Van Gogh is today one of the most popular of the Post-Impressionist painters, although he was not widely appreciated during his lifetime. He is now famed for the great vitality of his works which are characterized by expressive and emotive use of brilliant color and energetic application of impasto paint. The traumas of his life, documented in his letters, have tended to dominate and distort modern perceptions of his art.
Van Gogh was born in Holland, the son of a pastor; he travelled to London in 1873, and first visited Paris in 1874. Over the next decade he was employed in various ways, including as a lay preacher. By 1883 he had started painting, and in 1885-6 he attended the academy in Antwerp where he was impressed by Japanese prints and by the work of Rubens. On his return to Paris in 1886 he met artists such as Degas, Gauguin and Seurat, and as a result lightened the colors he used.
In 1888 Van Gogh settled in Arles in Provence, where he was visited by Gauguin and painted his now famous series of
Sunflowers. In the following year he cut of his ear during a nervous breakdown, which brought him to a sanatorium at St Remy; it was at this period that he executed
A Wheatfield, with Cypresses. In 1890, suffering from a new bout of depression, he shot himself in the chest and died two days later.
Sunflowers (original title, in French: Tournesols) are the subject of two series of still life paintings by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. This is one of four paintings of sunflowers in the first series, dating from August and September 1888. The earlier series, executed in Paris in 1887, depicts intricately detailed sunflowers cut and laid out on flat surfaces, while the second set, executed a year later, painting in Arles in the South of France, shows bouquets of sunflowers in a vase. Van Gogh intended to decorate Gauguin’s room with these paintings in the so-called Yellow House in Arles, using art and method from both series.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in August 1888:
I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais’ eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly. I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers ... it gives a singular effect.
Willem van Gogh and Gauguin worked together in Arles between October and December 1888. Vincent developed thick brush strokes (impasto), beginning with the earlier dying flowers, and this technique continued to develop in his second series. The impasto evokes an emotional texture in the seed-heads. Van Gogh produced a replica of this painting in January 1889, and perhaps another one later in the year. The various versions and replicas remain much debated among Van Gogh scholars.
This rustic work was painted while Van Gogh was working in the company of Gauguin at Arles. It was retouched early in 1889. Van Gogh painted a companion picture of Gauguin’s armchair, shown by night, now in the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam. The two paintings may have been intended to represent the contrasting temperaments and interests of the two artists.
Van Gogh started painting Irises within a week of entering the St-Remy Asylum, in May 1889, working from nature in the hospital garden. There is a lack of the high tension which is seen in his later works. He called painting
the lightning conductor for my illness because he felt that he could keep himself from going insane by continuing to paint.
The painting was probably influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints like many of his works and those by other artists of the time. The similarities occur with strong outlines, unusual angles, including close-up views, and also flattish local color (not modeled according to the fall of light).
He considered this painting a study which is probably why there are no known drawings for it, although Theo, Van Gogh’s brother, thought better of it and quickly submitted it to the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in September 1889, together with Starry Night Over the Rhone. He wrote to Vincent of the exhibition:
[It] strikes the eye from afar. The Irises are a beautiful study full of air and life.
This was painted in September 1889, when Van Gogh was in the St-Rémy mental asylum, near Arles, where he was a patient from May 1889 until May 1890. It is one of three almost identical versions of the composition. Another painting of the cypresses (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was painted earlier in July 1889, and was probably painted directly in front of the subject.
Provence building shapes are mimicked by the fields and hills behind. The hasty brushwork and blank sky suggest that some of the paintings are unfinished. Most of Vincent’s paintings were destroyed and thrown out by Vincent’s mother, after his death, including all but 2 among over 60 in this series.
Van Gogh loved the
Van Gogh was a patient at the asylum at St-Rémy, near Arles, from May 1889 to May 1890. During this time he was restricted to working in the asylum’s grounds, and shortly after his arrival he described the
abandoned gardens in which the grass grows tall and unkempt, mixed with all kinds of weeds. This view of these gardens was painted at the end of the painter’s stay at the asylum.
During these last few weeks of his life, Van Gogh painted a few portraits but mainly a large number of landscapes among which is
The composition is a horizontal one with a typically raised horizon, grouping together a number of old cottages, some with thatched roofs, alongside extensive fields of wheat and a few waving trees.
Vincent always painted in front of the subject, so his painting is a very personal vision of the landscape. Van Gogh transformed what he saw into something profoundly personal, giving visual form to the emotions which the landscape in front of him inspired in his life, both the good and the bad. The fertile fields around Auvers produced conflicting feelings within him: the sensation of freedom which he had in front of these broad fields was counterbalanced by melancholy and a sensation of loneliness brought on, the artist remarked,
by the sight of the wheat.
Vincent wrote about this painting to his mother on June 12, 1890:
Yesterday in the rain I painted a large landscape, showing fields as far as one can see, looked at from a height, different kinds of green growth, a potato field of a sombre green, between the regular beds the rich violet earth, on one side a field of peas in white bloom, then a field of clover with pink flowers and the little figure of a mower, a field of long and ripe grass somewhat reddish in tone, then various kinds of wheat, poplars, on the horizon a last line of blue hills, along the foot of which a train is passing, leaving behind it an immense trail of white smoke over all the green vegetation. A white road crosses the canvas. On the road a little carriage, and white houses with harshly red roofs by the side of this road.
This painting shares an almost photographic account of life in the countryside at that moment in history. A culture abandoned by this artist at a very young age.