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Vincent Willem van Gogh

Dutch, 1853 - 1890

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The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, Vincent van Gogh was born in The Netherlands in 1853. He began his career as a clerk in the art galleries of Goupil and Company, first in The Hague, then in London and Paris. After a number of years in the art trade, a deep sense of moral purpose led him to pursue theological studies and to serve as an evangelist to the poor. By 1880, however, the twenty-seven-year-old van Gogh had decided to become an artist. Essentially self-taught, working from drawing manuals and studying the people and countryside around him, he found in his art "something which I can devote myself to heart and soul, and which inspires me and gives meaning to life."

He would spend only ten years of his life as an artist, yet in that short time van Gogh transformed the way we look at our world. Whether representing people, landscapes, or still lifes, he examined his world with an uncompromising intensity. In portraits, it was his goal to immortalize the people of his time, to communicate the essential qualities that project a sense of human dignity.

Etten/The Hague 1881-1883

In April 1881, after three years in Belgium and longing to return to the countryside, van Gogh moved in with his parents in the small Dutch village of Etten. He sought to convey his deep feelings for humanity through light and color, form and line, and made astonishing drawings of the urban poor and peasants of his native Netherlands-studies of character types derived from specific people. He wrote to his brother Theo, "What seemed to be impossible before is gradually becoming possible now . . . Diggers, sowers, plowers, male and female, they are what I must draw continually. I have to observe and draw everything that belongs to country life . . . I no longer stand helpless before nature as I used to."

A violent argument with his parents on Christmas Day prompted van Gogh to move to The Hague, the capital city of The Netherlands and the country's most dynamic artistic center. There he studied the principles of drawing and painting with Anton Mauve, an established landscape painter and a cousin by marriage.


While living in The Hague, van Gogh had difficulty finding models since he could not usually afford to pay them for their time. A monthly stipend from Theo did enable him to hire men living in the Old People's Home, however, pensioners that the artist called "orphan men," who, whether represented in their own distinctive clothes or adorned with the sou'wester of a fisherman, possessed the genuine character and expressive nature that van Gogh was eager to capture. In rendering these figures, he began to explore various materials such as lithographic crayon and dense, coarse papers, which he heavily manipulated.

Then by March 1882, the artist had met Clasina Hoornik, called Sien, a poor seamstress and onetime prostitute. He wrote to Theo, "I have a new model now . . . three persons from the same family: a woman of forty-five . . . her daughter of about thirty, and a young child of ten or twelve. They are poor people, and I must say they are more than willing . . . to pose."

To the great disapproval of his family and friends, Sien, with her mother and daughter, moved in with van Gogh. "She and I are two unhappy people who keep together and carry our burdens together; in this way unhappiness is changed to joy, and the unbearable becomes bearable." After eighteen months, however, the tension in their relationship became too great and van Gogh left The Hague and Sien to spend three months alone in the remote Dutch province of Drenthe.

Nuenen 1883-1885

Van Gogh's three-month stay in Drenthe, The Netherlands, in the fall of 1883, deepened his reverence for the countryside and for the working peasant. By the time he moved to Nuenen in December of that year, he firmly believed that he was at his best as a painter of rural life. Extremely sensitive to the world around him, he created art inherently linked to the place in which it was made. Parsonage Garden in the Snow shows the view from van Gogh's small room in his parents' house. During this period, the artist's work was characterized by a dark palette that reflected his immediate surroundings as well as the influence of such Dutch forebears as Rembrandt and Jacob van Ruisdael.

For van Gogh, the peasant toiling in the field represented the eternal and unchanging human condition. From the beginning, van Gogh was less interested in the pure description of people or landscapes and more interested in their expressive potential. "To draw a peasant's figure in action . . . that's what an essentially modern figure is, the very core of modern art." Inspired by Jean-François Millet and other French Realist painters of the nineteenth century, he began to paint a series of heads. These served as studies for his first monumental painting, The Potato Eaters. This painting, completed in April 1885, reveals van Gogh's admiration for the large group portraits by Rembrandt and Frans Hals. Negative criticism of The Potato Eaters from his artist friend Anton van Rappard and from his brother Theo caused the artist great disappointment.

By the autumn of 1885, van Gogh had decided to leave Nuenen and move to Antwerp, where he briefly studied at the art academy. Within four months, however, he was in Paris, never to return to The Netherlands.

Paris 1886-1888

While van Gogh was still working in The Netherlands, his brother Theo wrote to him that it was hard to sell his "dark" pictures in Paris, where modern painters were using a much brighter palette. Van Gogh realized how little he knew of the recent developments in French painting and in early March 1886, arrived in Paris unannounced and moved in with his brother, whose art gallery and apartment were in Montmartre. Van Gogh acquainted himself with the progressive ideas of the Impressionists at the same time as he joined the studio of the more conservative Fernand Cormon. There, and in the cafés of Montmartre, he met fellow artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, and Georges Seurat.

These encounters transformed van Gogh's attitude toward color. He abandoned the dark browns and grays of his Dutch paintings and replaced them with the Impressionists' palette of bright, clear hues. In The Moulin de Blute Fin, van Gogh depicts the working windmills on the hill of Montmartre, painting this image so familiar from his homeland in his newly adopted style. He applied paint in short, deft brushstrokes to create a surface notable for its energy and spontaneity.

Haunted by the Rembrandt self-portrait in the Louvre, van Gogh painted himself twenty-four times. He also made portraits of his new friends and acquaintances. In several of his Paris works--Portrait of the Scottish Art Dealer Alexander Reid and the Chicago Self-Portrait--van Gogh experimented with the Pointillist technique used by Seurat, who created lively color effects by juxtaposing small dots of contrasting hues.

Arles 1888-1889

"It is my intention as soon as possible to go temporarily to the South, where there is even more color, even more sun." Nearly two years after van Gogh's arrival in Paris, the excitement and intensity of the city's art scene took its toll and the artist felt compelled to seek a more tranquil setting. He decided upon Arles, an ancient city in southern France. As van Gogh explored the countryside around Arles, he captured the region's strong light, clear skies, and sun-bleached beauty in his paintings, as can be seen in the golden landscape Harvest in Provence. If his years in Paris freed van Gogh from his reliance on muted earth tones, his experience in Arles unlocked his passion for intense color, which he used in defiance of conventional realism, liberating it to become a decisive tool of artistic expression.

Van Gogh had considerable success in persuading his new acquaintances in Arles to pose for him. His models included a member of the Zouaves, a French-Algerian infantry regiment then stationed in Arles; and Madame Ginoux, the wife of a café owner, called "L'Arlésienne" by van Gogh. However, his primary involvement was with the postman Joseph Roulin and his family.

Van Gogh's brother, Theo, gave money to Paul Gauguin to travel to Arles and live and work with Vincent. The two artists worked together productively for two months before their relationship collapsed and van Gogh's health deteriorated. The situation culminated in a violent argument on December 23, 1888; that night, van Gogh mutilated his left ear. During his remaining four months in Arles he was plagued by recurring attacks of illness.

The Roulin Family

Of the friends made by van Gogh during his stay in Arles, none had a greater impact than the postman Joseph Roulin, his wife Augustine, and his three children: Armand at sixteen, Camille at eleven, and the baby Marcelle, born July 31, 1888. The artist painted these people more than any sitter other than himself, and they remained faithful to him during his periods of illness.

Representing the Roulin family became one of van Gogh's most ambitious projects. In order to have a record of the paintings he sent to his brother Theo in Paris, or to others, van Gogh made pen drawings of these images. Never before and never again did the artist seize upon individual likenesses to such a degree and explore them through so many variations.

"I have made portraits of a whole family," Vincent wrote to Theo, "that of the postman whose head I had done previously-the man, his wife, the baby, the little boy, and the son of sixteen, all characters and very French, though the first has the look of a Russian . . . And if I manage to do this whole family better still, at least I shall have done something to my liking and something individual."

In three portraits of Augustine Roulin, she is shown holding a rope to rock an unseen cradle. Van Gogh inscribed each painting with the words "La Berceuse," which means both "a lullaby" and "the cradle rocker." This subject held a very specific meaning for the artist, who told his brother that when he and the painter Paul Gauguin "were talking about the fishermen of Iceland and of their mournful isolation, exposed to all dangers, alone on the sad sea . . . the idea came to me to paint a picture in such a way that sailors, who are at once children and martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of their Icelandic fishing boat, would feel the old sense of being rocked come over them and remember their own lullabies." The artist painted five versions of the composition. It is not known in which order they were painted, though the first was begun before van Gogh's illness in December 1888, and the rest were completed quickly, after his release from the hospital. He initially envisioned forming a triptych by placing one of the Madame Roulin portraits between two of his famous still lifes of yellow sunflowers.

St.-Rémy 1889-1890

Following the most devastating of his attacks while living in Arles in the south of France, van Gogh committed himself to an asylum in nearby St.-Rémy in May 1889. Initially confined to the grounds, he was later permitted to explore the countryside and continue painting. He painted Enclosed Field in the Rain, the view from his window, when a storm kept him inside. Van Gogh experienced four seizures at the asylum, resulting in periods of confinement during which he could not paint. When free from attacks, his thoughts were clear and he was able to work, but his choice of models was restricted to patients and hospital staff.

Auvers 1890

A year later, in May 1890, van Gogh left southern France expressing the desire to be closer to the artistic stimulus of Paris and to his brother Theo. Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers, a small town northwest of Paris, agreed to take the artist under his care. An amateur artist himself, Gachet collected modern art and admired van Gogh's paintings. On the way to Auvers, van Gogh stopped in Paris to visit Theo and his wife, Johanna, and their new baby, Vincent. "He stayed with us three days and was cheerful and lively all the time . . . The first morning he was up very early and was . . . looking at his pictures, of which our apartment was full. The walls were covered with them . . . and there were more under the bed, under the sofa, under the cupboards . . . huge piles of unframed canvases, they were spread out on the ground and studied with great attention."

In Auvers, van Gogh explored the surrounding countryside and painted village views and landscapes notable for their sweeping, open panoramas. In Wheat Field at Auvers with White House, van Gogh places the house in the far background and allows the ripening wheat to dominate the painting. He etched and painted portraits of Gachet and his daughter, as well as of other young women and children whom he met. He wrote to his sister enthusiastically about his interest in portraiture and of the important place it held in his work.

Van Gogh's exhilaration and extraordinary productivity were short-lived, however. On July 27, 1890, he went alone into the countryside and shot himself in the chest. He died two days later and was buried at Auvers. Theo wrote to their mother, "It is a grief that will last and which I certainly shall never forget as long as I live."

The Modern Influence

In the years following van Gogh's death in 1890, his influence was immediately felt, beginning with the Fauvist movement in France-named for their "wild" use of color-and the Expressionists in Germany. Van Gogh's radical explorations of color and the adventurous spirit of his paintings profoundly affected the work of such artists as Henri Matisse, André Derain, Ernst Kirchner, and Alexey von Jawlensky. Pablo Picasso also admired the unrestrained passion he saw in van Gogh: "Painting isn't a question of sensibility; it's a matter of seizing power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice . . .Van Gogh was the first one to find the key to that tension."

Van Gogh: Face to Face, 2001

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