Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Van Gogh's Genius

Born in March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, Holland, Vincent van Gogh is one of the greatest and most influential artists in the history of art, with a record of some of the most fascinating artwork. Growing up in a religious family, van Gogh initially studied theology and did missionary work aspiring to become a pastor. But at the age of 16, he was exposed to art by working in a firm of art trading; and at the age of 27, van Gogh decided to become an artist. He then studied art in Belgium, and developed his artistic skills through discipline and exchanging ideas with other artists, to eventually develop his unique style. Van Gogh suffered from a mental illness that ended up in his suicide with a gunshot at the age of 37 in July 29, 1890. 

Van Gogh’s artworks range from portraits, to landscapes, to still life, to trees and sunflowers. They also range from somber in his early drawings to bright when van Gogh later moved to south France and met French Impressionists like Monet.

I chose Van Gogh for my research for several reasons. First, I was drawn by the narratives that van Gogh tells in his art pieces and how he includes feelings and evoke strong and profound emotions. Van Gogh’s artwork is very expressive and emotional. Indeed, van Gogh clearly tells a narrative and conveys a message through his art pieces. The viewer can tell what is going on in the images. Even more, we can tell and share the feelings of the people in the drawings.  Van Gogh was sensitive to the sufferings of others, and he tended to convey strong emotions, mostly sorrow, anguish, despair and torment. People in his drawings tend to seem immersed in their own worlds and lost in their thoughts. And the backgrounds usually refer to an agitated state. Then, I find that Van Gogh’s artwork is very realistic.  In fact, several times, as I was going through van Gogh’s drawings and paintings, I actually felt like I was inside the actual scene or landscape that van Gogh presents.  Moreover, van Gogh is an eloquent example of the significance of perseverance in overcoming the frustration that a beginner artist may face. In this context, early in his career as an artist, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: “ I always saw the thing as impossible and beyond my reach”. But at the end, van Gogh developed artistic skills and a unique style that made him stand out as an artist, and influence modern art. Furthermore, van Gogh worked with existing works to learn about the materials, perspective and get some drawing knowledge in general; and he also developed his skills through interacting and learning from other artists. Thus, from his experience, we can see that art is not an individual process, but is rather an interactive process where learners or artists exchange ideas and techniques, and learn from each other. 

Van Gogh’s first major artwork and one of his most famous ones is the The Potato Eaters.

The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885, Oil on canvas(82*114cm), Van Gogh Museums, Amsterdam

In the image above, we see five people sitting around a table and eating potatoes, under one lamp at the middle.  Van Gogh used colors, value and shading effectively in this image to display a somber atmosphere. All the people in the image seem immersed in their actions, whether it is eating, serving tea or talking.  Van Gogh worked on this image when he was living with his parents in the Dutch village of Nuenen, inspired by the “honesty” of the land workers. In this context, he said: “these fold, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and that they have thus honestly earned their food”.

Another artwork where van Gogh conveys the situation of the workers’ families is the following.

Miners’ Wives Carrying Sacks/ The Bearers of the Burden, Vincent van Gogh, April 1881, Pencil, ink and watercolor on paper 47.5*63cm, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo. 

This drawing shows miners’ wives carrying sacks across a bleak land. The women in the image are bent to almost half due to the weight of the sacks, and they seem to be struggling through each step.  The countryside is extended and shown in the background, giving space to the image.  In this drawing, van Gogh used shading and value with black ink and pencil, in such a way that the image is dark, hence offering a picture of the torment and sorrow of the miners’ families, or of a polluted countryside where they work.  This drawing is realistic, expressive and emotional. Indeed, through this image among other workers’ images (see additional section), van Gogh tells the narrative of workers’ families, conveys their sufferings and difficult lives, displays human grief and expresses empathy.

Van Gogh was concerned with both the sufferings of others and also his own torment. Thus, he also expressed his own torment through self-portraits, one of which is the following.

Self-Portraits, Vincent van Gogh, 1887, Pencil, pen and brown ink on wove paper, 31.1*24 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

This image has sketched self-portraits where van Gogh uses strokes of pencil to present an examined frank image of himself.  He could have drawn this image from the reflection of a mirror. In these self-portraits, particularly the middle one, it seems like van Gogh pressed and focused on the look in his eyes.  In fact, there is an extra eye sketched at the top of the sheet. The eyes, specifically the gaze and the frowning, allow van Gogh to incorporate strong emotions of anger, unhappiness, torment or displeasure into the sketches.  I find it interesting how van Gogh could include emotions and imply a narrative through the gaze of the eyes in the self-portraits.  Van Gogh tends, in general, to focus on the eyes when drawing people. In this vein, he said in one of his letters to his brother: “I’d rather paint people’s eyes than cathedrals, for there’s something in the eyes that isn’t in the cathedral… the soul of a person”.

All in all, Vincent van Gogh, a self-made artist, did a fascinating job in telling narratives, conveying messages, depicting the reality, and incorporating strong emotions into his artworks with an original style. He overcame his frustrations and mental disturbance to offer the world, within the short amount of time that he lived, some of the greatest and most fascinating artworks in the history of modern art.  


Additional drawings where van Gogh depicts the situation of workers’ families:


Roddam George. This is Van Gogh. Illustrations by Slawa Harasymowicz. Laurence King Publishing, 2015.

Stolwijk Van Heugten Jansen, Bluhm and Bakker. Vincent’s  Choice.  Van Gogh’s Musee imaginaire.

Vellekoop, Marije.  Van Gogh at Work. Mercatorfonds. New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2013.

Wallace, Roberts. The World of Van Gogh 1853-1890. Time-Life Library of Art. New York. 1963.

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