Meet the Creative – Vincent van Gogh

Artist's ArtDNA® Breakdown:

Alluring Romantic-Introspective Thinker

Emotional, authentic and contemplative, philosophical, realistic and perceptive, van Gogh was an Alluring Romantic with a deep undertone of the Introspective Thinker. An idealist, painting for van Gogh was an expression of his innermost heart and soul. He believed in showing love to the downtrodden and living a life that was in accordance with his values. Known as quiet, thoughtful and imaginative, van Gogh also suffered from depression and felt deeply misunderstood by society. True to his emotional authenticity, he eschewed traditional painting techniques in favor of his unique, imaginative impressions.

Van Gogh had a particular passion and sympathy for the working class. The son of a Dutch Protestant pastor, van Gogh believed he had a religious calling to social justice and did missionary work in the slums of London and in the mining districts of Belgium. Van Gogh’s early works are heavily influenced by the changes in the social and environmental landscape of the Netherlands at that time — as industrialization encroached on both the pastoral settings of the country and on the livelihoods of the working poor, his depictions take interest in those who had little opportunity to change vocations in accordance with the times. He would return to the subject of the “noble peasant” throughout his lifetime.

I put my heart and soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.

— Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh's Work:

Known equally for his artistic masterpieces as for his personal battles with mental health, van Gogh’s genius is often over shadowed by the more salacious parts of his personal history. While it is easy and even understandable to see in van Gogh’s aggressive swirling of paint, kinetic brushstrokes and unconventional color palettes evidence of his troubled mind, these attributable characteristics are also the very hallmarks of his revolutionary approach. Unlike his fellow Post-Impressionists, van Gogh exploited colors and distorted forms to express his emotions as he confronted nature. His insistence on the expressive value of color demanded that a corresponding expressiveness in the application paint also be developed. Moving the brush forcefully back and forth or at right angles, van Gogh transformed his canvases with corpuscular shapes and intense colors schemes.

 

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly.

— Letter to Theodorus “Theo” van Gogh from Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters, 1885
Van Gogh Museum
Woman Sewing, 1885-86 
P. and N. De Boer Foundation
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885-86
Van Gogh Museum

Drawing skeletons was a standard practice at the academies to develop an understanding of human anatomy. Painting them, however, was not part of the curriculum. Owing to this fact,  many experts have concluded that this work was meant as a juvenile joke. Others have noted his poor health at the time and considered this work a vanitas or memento mori. We do know from his letters, however, that van Gogh himself thought his classes to be boring and pointless in their instruction.

The Night Café, 1888
Yale University Art Gallery

Van Gogh wrote that with The Night Café, he tried “to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.” The café’s clashing colors visually expressed what van Gogh saw as the, “terrible passions of humanity.”

The Red Vineyard, 1888
Pushkin Museum

Purchased by Anna Boch for 400 francs The Red Vineyard at Arles is supposedly the only work van Gogh sold. Painted two weeks after fellow artist, Paul Gauguin moved into van Gogh’s home. Gauguin would create The Wine Harvest based on the same scene.

Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1888
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Considered one of van Gogh’s most trusted friends, Roulin tended to van Gogh following his ear slicing incident. Roulin saw him committed to the psychiatric hospital in Arles and provided constant solace to the artist in his convalescence.

The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, 1889 Oskar
Reinhart Collection

Van Gogh entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum on 8 May 1889, he had two cells with barred windows, one of which he used as a studio. The clinic and its garden became the main subjects of his paintings.

Starry Night, 1889
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Painted a year before van Gogh’s death, The Starry Night captures the expressionist nature of van Gogh’s method. Rather than simply representing the night sky as it appears in nature, van Gogh transforms the nocturnal landscape into an emotional exploration of one’s place in the cosmos. Set against the deep blue background, the viewer is left transfixed by the swirling of paint and combustion color.

Writing to his brother Theo, van Gogh seems to reference the work indirectly:

 

Is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side of death we see only the one hemisphere?

Painters–to take them alone–dead and buried, speak of the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work.

Is that all, or is there more to come? Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter’s life.

For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shinning sots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots of the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.

— Vincent van Gogh