The world is a pretty glum place at the moment, isn’t it? COVID-19, social distancing, self-isolation and a media frenzy, which is enough to send the sanest of us to a brink of depression, which is probably making you look at things a little different. Appreciating smaller things, like the fact that spring is on the way and the first signs of life rejuvenation are in the air, or perhaps you are belated to wake up and the mornings are a little lighter.
Depression was a common state for Van Gogh, which is very hard for anyone to understand the depths of another’s mental state, but as it is his birthday, let’s take a moment and imagine life through the eyes of someone who felt distanced from the world around him.
Van Gogh was born on the 30th of March 1853. As a child, he was documented to be serious, quiet and thoughtful. There has been a previous child born to his parents called Vincent, who had been stillborn, and there was a younger brother, Theo. The bond between Vincent and Theo was strong and most of what we know of this artist comes from the hundreds of letters he sent to Theo between 1872 and 1890.
Feelings of abandonment and unhappiness set on being sent to boarding school in Zevenbergen. Despite him campaigning to come home, he was sent on to middle school in Tilburg, compounding his unhappiness. In his early years, he had been encouraged to draw by his mother, but in Tilburg, he was taught by Constant Cornelius Huijsmans. Huijsmans had been a famous artist in Paris, whose philosophy was to forget technique and capture emotion. Van Gogh’s drawings at this time were expressive but lacked the intensity we see in his later work.
As a young man, Van Gogh worked as an art dealer, spending some time in London during 1873, which he did well at for a time, but after declaring feelings for his landlord’s daughter and being rejected, he became more isolated and distant. His father and uncle arranged his transfer back to Paris in 1875. Van Gogh became resentful of how the art dealers did business and he was released from this job a year later.
Van Gogh returned to England for a short spell in 1876, taking a job as a teaching assistant, but this didn’t work out, and he returned to his parents for a while. Van Gogh then bounced around jobs, including working in a book store and attempting to become a pastor, but he failed exams and in 1880 he returned to his parents’ home in Etten. This was a cause of concern and frustration for them, and his father suggested that Van Gogh commit himself to an asylum.
In the autumn of 1880, Van Gogh became interested in people and scenery around him. Listening to his brother’s encouragement, he started to try and become an artist in earnest. Theo would support Van Gogh by providing supplies and emotional support to the end of his life, which was in 1890, through a gunshot wound.
It would be really easy for me to write about why Van Gogh cut off his ear or his meagre living as an artist. I could have simply written about “Starry Night” for this article and why that is a masterpiece and has been honoured with a song, but that wouldn’t give you the sense of unhappiness that Van Gogh felt from a very early age. It also wouldn’t explain why his paintings were so expressive. If you have ever had the pleasure of being up close to one of Van Gogh’s paintings, you would know how thick the paint has been layered on to the canvas. You could talk to me about how you could determine every passionate brush stroke, and you would be able to explain how he incorporated elements that were around him into the paint such as sand from the beaches or earth from farms.
Van Gogh’s life was so in-depth that I could never do a full breakdown of him in an article, as it would be unfair to look at any of his very famous incidents without trying to understand the mental state that attributed to his actions.
Van Gogh created over 2100 works during his lifetime, and never reached notoriety while he was alive, and honestly, while I think this would have been a dream come true for him, I don’t know if he could have handled the attention that he would have received. It is sad to think of such a magnificent artist, never knowing how his work impacted the art world so dramatically, but perhaps it was for the best.
Irises is one of the most expensive paintings ever sold, going for $54 million in 1987, but probably wouldn’t be the first painting that anyone named of Van Gogh’s. This was painted during his stay in St. Remy’s asylum. It is distinctive in its style, taking its influence from Japanese woodblock work. The black contours within the flowers a feature of woodblock prints produced in the 17th century. Van Gogh made use of the gardens around the asylum, but most likely painted the flowers from memory, adding his own unique impressions of the fauna.
There are no known preparatory drawing for this painting, potentially because Van Gogh saw it as a simple study on the flowers and practising the technique, rather than a finished piece, but this was one of the paintings Theo presented to The Salon Des Independents in September of 1889. This painting really shows the post-impressionist style of Van Gogh. The audience can see exactly what has been painted, yet the flowers are not anatomically correct, nor painted in the finest detail, but you can feel the breeze crossing the flowers, and you can feel the heat from the sun on the ground as the irises turn their heads to face it.
Nothing can describe the work of Van Gogh to someone who has never seen one in the flesh, and actually before I did, I had very little appreciation for this artist, which dramatically changed when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, as each piece is so heartfelt and passionate, it is hard not to fall in love with his work.
It is at this point of the article I would have told you that there are interactive Van Gogh exhibitions, where you can be immersed in his work, but with the current state, these have been closed. Therefore I would like to draw your attention to the fact you can virtually tour the Van Gogh museum and explore the works on display here.
Van Gogh was considered a lunatic when he was alive, only after death did people start to view him as a misunderstood genius, therefore when you view his work, try and view it with compassion for a person who saw the world very differently to those around him.