for his huge paintings of primitive life scenes. The young students who felt oppressed by the conservatism of the professors from the School of Fine Arts fled here. Cormon followed academic training; however, he was not hostile to new trends. His classes were necessary for Van Gogh mainly because they enabled him to study nudes. In the training studio, he didn’t try to show his personality. Besides, there he met artists who had also chosen new paths. He became acquainted with Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

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Vincent van Gogh, Japonaiserie: The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), 1887.
Oil on canvas, 73 x 54 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh brothers lodged together in Montmartre, at 54, Rue Lepic. Theo’s attempts to sell his brother’s paintings remained unsuccessful; however he considered it his duty to support Vincent. Theo wrote to their mother,  “He is quickly improving in his work and is beginning to have some success,(…) He has friends who send him a bouquet of beautiful flowers every week which he uses for his still lifes. He paints mainly flowers, in order to find lighter and brighter colours for his future paintings.

Indeed, Vincent’s palette was changing very quickly. Now his views about painting were not limited to the classical masterpieces of the Louvre which would certainly never go out of fashion. He saw a posthumous exhibition of his idol, Francois Millet, which led him to think and re-define a lot of things about himself. Vincent arrived in Paris at the very moment when modern art was showing many different possibilities. Gradually, Van Gogh exchanged his dark Dutch colours for a light palette of the Impressionists.

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Vincent van Gogh, Café Terrace at Night (Place du Forum), 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Vincent revelled in the atmosphere of Paris and poured out his feelings in many landscapes. He painted the slopes of Montmartre with the silhouettes of the mills, workers’ simple huts with their small gardens. His pictures of Montmartre recalled those of Holland. At the beginning, his colours were only slightly lighter than the Dutch colours. The fact that he was painting in the open air in the suburbs of Paris, in Asnières and Saint-Ouen, in the company of Signac, probably played a role in the lightening of his scale of colours. Van Gogh let himself be persuaded by Signac’s fiery convictions. At first his new style only seemed to be a zealous imitation of Seurat and Signac, too enthusiastic, in fact. But gradually Vincent began to feel that pointillism did indeed offer new opportunities in painting light. Not only the streets of Montmartre, but also the interiors of small restaurants became more joyful and more luminous than they were in nature (Restaurant Interior). He surrounded his subjects with a kind of matching colour halo to intensify the primary colour. Signac became a loyal friend.

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Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom, 1888. Oil on canvas, 72 x 90 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Once when they were coming back to Paris on foot, Signac later recalled how happy and excited Vincent was: “Van Gogh was wearing a dark blue work shirt whose sleeves were covered with a constellation of tiny drops of paint. Walking beside me, he shouted, gesticulated, and swung the freshly painted canvas, soiling himself and passers-by with paint.”

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Vincent van Gogh, The Night Café (detail), 1888. Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 92.1 cm.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Heaven.
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Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s Chair, 1888. Oil on canvas, 90.5 x 72.5 cm.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Watch the video about Vincent Van Gogh below:

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Vincent van Gogh part 1: For just pennies on the dollar

In 1885 Vincent van Gogh wrote from Nuenen, a village in Holland, to his brother Theodorus (known as Theo) van Gogh in Paris: “There is, in my opinion, an impressionist school, though I know very little about it.” His notions about Impressionism were very approximate. He thought a new school had been formed around Delacroix, Millet and Corot. At the time when Impressionists were truly coming to the end of their shared artistic path, Van Gogh already had some idea as to where he wanted to go.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm.
Musée Rodin, Paris.

His life was difficult. To escape a Dutch village and move into the realm of great art – not everyone could do it. But Vincent van Gogh was unusually persistent. “I am very glad that you do not object to my intention of coming to Paris”, he wrote to Theo. “I think it will help me move ahead; I’m afraid of hitting a dead end if I stay here, to keep repeating the same mistakes.” Thus, Vincent travelled to Paris. At the end of February 1886, he met his brother Theo in the Louvre’s Salon Carré among the paintings of the great Italian artists.

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Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm. Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London.

Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in a Dutch village called Groot Zundert. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a Calvinist pastor. According to family tradition, at sixteen and without finishing school, he began working as an art dealer in The Hague. Thus, his contact with and knowledge of painting occurred early. Vincent worked in the branch office of Goupil and Company Art Gallery of Paris, which gave him the possibility to visit Paris and work in London for almost two years, then, until April, 1876 in the same firm in Paris. At twenty-three years old, Vincent knew museums in The Hague, Paris, and London, and was exceptionally widely read.

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Vincent van Gogh, Japonaiserie: Oiran (after Kesai Eisen), 1887. Oil on canvas, 105.5 x 60.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

In Etten, a village where his parents lived, there was no suitable work for him, and he changed trades and cities. Vincent worked in the poor quarters of London as a teacher’s assistant and read his first sermon there. The Van Gogh family came from a long line of preachers, so Vincent’s calling was natural. At his parents’ insistence, he began preparation to enter the School of Theology at the University of Amsterdam, and then the Flemish School of Evangelism in Brussels. Having failed in the Evangelism School, Vincent went to work as a preacher in the poorest coal area of Belgium, Borinage, where he self-denyingly helped the poor, even descending into the mines himself.

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Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Working, 1885. Oil on canvas, 42 x 32 cm. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

Living in a state of utter destitution among paupers was a kind of test of Vincent’s abilities, as if he sensed that life would not be easy for him. Heavy work deprived the miners of beauty, joy and human dignity. These people became the first models of his paintings. When writing his brother in June 1879 from Borinage, Vincent’s words already described a future composition: “Not far from here there’s a high spot from which you can see in the distance at the far end of the valley a section of Borinage with its chimneys, mounds of coal, workers houses, and during the day much activity of black figures that you could mistake for ants. On the horizon you can make out stands of fir with small white houses nearby, small towers, an old mill, etc. Most of the time a sort of fog hangs above it all, or perhaps it’s a capricious effect of light and shadow that reminds you of Rembrandt (…) or Ruysdael’s paintings.”

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Vincent van Gogh, Sheaves of Wheat, 1885. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 cm.
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

In Borinage he overcame these tribulations and decided to become an artist. Vincent began studying where he could. Despite the serious conflict with his father regarding his future, he persistently searched for a school and a teacher. Soon it seemed that progress was being made on the artistic front. Tersteeg, a severe judge and the director at the Salon in The Hague under whose supervision Vincent had worked, gave him a box of paints and an album for his drawings as a present, recognising his right to be a painter. The appraisal of his achievements by well-known Dutch artists was especially important.

The usually caustic Weissenbruch admired his drawings. Anton Mauve, a landscape painter from the Hague and a follower of the Barbizon School, played a special role in Vincent’s life. Married to one of Van Gogh’s cousins, he readily agreed to be the future artist’s first instructor. He taught Vincent to use coal and chalk, brush and shading, to make watercolours. And even though they were soon to go their separate ways, Vincent would remain grateful his entire life to Mauve.

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Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1887. Oil on canvas, 34 x 41.5 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.

Vincent met the Dutch artist G.A.Van Rappard in Brussels in 1880. Rappard was seven years older than Van Gogh, had studied in the Academy in Amsterdam and worked in his studio in his native city of Utrecht. His letters to Rappard reveal the breadth of Vincent’s interests and erudition, contradicting the legend of the half-educated and uncultured villager.

Van Gogh demonstrated a surprising level of culture; not only did he know the classics, ancient authors and philosophers, but also modern French, German, English and even American and Russian literature. Since childhood, Vincent, a man who hadn’t completed his studies, spoke three languages fluently, apart from Dutch, his mother tongue, and he assumed this was the same for others…

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Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
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Vincent van Gogh, Agost OcwpUina Segatori in the Café du tambourin, 1887.
Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 46.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Watch the following video about Vincent Van Gogh


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