Vincent van Gogh: A fascinating story

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 potato eaters.jpg

The Potato Eaters

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.

colour scheme

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

Letter to brother Theo, Nuenen, Thursday 30 April 1885

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 WillemHe was the driving force behind the van Gogh foundation and this museum where the collection found a permanent home in 1973.

van gogh deathbed.jpg

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Den Haag: Some facts & Escher museum

Den Haag was the next stop on my little Holland tour. It is a somewhat unusual Dutch city so far as it has no canals (but a lake in front of the parliament). I thought the city free tour was only average, but the Esher museum and the seafront were worthwhile visiting. After the tour I had a fun afternoon with Julia (from Darmstadt, but now in Berlin) enjoying the local food festival and, given she also blogs (see here), I got some handy tips.

What I learned about Den Haag

  • The Hague is the 3rd largest city in Holland with c1m population in the metropolitan area. It is home to the parliament and the royal palace though Amsterdam remains the constitutional capital.

 

  • Haagse Harry statue: It looks right out of a comic book and was designed by an artist who lived in the more artistic area of Den Haag (for locals there is a distinct separation of richer & not so rich people in the city).

 

  • There was a V1/2 base (German flying bomb) very close to the Hague in the Haagse Bos (the Hague forest). When the English tried to bomb the base, they got the target wrong and killed 600 people. The Hague was one of the most bombed places in WW2. This explains some of the more modern architecture in the city (similar to Rotterdam).
  • There was originally a synagogue in the city, but the few remaining jews couldn’t support it anymore. Then Turks squatted this synagogue in 70s and made it their building. Now two minarets have been added and its a mosque.
  • Seagull mania: Being close to the seaside, there are plenty of seagulls about. They are pretty aggressive in their endeavour for food and take apart rubbish bags (apparently not red/yellow bags) and steal food right out of people’s hands/mouths – so watch out when you snack here.

  • Across the city you’ll find many storks – a symbol of Den Haag that stands for prosperity (and children).
  • Stay normal rule: apparently very important for locals is to stay normal. Hence, it is not difficult to spot people like the PM having a coffee in an ordinary cafe.
  • Language: With 60% foreign students and mot people well versed in English, there is a growing debate about what happens with the Dutch language. I have to add here, that Dutch people all too easily switch to english even for foreigners that are trying to learn their language – so give us a chance & be patient.
  • The Hague is home to the first mall in Europe, which looks similar to the one in Milan & Brussels. The origin is closely related to the chaperone rule whereby young ladies required supervision when they leave their house. Having everything under one roof provided a certain freedom for those upper class chicks.

 

  • Bike orphans & battle with drivers: As in any Dutch city there are loads of bikes. Currently there is a big debate raging between bikers and car drivers. The former provide for 65% of the city’s movement yet the cars get 10x the space. Bike parking is pretty organised and should you leave your bike in an area not being a dedicated parking space it might get picked up. There are in total c100,000 bike orphans in the city – picked up bikes that are not claimed by their owners.
  • The Hague has arguably the smallest city park I have ever seen ;o) In total less than 1sqm. Locals would love to have a bigger one, as the stone that heavily features in construction here heats up in summer adding 10 degrees extra at times. Well, you can always head to the beach though – something most other cities don’t offer.

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  • Pharmacy anecdote: We stopped by an old pharmacy that retains much of its antique past. There is a joker figure above the entrance. This  symbols ‘de jaaper’ (the jawner). He would travel with the doctor and if you don’t trust your medicine, he would try it for you so as to proof it doesn’t kill you.

 

  • Fahrenheit (1686-1736) is buried here in the Kloosterkerk.
  • Polderen: A term that I first came across in my waterland tour (see here). It basically means to debate a problem with all parties involved to find a solution. The origin is from the polder/water management where people realised that only if decisions are taken together a good outcome can be achieved since drainage of fields is interconnected.

 

Esher museum – graphic & twisted art

Esher was a Dutch graphic artist that made mathematically inspired woodcuts & lithographs including many ‘impossible’ pictures (like illusions). A few samples below. The museum was EUR10 to get in and is not covered by the museums card, but worth it.