The discussions with Rappard regarding the role the technical aspect of art should play helped Van Gogh formulate his own credo of painting at that time: “I’m simply saying that correctly drawing a figure according to academic recipe, with a uniform and studied brushstroke, does not respond to the pressing demands of the modern period regarding pictorial art.” Regarding themes of painting, Vincent was convinced that he should “paint the peasant at home, among the members of his entourage.” In 1885, he achieved his goal by creating his first masterpiece.
The Potato Eaters was painted in the village of Nuenen, where Van Gogh’s parents had lived since 1883. Vincent lived there for two years – 1884 and 1885. At that time he had already done 250 drawings and 190 paintings. He sent The Potato Eaters to his brother Theo into Paris. “It is not impossible”, wrote Vincent, “that I had done a real country picture. I even know that it is so”. For Van Gogh it was a success, independently from the reception of the work. He had painted it exactly as he had wanted to paint it. Van Gogh said himself that he had worked hard to express what these people felt: these men dug in the ground with the same hands that they used to pick up their boiled potatoes. They possessed an expressivity never before seen – a quality hopelessly lost in the academic art of his contemporaries. He was even pleased then that he had never studied painting…
The Potato Eaters arrived in Paris before Vincent. He went there to continue studying and the first thing he did was find a teacher. Vincent chose the studio of Félix Cormon who was well-known for his huge paintings of primitive life scenes. The young students who felt oppressed by the conservatism of the professors from the School of Fine Arts fled here. Cormon followed academic training; however, he was not hostile to new trends. His classes were necessary for Van Gogh mainly because they enabled him to study nudes. In the training studio, he didn’t try to show his personality. Besides, there he met artists who had also chosen new paths. He became acquainted with Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec.
The Van Gogh brothers lodged together in Montmartre, at 54, Rue Lepic. Theo’s attempts to sell his brother’s paintings remained unsuccessful; however he considered it his duty to support Vincent. Theo wrote to their mother, “He is quickly improving in his work and is beginning to have some success,(…) He has friends who send him a bouquet of beautiful flowers every week which he uses for his still lifes. He paints mainly flowers, in order to find lighter and brighter colours for his future paintings.
Indeed, Vincent’s palette was changing very quickly. Now his views about painting were not limited to the classical masterpieces of the Louvre which would certainly never go out of fashion. He saw a posthumous exhibition of his idol, Francois Millet, which led him to think and re-define a lot of things about himself. Vincent arrived in Paris at the very moment when modern art was showing many different possibilities. Gradually, Van Gogh exchanged his dark Dutch colours for a light palette of the Impressionists.
Vincent revelled in the atmosphere of Paris and poured out his feelings in many landscapes. He painted the slopes of Montmartre with the silhouettes of the mills, workers’ simple huts with their small gardens. His pictures of Montmartre recalled those of Holland. At the beginning, his colours were only slightly lighter than the Dutch colours. The fact that he was painting in the open air in the suburbs of Paris, in Asnières and Saint-Ouen, in the company of Signac, probably played a role in the lightening of his scale of colours. Van Gogh let himself be persuaded by Signac’s fiery convictions. At first his new style only seemed to be a zealous imitation of Seurat and Signac, too enthusiastic, in fact. But gradually Vincent began to feel that pointillism did indeed offer new opportunities in painting light. Not only the streets of Montmartre, but also the interiors of small restaurants became more joyful and more luminous than they were in nature (Restaurant Interior). He surrounded his subjects with a kind of matching colour halo to intensify the primary colour. Signac became a loyal friend.
Once when they were coming back to Paris on foot, Signac later recalled how happy and excited Vincent was: “Van Gogh was wearing a dark blue work shirt whose sleeves were covered with a constellation of tiny drops of paint. Walking beside me, he shouted, gesticulated, and swung the freshly painted canvas, soiling himself and passers-by with paint.”
Watch the video about Vincent Van Gogh below:
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