Early Works: Van Gogh's early drawings and paintings tend to centre on the lives of peasants and poor labourers, as well as on the bleak landscapes in which they find themselves. This is not to say that these works are bleak themselves or offer no signs of hope. Not at all. While Van Gogh's early use of darker colours may suggest a melancholy
atmosphere (as can be interpretted in The Potato Eaters at right), Vincent himself had a great admiration for the field workers and weavers he captured on canvas. In a letter to Theo he comments on the peasants of Nuenen:
"The people here instinctively wear the most beautiful blue . . . when this fades and becomes somewhat discolored by the wind and weather, it is an infinite delicate tone that particularly brings out the flesh colors."
Paris Works and Pointillism: As mentioned on the Biography page, Vincent's move to Paris in 1886 brought about an profound change in his approach to art. There are a number of explanations as to the reasons, not the least of which is Van Gogh's introduction to other fellow painters at the time: Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Signac and Seurat. A number of Van Gogh's works at the time are not only noticably more adventurous in their use of colour,
but also adopt a pointillist approach. In just a short period, we see Van Gogh's style move from the dark to the vibrant; from the worker bent over a loom to a pair of lovers strolling through a park.
Japonaseries: The period in which Vincent painted in the traditional Japanese fashion is brief, but nonetheless extremely interesting. "Japonisme" was an influence that was particularly popular in the mid to late 19th century. Vincent was intrigued by the Japanese prints available to him at the time and wrote to Theo:
"My studio is not so bad, especially as I have pinned a lot of little Japanese prints on the wall, which amuse me very much."
In fact, there are only three surviving examples of Vincent's Japonaiseries, however, their inclusion at such a pivotal point in Vincent's artistic evolution suggest that they commanded an important influence on his changing style.
The Portraits: The portraits are a category I've created which, as I maintain above, doesn't fit into a single, neatly wrapped package. Vincent painted portraits throughout his entire career, often self-portraits when he couldn't afford models. These portraits, from his earliest works of peasant women wearing white bonnets, right through to the famous
Portrait of Doctor Gachet, each merit an in-depth exploration in their own right. By looking specifically at the portraits throughout Van Gogh's career, one can take note of his ever changing style, and ever growing genius.
The Still Lifes: Again, as with the portraits above, creating an (almost certainly arbitrary) category devoted to still lifes serves more to illustrate Van Gogh's changing style, rather than to precisely define his overall
works into easily defined bundle. Again, as with portraits (and especially self-portraits), Vincent painted still lifes throughout his career, in part because his financial state compelled him to choose of a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers or a pair of shoes over a living, breathing model, whom he had to pay. While some may argue that his somber, early works (such as Still Life with Beer Mug and Fruit) can really only be considered studies while Vincent flexed his artistic muscles, are they, in fact, any less interesting or betray any less genius than his later still lifes (such as Vase with Poppies, Cornflowers, Peonies and Chrysanthemums shown at right)? It's an interesting question. Even in the month before his death, Vincent would devote much of his time to the traditional vases of flowers that guided him, and honed his talent, throughout his career.
Sunflowers: Van Gogh's incredible sunflower series warrants a discussion on its own. While so many of
Van Gogh's works are instantly recognizable to anyone in the world, it may be his sunflower series which are the most famous of his works. Though Vincent had used sunflowers as a subject of his painting as early as 1886, the majority of his bold and beautiful sunflower series were painted in 1888 in Arles, in the hopes of pleasing Paul Gauguin upon his arrival at the "Yellow House".
A recent article on sunflowers in Smithsonian magazine included a reproduction of one of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings with a caption suggesting that Van Gogh considered these works "worthless". Nothing could be further from the truth! Vincent loved these works and felt that there could be nothing better suited to conveying a sense of welcome,
belonging and happiness.
In Provence: Vincent van Gogh spent nearly two years in Provence and it is during this time that many believe him to have painted his best works. Again, it's impossible to easily categorize his paintings during his time in Arles and Saint-Rémy. Suffice it to say that this two year period in his life yielded what can arguably be called the most brilliant paintings he would ever produce. There are so many different specific works which warrant more study than I could ever begin to undertake: his outstanding portraits of the Roulin family, his works in Arles (the famous The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum or The Night Café in the Place Lamartine) or the surrounding countryside (his many churning cypresses trees and olive groves, for example), as well as what some consider to be his one greatest work of all, Starry Night at right above. It's fascinating to understand that even as Vincent's artistic brilliance climbed to new heights in Provence, so too did his physical and particularly his mental state make similar, radical advances (for the worse). For me, the essence of Van Gogh lies in his works from Provence.
Looking back: Works After Millet, Delacroix and Others: During his convalescence while at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh devoted some of his time to studies of painters he had admired and learned from in his past. Part of the reason for this is probably due to the fact that his dangerous attacks of mental illness would often take place outdoors, leading his doctors to confine him inside where he had to work from memory. I think that there's probably more to it than that, however. Some of Van Gogh's best work can be seen in his studies after the painter, Millet (see my own Personal View page for one of his best, Noon: Rest from Work or, my particular favourite First Steps). A sense of playfulness is suggested in these works: were they inherent in Van Gogh's own state of mind, or simply well captured as copies of Millet's original works? It's difficult to say. Other works painted during Vincent's stay at Saint-Rémy do suggest (at least to me) a sense of Van Gogh looking back:
- Pietà (after Delacroix): This painting (shown above right) suggests that Vincent's interest in religion (or at the very least painters who focused on religious themes) had been reawakened. Look, too, at Half-Figure of an Angel (after Rembrandt), as well as The Raising of Lazarus (also after Rembrandt).
- Blossoming Almond Tree, painted at Saint-Rémy in February, 1890 has clear Japanese influences. As discussed above, these influences also made an impact upon Vincent during his pivotal time in Paris four years earlier.
- Vincent even copied his own works as seen in the three L'Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux) paintings done at Saint-Rémy in February, 1890. Interesting that Vincent's first paintings of Madame Ginoux had been made more than fourteen months before. Why did Vincent pick Madame Ginoux specifically to paint once again, from his solitary cell in the asylum at Saint-Rémy? Interesting, too, to note that Vincent's 1890 painting looks far more like the paintings that Paul Gauguin made
at the same time. It's intriguing to consider what this may suggest.
- Perhaps an even more important work that Vincent choose to paint once again is Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity), painted at Saint-Rémy in late April or early May, 1890 (see my Biography page for a copy). The work is based on his early lithograph At Eternity's Gate and both are nearly identical. They depict a lone figure--an old man sitting in a chair, bent over with his hands clenched against his face. The image is one of complete and total despair. Interesting that Vincent chose this work specifically to return to after eight years. Perhaps this painting, better than any other, shows us Vincent's mental state during his final years.
Auvers-sur-Oise and the End: Vincent van Gogh's final works are a paradox and this is probably no better demonstrated than in his work Wheat Field with Crows, shown at left. Vincent's mental state during the last six months of his life fluctuated wildly. At times, Vincent was in good health and in seeming perfect control of his faculties;
at others he was deep in the throes of complete mental breakdown. Some of his best, and most moving works come from these months. There's a peace and near contentment in many of the paintings of parks and fields he undertook while in Auvers-sur-Oise. Given that, how then can one interpret Wheat Field with Crows? This is one of Van Gogh's final works and is among the most controversial. Many feel that the dramatic and stormy skies, as well as the churning wheat field with the ominous crows rising above it, are a clear reflection of Vincent's own mental state in his last days. Others find some glimmer of hope in the vibrant colours and the path which may finally lead to peace at last. Whatever the case, it's clearly one of Vincent's greatest works and, given the ultimate tragedy of his too-short life, one of the most moving.