Thursday, October 8, 2009

Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh

Figure 1. Self-Portrait, 1887 (
This self-portrait is one of many Van Gogh made to support himself in Paris. It is a great display of expressive color and short brushstrokes.

This summer I was able to see Sunflowers (Figure 2) in the National Gallery in London, and I thought I would further explore the life and works of this influential artist. Almost everyone has seen Starry Night by Van Gogh, but in his short life (37 years), Van Gogh completed around 2,000 artworks.

Figure 2. Sunflowers, 1888 (
This is the painting I saw in The National Gallery. Sunflowers were a theme in many of Van Gogh's paintings and in his life and he painted sunflowers in all of their stages of life. Something interesting about these paintings is that they involve the use of yellow, a new pigment in that time. This is a quote from one of his letters, "
Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers".
Brief Biography

Van Gogh is considered one of the biggest influences on Modern Art. This is in stark contrast to the little fame he received during his lifetime. A Dutch painter, Van Gogh worked in London, Paris and other parts of England. Around the age of 20, Van Gogh began working for art dealers, but ultimately stopped this work because of his resentfulness towards the financial aspects of art. After this Van Gogh had many stints in various professions, all of which were not satisfying to him. In 1879, he began attending the Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands after this and began his career as an artist. He spent time working on his art in Etten, The Hague, Antwerp, and Nennen and produced drawings, water colors and oil paintings. In 1886, he moved to Paris to study under Ferdinand Cormon and was influenced by international art such as Japanese woodblock prints. Towards the end of his life in 1888, he moved to Arles in France to deal with his physical and mental illnesses and to find a refuge with other artists. In 1889, Van Gogh checked into an asylum near Arles. He continued his work from this time and produced some of of famous works (such as Starry Night); the swirls from this painting are characterisitic of many of his paintings made in the asylum. In 1890 Van Gogh checked out of the hospital to move closer to his doctor, and soon after entered a serious period of depression which ended in a suicide with a gun.

Style and Techniques

Atmosphere--When painting a landscape Van Gogh would use the term "effect" to describe a landscape that was particularly picturesque. When used the term "atmosphere" he referred to something in a scene that would move the viewer. These concepts affected his works and admired painters who according to him, employed these effects.

Idealism and Realism--While expressionism did not yet exist at the time Van Gogh was a painter, Idealism and Realism did, both of which influenced Van Gogh. Idealism refers to the idea that history and figure painting moved a viewer, while realists thought that broader subjects with personal meaning did. Van Gogh used aspects of both types of thought but his main belief was though the expressiveness of art was the most important thing. In other words, the "idea" of a work was the most important quality.

Impressionism--While in Paris Van Gogh noted the contemporary shift towards Impressionism and was inspired by the modern themes of Impressionist painters in Paris. The main technique used in these paintings was virtuoso brush strokes.

Expressive Color--Van Gogh is especially known for his use of color and his ability to use it expressively. Expressive color is based on the idea that colors are not dependent on reality, but rather the context of the colors in which it is. Color became the tool for Van Gogh to show his expressiveness.
Figure 3. Starry Night, 1889 (
This painting was made during Van Gogh's stay at the asylum and shows expressive color as well as swirls characteristic of the paintings made during his stay at the asylum. Starry Night has a permanent stake in pop-culture and is probably Van Gogh's best known piece.

I believe a quote from Chris Stolwijk best describes the power of Van Gogh's paintings and life's works "He saw art not as the most effective expression of an artist's individual emotions, but as an opportunity to impart universal values to the viewer, through themes and motifs taken from real life. He used selective formal devices such as color in order to give his work optimal expressive power" (Lloyd, J., Peppiatt, M.).

Works Cited
Thomson, Belinda.
Van Gogh. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2001.
Pach, Walter. Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890: A study of the Artist and His Work in Relation to His TImes. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Lloyd, J., Peppiatt, M.(ed.). Van Gogh and Expressionsim. Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2007.

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