“To follow the path that others have laid before you is a reasonable course of action; therefore all progress is made by unreasonable men” – Steve Jobs
What does the general public know about Vincent Van Gogh? ‘Sunflowers’ would be the most common answer. ‘Starry Night’ some would add. ‘He was a mad Dutch painter who had once even cut his ear!” the knowledgeable would chip in. Believe me I too belonged to this group before embarking on a journey of discovery about the ‘mad artist’.
Straightaway my prejudices were shattered by the wonderful BBC documentary ‘Van Gogh – Painted With Words’ that began, “The myth of Vincent Van Gogh, the mad artist has captivated us for over a century now” before going on to cite references from letters written by the Post-Impressionist master to his brother Theo, in order to reveal the real Vincent. It appears that his eccentricity can be attributed to his social circumstances. As for the mad part, his own realization that he would become famous only after his death puts to rest any further discussions on the topic. So what is it that made Vincent stand out amongst the crowd of artists popping up in 19th century Europe? Perhaps the following points will shed some light on the topic.
No Formal Training In Art
Despite having little formal education in art (which included brief stints at art academies in Brussels and Antwerp) Vincent developed his own style of practice in that he would indulge in quasi-academic assignments, especially studies of the human figure. Interestingly this lack of formal training is apparent (amongst other works) in The Potato Eaters (1885), considered to be the first of his major paintings.
The Potato Eaters (1885)
Even the untrained eye can straight-away decipher that the figures’ features are not in proportion. However what both the untrained and trained eyes can conclude is that this so-called-lack adds a different charm to his drawings, setting them apart from other artists.
However, in keeping with Edison’s definition of Genius as the combination of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration Van Gogh worked tirelessly in teaching himself figure drawing from Charles Bargue’s artist manual. Sometimes he would resolve to draw one hundred figures, or paint one hundred portrait heads at a stretch. Consequently this drastically improved his grasp of proportions as is evident from his own interpretation of (Jean-Francois) Millet’s The Sower, which he drew over 30 times; once even from memory on Paul Gauguin’s insistence.
The Sower, 1850 Jean-François Millet
October 1889 Vincent’s interpretation of The Sower
Interestingly though Van Gogh didn’t give up his initial style and perhaps added deliberate distortions to faces and fingers of the subjects of the portraits he drew during that era, in order to maintain his signature touch. Like a poet it was his poetic license, or rather artistic license, to be exact. The two paintings given below will bring this point into perspective.
Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887)
Joseph Roulin (The Postman), (1888)
A Man Of The People
From the very beginning Vincent Van Gogh identified himself with the working class in general and the peasants in particular. Highlighting their plight via his paintings seemed to be his utmost duty. Remarkably this also seemed to serve as his greatest strength and source of inspiration, giving his works a distinct humane touch that elevated them to another level altogether. In fact this was the main reason why he drew The Sower (introduced in the previous segment) more than 30 times! Why the hell will one do so otherwise! History suggests that Van Gogh was so deeply influenced by Millet’s depictions of the peasants’ and their way of life that he ended up making twenty-one translations of them while he was at Saint-Rémy itself. Importantly though Vincent did not intend for his works to be literal copies of the originals. Speaking specifically of the works after Millet, he explained,
"It's not copying pure and simple that one would be doing. It is rather translating into another language, the one of colors, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black."
READ MORE:The life and Death of Van Gogh
A few of them have been given side by side below for your reference. It will be evident that the inherent expressions of the subjects in the picture speak for themselves.
Clothes Maketh The Man. Colours Revealeth Him.
Even though Vincent himself was a pathetic dresser due to his aloof nature (as confirmed by a Huffington Post article wherein they cite the words of Jeanne Calment, who met him once, as saying that Van Gogh was ‘dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable.’) one of the highlights of his paintings is their vibrant colours.
Paintings like the famous ‘Bedroom in Arles’ (1888) capture the imagination of one and all. Meanwhile those like ‘Painter On His Way To Work’ seem something like a mural. But for the lack of speech bubbles, these are bound to be mistaken for vintage comics!
Bedroom in Arles, 1888
Painter on His Way to Work (1888)
Perhaps the best proof that the wonderful use of colours is the reason for his continual popularity even in this century lies in the fact that on being asked to submit a drawing for our school magazine (when I was in standard V) I had chosen to recreate his Sunflowers albeit with pencil colours!
Interestingly, Van Gogh’s earlier paintings (including The Potato Eaters, depicted in an earlier section) consisted mainly of somber earth tones. It was only after he moved to the south of France and was influenced by the strong sunlight he found there that his paintings grew brighter in color, and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888.
On a different note it’s quite ironic that the bright colours themselves reveal that Van Gogh’s (commercial) success as an artist wasn’t so bright in his life-time. Their fading away with time (especially his signature yellows and reds) gives away their poor quality.
A Lover Of Nature
One of the common interests that bind great artists – be it poets, painters or novelists – is their love of Nature. And Vincent was no exception. His recurrent themes of cypresses, flowering orchards, flowers and wheat fields are proof of this.
Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889
View of Arles, Flowering Orchards, 1889 The old tower in the fields
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890
Besides, the dramatic brushstrokes that are an integral part of his paintings like The Starry Night are indicative of his efforts to highlight Nature’s power and beauty. It was his own way of showing tribute to Mother Nature for providing him inspiration throughout his tumultuous life, interspersed with chronic mental instabilities.
*The Starry Night, June 1889 *
But perhaps the greatest reason why Van Gogh was indebted to Nature is revealed in one of the numerous letters that he wrote to his brother Theo, wherein he says,
‘Nature always starts by resisting the craftsman. It’s what Shakespeare calls Taming The Shrew. I’ve to conquer the opposition through perseverance.’
Arguably it was the acquiring of this great skill of perseverance that paved the path for his future greatness.
So then that’s all for today. Hope you guys liked it!
P.S. These are the four most important aspects that I think influenced Van Gogh’s works and in turn contributed to his widespread fame. But then appreciation for a painter (or for artworks in general) varies from person to person. So do let us know why you love his paintings OR how you first came to know about him.
P.P.S. Did any of you ever recreate his paintings like I did his Sunflowers?
Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh
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