A Fresh Look at Vincent Van Gogh
By: J. Marlando
Quite a few years ago when I worked as an art critic I saw and wrote about a lot of new painters and their art. I was in fact the first to cover Andy Lakey’s, angel art. In any case, every now and then I would fall into coffee shop conversations with other writers and painters and we would have wonderful conversations about art of all kinds—my two major topics were painting and theater as that is where my experiences were at the time. Nevertheless, we sometimes had choreographers and directors to poets that would come and go to offer their opinions of art and artists. Those conversations were a lot of fun and even interesting now and again.
Being a critic or reviewer is merely to give opinion in a loud, public voice and always in the guise of “knowing.” On the other hand, everyone in our little circle of art enthusiasts spoke as if they “knew.” There was one opinion I was always quite firm about, however. Whenever we were talking about famous painters, I was always loudest at the table when it came to denouncing Van Gogh and his work. I called him a creation of smart art merchants with mediocre and child-like talents; a mere oddity in the world of galleries and museums. Yes, I know that was very presumptuous and even pompous of me but, at the time, everyone sitting at the coffee shop table were full of…well, presumptuousness and pomposities. We were in that absurd season of our lives!
With the above aside, however, many…many years later my wife brought me home a gift—of all things a Van Gogh painting, that is, a print of a Van Gogh painting. She had no idea that a Van Gogh was the last thing that I would want. Nevertheless, I smiled as she hung the thing in our living room and told her how nice it looked. The painting was Van Gogh’s “Café at night.”
At first I glanced at it every now and then but soon enough I found myself drawn into the painting…I kind of liked it but I didn’t know why…then, I began thinking it was genius and I wanted to know why. This article will strive to share what I believe to be a new comprehension or view of Van Gogh and so his work. And, if you are a Van Gogh fan or not, I think you will be by the time you’ve read the following.
But first, for a glimpse into Van Gogh’s reality, here is his unexpected sunset to comprehend. And by comprehending his work, we begin to comprehend the artist:
“You read books to draw from them the energy to act…but I read books to find the artist who wrote them”
—Vincent Van Gogh
Aspects of the Mind of Van Gogh
It seems that even in childhood Vincent Van Gogh had health problems. Born with a lesion on his brain which resulted in a type of epilepsy, as a young boy he seems to have suffered from deep depressions. In regard to all this, there are doctors today who have studied his background deciding, from Gogh’s symptoms, that the artist suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.
I will not attempt to play doctor here but as I understand it, the temporal lobe is behind the frontal lobe and is important to both our speech and vision. This is one explanation of why Van Gogh tended to see things differently than most people see them. Starry Night is a good example of what I am speaking of here:
On the other hand, he also created beautiful, duplicates of life as a “realist” from time to time so this means his condition either changed from time to time or that his illness did not affect his art except on emotional levels. Another medical theory is that after Van Gogh had spent years using lead-based paint that perhaps he suffered from lead forming which will often make the retinas swollen and cause circles of light to appear around objects. But since this technique appears only when he is painting stars, I tend to doubt this theory as being pure conjecture.
While we’re on this subject, let’s talk about “Starry Night” for a moment.
First of all the stars themselves are centered in their own orbs of light while his crescent moon lays flat, in its own illumination against a quivering sky in constant motion. It is the quaint town at the foot of the hills in the painting that seems motionless, even listless when even the trees in the painting are given life and movement. This was one of the many paintings completed by Van Gogh while he was hospitalized in the Asylum of Saint-Remy in 1889.
This hospitalization occurred as the result of the artist chopping of his own ear in a deep upset or depression. But did he actually cut off his ear?
I wish they would only take me as I am.
—Vincent Van Gogh
The Road to Aries, France
We have read for years that Vincent despaired after a vicious argument with the artist Paul Gauguin, and in a moment of madness, cut off his ear, wrapped his head and went to a brothel, where he gave the ear to a prostitute named Rachel and evidentially returned to his room where he nearly bled to death. However, Rachel must have reported the strange behavior as he was found by the police and taken to a nearb6y hospital. In January of ’89 Van Gogh was released.
We’ll return to the subject of the Van Gogh severed ear a little later. Going back into time, however, Vincent Van Gogh was born in 1853 to poor parents in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands. His father was a country minister, something Van Gogh had always felt a potential of becoming being with a temperamental artist mother, Anna Cornelia who did a lot of watercolors and drawings of nature. In 1852 Anna gave birth to a still born she had named Vincent Van Gogh, giving that same name to the future artist who was born one year later. It must have somewhat of a psychological challenge to grow up seeing your name on a grave marker. We will never know if this had anything to do with his bouts with depression but it could have.
When young Van Gogh turned 15 his parents were having serious financial struggles and young Van Gogh was forced to quit school and find work. He went to work for his Uncle Cornells’ art gallery in Hague. Young Van Gogh spoke four languages by then: French, German, English and his native Dutch. He was obviously a bright young man who also had his mother’s talents for drawing. He drew for fun, for years but seemingly never took his art work very seriously.
After working for around five years in Hague, he was transferred to a gallery (a dealership) in London.
He had a great time in London and truly enjoyed the English culture. He worked, he went to galleries and read; he was having a good time but then he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugenie Loyer. He finally mustered the courage to ask her to marry him and when she refused, he could not bear the rejection. Indeed, he suffered a breakdown of sorts, tossed all his beloved books out except the Bible deciding to devote himself to God and religion. Because of his apparent change of attitude he was fired from his job but, at that juncture, Van Gogh didn’t care in any case. He volunteered to preach and minister to the sick in the South of Belgium where poverty was visible wherever one looked in the small coal mining community. No minister wanted that duty so Vincent was hired as a lay-preacher.
Van Gogh not only enthusiastically did his ministering but he often drew pictures of the miners and their families. He was respected and even adored by many who believed him to be somewhat Christ-like. The Evangelists he worked for were not as pleased, however, and thought that Van Gogh was playing the martyr far too much for their liking.
It was in the fall of that same year when Van Gogh moved to Brussels deciding to become a painter. His brother, Theo offered to support the enthusiastic new artist and Vincent was receptive. After all, he could devote himself to his work without much concern for making a living.
Raising of Lazerus was among his earlier paintings
During this time Van Gogh’s cousin Kate was widowed and over a period of time Van Gogh fell in love with her. Sharing his feeling, Kate was more annoyed than flattered and fled to Amsterdam. After that incidence he fell in love with a young prostitute by the name of Clasina—they had a great time together and Clasina became his companion, lover and model. Then, being ever as moody as Van Gogh, she went back to drinking and prostitution leaving him in another deep depression.
His family, knowing the entire story, warned him to leave town or they would stop supporting him. That sobered him up, and off he went to a desolate place in the Netherlands where he lived the life of a loner painting people and landscapes. It was around this time that he created what can only be named a masterpiece, his Potato Eaters.
It is in this painting that he manages if you will, to share his soul in the brush strokes of his work—it is here that we clearly see Vincent Van Gogh’s empathy and compassion for the
impoverished and suffering; it is here we understand his strange weakness for women in trouble and his desire to pull them up into a brighter light. In this painting we see Van Gogh absolute talent; when he steps into the realm of all those great Dutch painters and other masters adding his own touches of humanity in all its pains and sorrows; of human life trapped in existential reality as he must have seen it.
The picture didn’t sell. He moved to Paris where his brother Theo had moved. Theo being a businessman had moved to Paris because impressionism was becoming the rage. Van Gogh arrived at his door, unannounced, wanting a place to stay and a curiosity about the new trend in art. As a result, Van Gogh would meet and study with Toulouse-Lautrec and other artists influenced by impressionistic art styles. Van Gogh especially loved the freedom of colors the current art movement in Paris offered. Indeed it was, I believe, around this time that he would create “Wheat Field and Cypress Tree.”
A peak into Van Gogh's world
The very emotion of this painting has a dynamic that solely belongs to Van Gogh, a pulse, if you will, that gives mood and motion to his work that is like looking at the soul or personality of the landscapes he painted. To Van Gogh every blade of grass had consciousness or godliness within and so it might be said that while others were painting landscapes of objects Van Gogh was painting landscapes of subjects.
By this time, the painter had taken an interest in Eastern philosophy and a serious contemplation of especially Japanese art. He wanted to go to Japan but as the story goes Toulouse-Lautrec talked him out of it saying that the village of Aries had qualities that resembled Japan. Vincent Van Gogh took a train there. This was February 1888.
It was here he lived in what was called the yellow house where he virtually stopped eating and living on little more than a little bread, coffee and…absinthe.
As an aside we need to discuss absinthe here: Absinthe was an extremely popular drink during the 1800 and 1900s, especially for those who liked “tipping the bottle.” It was extremely high in alcohol and actually banned in the United States by 1915. Actually it was a special blending and fermentation of botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium. It was called “grand Wormwood” a mixture of green anise, sweet fennel and other herbs but no added sugar. Absinthe is truly a spirit, sometimes green in color but sometimes white.
Some people believe Absinthe to have harmful properties because trace amounts of the chemical compound thujone had been found in it. Some of today’s doctors believe that this drink, Van Gogh so favored, aggravated his epilepsy and poor health. What if it did or not is debatable but the point for talking about the drink here is to mention that Absinthe was a very potent and popular drink amidst artists who seem to be “high strung” in any case. I do not think there has ever been a study on it but it seems curios to me that so many notable artists such as the poet/writer Charles Bauelaire, Earnest Hemingway and of course Van Gogh were all heavy absinthe drinkers and all had such tragic endings. Is this a coincidence or, after years of use/abuse, does the drink create despair at least in some people?
While in Aries, Vincent Van Goal became a concern for Theo a more practical man than his artistic brother was. He was aware that there seemed to be some escalating emotional and psychological problems for Van Gogh. Indeed, Van Gogh was not taking care of himself at all and yet he was painting feverishly. As a result, Theo offered a person he knew some money to look in on his brother and watch over him. That person was Paul Gauquin.
An artist needn’t be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men.
—Vincent Van Gogh
A Painting in Artistic Despair
A Year before Vincent Van Gogh traveled to Aries; he had met and befriended the artist Paul Gauguin in Paris. I am assuming the meeting was through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, but I have not found that part of the history in any of my research. In any case, Van Gogh and Gauguin evidentally became friends and because Gauguin could be extremely charming and gracious (when he wanted to be) Van Gogh fell under his charms believing that they were truly, devoted friends. This would have meant a great deal to Van Gogh since he had spent such a lonely life.
The two artists would have discussed art and painting styles, probably drank a lot together, talked impressionism with Lautrec and his artistic chums and most basically had a great time. Nevertheless, only a year later Van Gogh found himself in Aries, quite a long way from Paris and in a somber mood.
After moving to Aries, he and Paul Gauguin painted portraits of themselves to exchange, by mail, during that first year. Gauguin would gift Van Gogh with this image of himself and Van Gogh would send this painting—in this painting he would slant his eyes to give himself the look of being Japanese…spiritually. In fact, the following is an excerpt from a letter that he wrote his brother, Theo:
So now at last I have a chance to compare my painting with what the comrades are doing. My portrait, which I am sending Gauguin in exchange, holds its own, I am sure of that. I have written to Gauguin in reply to his letter that if I might be allowed to stress my own personality in a portrait, I had done so in trying to convey in my portrait not only myself but an impressionist in general, had conceived it as the portrait of a bronze, a simple worshiper of the eternal Buddha.
It was then that Van Gogh’s unhealthy condition was becoming apparent enough to worry Theo that he hired (or paid the expenses for) Gauguin to leave Paris and go look in on Van Gogh.
The two artistic men began living together—Especially Van Gogh could not have been happier—at long last he had a friend and companion and one who could drink and debate art with him as well. Yet, it is said that beneath all of Gauguin’s genteelness and charm ran a well-controlled fury. It would be reported by some Gauguin had been cruel to his wife and sexually exploitive. (I do not know! I have not studied Gauguin’s art and very little of his history). What does seem certain, however, is that there was a vast difference between Gauguin’s persona and his real personality.
Vincent Van Gogh had a love for Gauguin and, it is said, that while in Aries, Gauguin would wake up to find Van Gogh simply staring at him.
Van Gogh even painted Gunguin's chair
Was there a homosexual relationship between them? With their temperaments it is quite possible that they could have been bi-sexual as some art historians suggest. On the other hand, Paul Gauguin had married years before and had children. Nevertheless his marriage fell apart after 11 years. I mention this only because I suspect Van Gogh was probably the romantic aggressor if their actually was a romance or sexuial alliance between the two artists. (And yes, I am aware that marriage does not determine one's sexuality).
No matter, if they were lovers or not, after living together for a few weeks their relationship waned and they began to argue a lot. They probably spent a great number of their nights soaking themselves in absinthe, smoking their pipes and arguing art theory. Vincent Van Gogh was also known for being extremely opinionated when it came to painting and over the years he had alienated a lot of fellow artists because of this. Now, it seems he was alienating his only friend...Gauguin.
One night, the bickering and disagreeing escalated and soon enough Gauguin was on his feet and walking out. As the story goes, when Gauguin turned, looking back, for some reason, Van Gogh picked up a razor and in his agony cut off his ear as a signal of how deeply Gauguin was hurting him.
But is this what happened?
There are researchers and historian today who believe that the self-mutilation never happened. That instead, Gauguin, well experienced in swordsmanship, whacked off Van Gogh’s ear in a fit of temper; a temper that apparently carried a rage and cruelty in it!
In regard to this, what is thought these days is that Van Gogh said that he had lopped off his own ear to keep his friend out of trouble with the police. While no one can know for certain, especially since Vincent Van Gogh remained in a state of melancholy so much of the time, the truth remains that Paul Gauguin went away that same night and seemingly never looked back. In fact, Gauguin left Aries the very next day. And so, while we can never (really) know what happened between the two men in Aries, France we can know for sure that it was a serious and explosive argument that ended their relationship…forever.
There is at least a strong bit of possible evidence that it was Paul Gauguin who did “the dirty work” in that—the first letter that Van Gogh wrote after the incident included the line that said that he would keep quiet about “this” and he expected Gauguin to do the same. One can easily believe that Vincent Van Gogh took the “rap,” so to speak, in order to protect his friend from serious trouble. Adding to this bit of thought-provoking evidence, shortly after losing his ear, Van Gogh also wrote Theo, his brother, making the odd remark that it was good that Gauguin didn’t have guns.
I strongly suspect that it was Paul Gauguin that lopped off Van Gogh’s ear but, I doubt seriously it was an intentional act—I imagine Gauguin pulled a weapon in a rage and struck out with it without real intent of doing Van Gogh harm. But again, we can't know any of this for certain.
No matter what actually happened that night Van Gogh stuck to his story and he was hospitalized for it. He was released in 1889 and he immediately went back to the life of the artist.
On July 27, in the year 1890, Van Gogh left in the morning to paint as usual but on this day he carried a pistol with him. Later he shot himself in the chest, missing his heart. He was found bleeding in his room and a doctor was called. After having the wound treated Theo was summoned to see his brother. Van Gogh was actually sitting up in the bed when Theo entered the room, smoking his pipe. For a few minutes Theo would assume that his brother was on his way to recovery but not long after this, Vincent Van Gogh died in his arms at age 37. He had only sold one painting, Red Vineyard:
He was destined to become one of the worlds most recognized and renowned painters with his paintings selling today for multi-millions of dollars.
I believe this portrait sold for over 60 million
Notes: 1. some say that Theo had nothing to do with Paul Gauguin moving in with Vincent; that it was Vincent, himself who convinced Gauguin to move in with him.
2. The “yellow house” where Gauguin and Van Gogh lived while in Aries was destroyed in a World War II bombing.
3. Vincent Van Gogh completed over 2000 works including oils, watercolors and sketches over the years.
I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.
—Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent and his Art
I cannot say how many times or how many hours I have stood in front of Van Gogh’s “Café at Night’ admiring it, yes but also analyzing it. First, color was more than sensuous to Van Gogh, color spoke to the viewer in symbol. Yellow—the artist’s favorite color represented faith and or love to Van Gogh…Carmine (deep red) was a spiritual color and cobalt (blue) a divine color. To Van Gogh, red and green symbolized human passions. While Van Gogh stayed faithful to the physical world we all experience, he often saw the world out there in its perpetual motion.
When we are fully aware that we do not see with our eyes but what we see is our brain’s interpretation of light and given form which we, in a sense, reflect back onto the world creating it as we go along, we clearly see that Van Gogh often saw the world more as it truly is in its quantum state; a world in constant vibration as in his “Olive Trees”
or “Wheat Field and cypress” already pictured in the above.
I believe that his objective became capturing the eternal in things; the God-of-Love giving life to all that lives…from within; it was precisely this he wanted to capture in the people he painted. In fact, to Van Gogh it was the circle of light or halo around things that symbolized the eternal for the artist—this was especially prevalent with how he painted his stars. At first glance it is possible to see a child-like quality in his presentation of night skies—in this way more than a typical Impressionist of his times, he was a symbolist of the highest order. (Please note that when I call Vincent Van Gogh a Symbolist, I am not referring to the art movement of Synthecism—aka symbolism—that Gauguin and other artists like Emile Bernard used to distinguish their work from Impressionism). I am speaking of Van Gogh’s drive to capture and so to express his spiritualism in the very life of his paintings. While I have never read this, after studying Van Gogh, I am convinced that he was—by nature—a pantheist; a believer in God dwelling in all things.
I personally find such mysticism in works such as this
And so, based on the above observation, one can feel the mystical in the works of Van Gogh which gives it the magnetic, unconscious appeal that it obviously has. In fact, it was really not until later in Van Gogh’s painting life that he could legitimately be called an Expressionist but even then he was certainly not a “classical” impressionist. There was too much of Van Gogh in Van Gogh’s work, unlike, we’ll say, Picasso who was more mental than emotional; more calculative than free flowing. Both are masters of course but as I see it, Picasso is by far the better painter while Van Gogh is, by far, the greater artist.
I will never know how I missed Vincent Van Gogh’s brilliance for so long. I am hoping that this article keeps at least some people from falling into my past trappings. For one thing, when I looked at a Vincent Van Gogh painting, I was seeking the world that I experience and had experienced. This, I suppose, was my flaw as a professional art reviewer. Nevertheless, once we understand Van Gogh’s words of wisdom to other painters: “do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” we understand as much as we can about Vincent Van Gogh.
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