Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Vincent van Gogh

I think I was in middle school when I first saw a drawing by Vincent van Gogh. But ever since then, I’ve always had a thing for van Gogh’s drawings. Although he is perhaps best known for his colorful, post-Impressionist paintings, Van Gogh also created about 1,100 drawings over the course of his short career.

Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in the southern Netherlands. His father was a Dutch Reformed Church minister and Vincent was the eldest of his siblings. After attending various elementary and secondary schools, van Gogh got a job with an art dealership in the Hague. Due in part to his intense religious nature, he began to resent the way in which the business world treated artworks as commodities. He was fired in 1876.

After his stint at the art dealership it seems van Gogh didn’t really know what path to pursue. At one point he decided to pursue a career in religion and attempted to study theology in Amsterdam but failed the entrance exam. In 1879 he lived as a missionary in a small coal-mining town in Belgium. There he was inspired to become a painter of peasants and working people like Jules Breton or Jean-Francois Millet. Van Gogh attended classes at the Academic Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for a bit in 1880, but moved back to his parents’ home in 1881. In 1882 he journeyed again to the Hague where his cousin Anton Mauve (a Dutch realist painter) introduced to him the art of painting.

Worn Out (1882)

Van Gogh made this sketch while he was living in the Netherlands. He had been doing a lot of figure studies during this period. For this particular drawing he used graphite on watercolor paper. One of my sources claimed that he treated the graphite with milk to make it appear smoother. It appears he had done multiple versions of this sketch with different models. We can also tell that he used a grid system to help himself establish the perspective. You can see pretty clear traces of the grid in the left topmost corner of the paper. I really like how expressive and dynamic his lines are in this drawing. There is a large variation in the types of lines he uses and in the range of values. In this sketch, he's not too concerned with achieving straight lines or perfect perspective (though he did use a grid for guidance). For example, you can see that something is a bit off in the legs of the chair. He's much more concerned however, with conveying a mood. Some of the books that I read described that during this period van Gogh wanted to make affordable art for the common people. He wanted to comfort them with his art, and he used the theme of the sorrowful figure over and over again for this purpose.

(image taken from vangoghgallery.com)

Winter Garden (1884)

Van Gogh completed this drawing in 1883 while he was living with his parents who had moved to Nuenen. He used pen and ink as well as graphite on "wove" paper. The scene he depicts in this image is the garden outside his father's vicarage. He renders the landscape in an almost fantastical way. His lines are jagged and angular. The tree branches cut sharply across the sky, forming an eerie, twisted mass. I'm really struck by the intense cross-hatching technique he employs. His lines are so thin and delicate and tightly woven!

In 1886 van Gogh moved to Paris and shared an apartment with his younger brother Theo. He was very close to Theo and the two brothers exchanged hundreds of letters over the course of van Gogh's life. While in Paris, van Gogh desperately wished to become a part of the avant-garde. He drew inspiration from Japanese woodcuts and admired Georges Seurat's pointillist technique.

(image from artmight.com)

Sand Barges on the Rhone (1888)

Van Gogh made this sketch in Arles (the south of France) where he had moved in 1888. This drawing served as a model for the painting of the same name. It is looser and more fluid than his previous works. There is much more emphasis on pattern and texture, achieved through his use of lines of various thicknesses and weights. His repetitious use of short lines and strokes seems to quote Seurat's pointillism.

Unfortunately, van Gogh's health was failing due to his excessive smoking and drinking habits. He wanted to create as sort of utopian art colony in Arles with the help of Paul Gauguin, but it seems the artists' friendship was strained by different philosophies (and Gauguin's enormous ego). It was during this period that van Gogh famously cut off his own ear.

Following this dramatic episode, van Gogh went to stay at an asylum in Saint-Remy. In 1890 he moved just north of Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise. Here he experienced what historians now believe were attacks of epilepsy. He shot himself in the chest of July 27th, 1890. He was able to walk back to the house where he was staying, but he died of an infection a little over a day later at the age of 37.

(image from artstor.org)


Ives, Colta, Susan Alyson Stein, Sjraar van Heugten, and Marije Vellekoop. Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005. Print.

Meedendorp, Teio. Drawings and Prints by Vincent van Gogh in the Collection of the Kroller-Muller Museum. Otterlo: Kroller-Muller Museum, 2007. Print.

Evert van Uitert. "Gogh, Vincent van." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 25 Sep. 2011 .

Van Heugten, Sjraar, Marije Vellekoop, and Roelie Zwikker. Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005. Print.

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