It was a rather sunny afternoon in Amsterdam yet a fresh breeze was blowing through the streets making it quite chilly at times. Today I finally made it to the van Gogh museum. The museum itself, right on Museumsplein, looks pretty modern and is an inviting gate into one of the best museums I have ever visited. Read on to join me for a tour through Vincent’s life story. Certainly not much more than my personal impressions, but truely fascinating.
Brief timeline of events
1853: Vincent was born in Zundert (between Rotterdam & Antwerp) on the 30th March | 1869/76: Den Haag, London & Paris working for art dealer Goupil |1878/80: Borinage (Belgium) VcG works as lay preacher (e.g. not formally a cleric, his father was pastor) amongst miners. After hard time he decides to become full-time artist | 1881: Etten (NL) where he mainly draws | 1881 Den Haag taking lessons from Anton Mauve (Dutch realist painter, leading member of The Hague school) | 1883/85: Nuenen (NL) moving temporarily back with parents. Peasant & countryside focus| 1885 Antwerp studying briefly at the art academy to improve his style (continued later in studio of F. Cormon, Paris) |1886/88 Paris living with brother Theo (successful art dealer). Acquaintance with (neo) Impressionists Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec (sample), Emile Bernard (sample), Paul Gaugin (sample); they worked together displaying art at Montmartre cafes | 1888 Arles where he briefly lives with Gaugin and cuts his ear | 1889 Self-admittal to mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence|1889 Auvers-sur-Oise (FR) producing one painting per day until his suicide 29 July.
I was nothing short of impressed about the museum and van Gogh’s story. I think the museum & gallery experience was so good because its more than a bunch of pictures. It’s a journey through a tragic yet fascinating life underpinned by hundreds of personal letters providing deep insights into him and the his relationships, dreams, feelings and desires (I listened to this while walking about). The output he created art-wise comes on top. I guess I also like his focus on and appreciation for simple people (peasants) as well as nature – both traits I share & cherish.
“And I think it by no means unlikely that I’ll stay here for the rest of my life, too. After all, I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life. I feel that I can create a place for myself here, and so I’ll quietly keep my hand to my plough and cut my furrow. I believe that you thought differently about it, and that you would perhaps rather see me take another course as regards where I live. But I sometimes think that you have more idea of what people can do in the city, yet on the other hand I feel more at home in the country.“
The Japanese influence
Japanese art was an enormously important influence for van Gogh and in fact the entire Paris artist scene. Thankfully, at the time of my visit to the museum there was a temporary exhibition on focussing on just that. Both Paris and van Gogh fell for japanese art when trade started – around the time of Japan in general opening up to the world. That was around 1853, when US vessels (dominant in technology) basically forced Japan to open ports to trade. The Japanese, however, also had a self-interest in ‘complying & adjusting’ fearing to end up dominated like China – see Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history).
Van Gogh bought 600 Japanese prints and carried them around as inspiration and, in the case of three of them, used them directly as a basis for his paintings. So what was so inspiring? Well, he loved the vivid colours and simple approach to perspective (division of picture plane into line & colour areas). Have a look at prints like from the likes of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai for a sample.
“After some time your vision changes, you see more with a japanese eye, you feel colour differently.” – Theo van Gogh (1888)
The Paris influence
More or less ordered by his brother to join him in Paris and a little tired of country life, Vincent moved to Paris in 1886. It is important to understand the close bond Vincent and his brother Theo had. He also funded Vincent’s lifestyle – in exchange for a monthly allowance over 10y, Theo (the Paris art dealer) became the owner of the paintings and drawings that Vincent sent him. His brother’s wife made them eventually famous.
Apart from the general excitement about Japanese art, it was here that he got immersed in the impressionist style of the Paris art scene. The style was pretty revolutionary at the time depicting scenes of everyday life, trying to capture the emotions of the motive with every stroke of the brush. The everyday theme suited van Gogh’s own style just perfect I would say.
Further to the impressionist style, van Gogh learned a great deal about colour schemes in Paris as laid out by Charles Blanc. Complimentary colours (shown on opposite sides in the scheme below) optically intensify each other – something van Gogh took a great inspiration from.
A few numbers about van Gogh’s work
- PAINTED 900c paintings (c200 in vG museum)
- DREW 1,100+ drawings (about half of which in vG museum on rotating display)
- WROTE 820 (known) letters (most of which are held by the van Gogh museum)
- SOLD just one painting in his lifetime (Red Vineyard at Arles, Pushkin Museum Moscow)
- VALUE of all his paintings is a tough one. Given double-digit USD values for even less well-known paintings and give there are 900 of them I would estimate the total value of his work north of USD20bn (USD22m each)
Arles: Severed ear & wheat fields
Vincent gained his early influences in Nuenen where he found his ‘true calling’ only at 27 (he died at 37). There he spent a lot of time in the countryside amidst, as he phrased it, the honest and humble life of basically peasants. It was here where he painted one of his most famous paintings – “The potato eaters” (1885) – putting all of the above on canvas.
“If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam — fine — that’s not unhealthy — if a stable smells of manure — very well, that’s what a stable’s for — if the field has an odour of ripe wheat or potatoes or — of guano and manure — that’s really healthy — particularly for city folk”
He ended moving to southern France in 1888 (with two years of his life to spare) to get some sun, recover and in search of colours being exhausted after 2y in Paris. It was one of his most productive periods. His intention was further to establish an artist community akin to the Paris one in Arles. This was yet again inspired by the Japanese, who in his view worked in harmony like monks. Sadly, the idea didn’t work out even though Gaugin made it to Arles for a brief visit at the end of which Gaugin headed back to Paris and Vincent had cut off his ear – a mysterious story to date.
As the story goes, he cut the ear (documented by detailed doctor records) with a razor and headed it to what was long presumed to be a prostitute (a metier well-known to Vincent). Most recent research actually suggests she was just a cleaning lady and they might have met in Paris prior to his journey to Arles (or some day … she was ultimately the reason for his relocation).
What he certainly did discover in Arles were the wide plains of the provincial countryside and his beloved wheat fields. I copy here from wikipedia: “The close association of peasants and the cycles of nature particularly interested Van Gogh, such as the sowing of seeds, harvest and sheaves of wheat in the fields. Van Gogh saw plowing, sowing and harvesting symbolic to man’s efforts to overwhelm the cycles of nature: “the sower and the wheat sheaf stood for eternity, and the reaper and his scythe for irrevocable death.” […] In 1889 Van Gogh wrote of the way in which wheat was symbolic to him: “What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat… We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat… to be reaped when we are ripe.”
“I’m wholly absorbed in the vast experience of wheat fields, large as a sea”
– Vincent van Gogh
Insanity & maximum output
Plagued by depression, van Gogh ended up admitting himself to a mental asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. He painted a lot through the window but was also let outside. After a year or so he moved on to Auvers-sur-Oise – just north of Paris. He now stayed with a doctor who was also a keen art fan. Vincent went into overdrive and painted (literally) one painting per day (so roughly 60 in total).
Sadly, he felt he couldn’t carry his burden any longer and committed suicide in July 1889 – through a shot into his chest in a nearby wheat field. Research shows that his (very supporting) brother’s marriage might have catalysed his decision (as he felt that his attention would now have to shift to family matters making him feel like ballast).
His funeral was themed yellow colours on his coffin and several of his paintings in presence. Some of his artist friends such as Emile Bernard attended, as did his brother who spent his last moments on his side (the shot didn’t kill him instantly). Official church service was denied due to the suicidal nature of his death.
“A great and desperate genius”
– Albert Aurier
As tragedy has it, his (younger) brother died six month later. Theo had a son by then. His name is Vincent Willem. He was the driving force behind the van Gogh foundation and this museum where the collection found a permanent home in 1973.