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Reflections on Van Gogh's Painting (II)

By Cristian Peri

Yellow and Blue in Van Gogh’s painting

Perhaps yellow and blue in Van Gogh’s paintings express his “joie de vivre” if colors, in truth, can express feelings. We did not see much yellow the way we saw it in his paintings after he arrived in Arles, but it was there even at his beginnings, as in “Dunes” (F 2a), and “Avenue of Poplars at Sunset” (F 123), then in Paris, as in “Still Life with Pears” (F 602), “Still Life with Basket of Apples (To Lucien Pissarro)(F 378), and “Tambourine with Pansies” (F 244).

A variety of blue tones are most often present in Van Gogh’s early paintings, too, as in “Cluster of Old Houses with the New Church in the Hague” (F 204), “View of Amsterdam from Central Station” (F 113), “View of Paris from Vincent’s Room in the Rue Lepic” (F 341), “Wheat Field with a Lark” (F 310), and others. Van Gogh’s color palette was diverse even during his early periods (Nuenen, Paris), as in “Avenue of Poplars in Autumn” (F 122), “Bowl with Sunflowers, Roses, and Other Flowers” (F 250), “Outskirts of Paris: Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade” (F 361), “Corner of Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres” (F 315), etc. As early as 1881, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo:

(Letter 164, Etten, c. 21 December 1881): Theo, what a great thing tone can color are. And those who fail to learn to have feelings for them will remain far removed from real life. M. has taught me to see so many things that I used not to see and one day I shall try to tell you what he has told me, as there may well be one or two things you do not see properly either. Anyway, I hope we’ll have a good discussion about artistic matters some day.

Van Gogh showed an extraordinary ability for using color. He used a complex palette in which perhaps yellow and blue played the essential roles. In painting the sun, as in “Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun” (F 617), the sunrise, as in “Enclosed Field with Rising Sun” (F 737), the sunset, as in “Willows at Sunset” (572), “Coal Barges” (F 437), sunflowers, as in “Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” (F 457), wheat fields, as in “Wheat Field with Ploughman and Mill” (F 706), and trees in the fall, as in “Les Alyscamps” (F 569), he used yellow masterfully. Other examples include: “Arles, View from the Wheat Fields” (F 545), “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” (F 469), “Vincent’s house in Arles (The Yellow House)” (F 464), “A Field of Yellow Flowers” (F 584), “Interior of a Restaurant in Arles” (F 549a), “The Walk: Falling Leaves” (F 651), “Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine: Reminiscence of the North” (F 674), “Field with Stacks of Wheat” (F 771), “Still Life: French Novels” (F 358), “The Road Menders” (F 657), etc. Yellow is a warm, intense color, often difficult to use as one of the predominant colors. Van Gogh’s yellow was an ochre-yellow, which often migrated to orange, or even to magenta and brown. The best example of the use of yellow is the series of “Sunflowers”, but the same could be said about many of his other paintings. Van Gogh wrote to his brother:

(Letter 522, Arles c. 13 August 1888): At the first opportunity, I will send you and engraving after a drawing by Rowlandson, representing two women, as beautiful as a Fragonard or a Goya. Just now, we have a strong glorious heat, with no wind, just what I want. There is a sun, a light that for the want of a better world I can call only yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron. How lovely yellow is! And how much better I shall see the North!

Oh! I keep wishing for the day when you will see and feel the sun of the South!

Van Gogh used blue extensively to paint the sky, as in “Wheat Field with Cypresses” (F 615), and “At the Foot of the Mountains” (F 723), but also to depict a great number of other subjects, as in “Windmill on Montmartre” (F 271), “Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat” (F 296), “Bridges across the Seine at Asnieres” (F 301)“Landscape with Snow” (F 290), “Orchard with Blossoming Apricot Trees” (F 555), “Seascape at Saint-Maries” (F 415), “Enclosed Wheat Field with Peasant” (F 641), “Les Peiroulets Ravine” (F 661), “The Drinkers” (F 667), “Bank of the Oise at Auvers” (F 798), “Portrait of Doctor Gachet” (F 454), “Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background” (F 712), etc. Quite often Van Gogh’s green migrated towards blue tones, as well, as in “Clumps of Grass” (F 582), “Olive Grove” (F 585), “Self-Portrait” (F 627), “Orchard in Blossom with a view of Arles” (F 516), “Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin” (F 432), “Green Field with Cypresses” (F 719), “Plain Near Auvers” (F 782), etc. In some paintings, blue was replaced by or migrated toward nuances of lilac/violet, as in “Pollard Willows” (F 520), “The Spinner” (F 696), “Avenue in Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres” (F 277), “Apricot Trees in Blossom” (F 556), “Path Through a Field with Willows” (F 407), “La Crau with Peach Trees in Blossom” (F 514), “The Old Mill” (F 550), “Landscape under a Stormy Sky” (F 575), “Prisoners Exercising (after Dore)” (F 669), “Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow” (F 695), “The Fields” (F 761), “Houses in Auvers” (F 759), and others, or to dark blue and ultramarine, as in “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night” (F 457), “Starry Night” (F 612), “Portrait of Doctor Gachet” (F 753), “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux” (F 786), “Wheat Field with Crows” (F 779), etc.

Yellow and blue can be seen in “Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” (F 456), “Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers” (F 459), “The Sower” (F 422), “The Sower: Outskirts of Arles in the Background” (F 575a), “Vincent’s Chair with his Pipe” (F 498), “Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles” (F 483),“The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Road Alongside the Canal” (F 400), “Still Life: Blue Enamel Coffeepot, Earthenware and Fruit” (F 410), “Still Life: Basket with Six Oranges” (F 395), “The Dance Hall in Arles” (F 547), “Trunk of an Old Yew Tree” (F 573), “Field with Ploughman and Mill” (F 706), “The Mulberry Tree” (F 637), “Sunset: Wheat Field Near Arles” (F 465), “Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills” (F 638), “Evening Landscape with Rising Moon” (F 735), “The Smoker” (F 534), “The Little Stream” (F 740), “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” (F 526), “Portrait of Eugene Boch” (F 462), “Portrait of Patience Escalier” (F 444), “Portrait of Armand Roulin” (F 492), “Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin” (F 434), “Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset” (F 770), “Ploughed Field” (F 574), “Wheat Fields Near Auvers” (F 775), “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux” (F 768), “Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a yellow Background” (F 678), etc.

Blue, yellow, and green are prevalent in “Wheat Field with Cypresses” (F 615), “Orchard in Blossom, Bordered by Cypresses” (F 554), “Flowering Garden” (F 430), “Canal with Women Washing” (F 427), “Portrait of Camille Roulin” (F 537), “Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin” (F 439), “Wheat Field with Cypresses at the Haute Galline Near Eygalieres” (F 717), “Cypresses” (F 613), “Still Life with Oranges, Lemons and Blue Gloves” (F 502), etc; blue, yellow, and red in “The Red Vineyard” (F 495); green and blue in “View of Arles with Trees in Blossom” (F 515), “The Green Vineyard” (F 475), “View of Arles” (F 799), “Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans” (F 445), “Green Wheat Fields” (F 807), “A Lane in the Public Garden at Arles” (F 470), “Two Diggers Among Trees” (F 701), “Still Life: Vase with Irises” (F 680), etc; yellow, red, and green in “The Night Café in the Place Lamartine in Arles” (F 463), “Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin” (F 503); yellow and green, in “Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” (F 458), “Flowering Garden with Path” (F 429), “Two Thistles” (F 447a), “Canal with Women Washing” (F 427), “Self-Portrait” (F 380), “Self-Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat” (F 524), “Coal Barges” (F 437), “Entrance to a Quarry” (F 744), “Olive Grove with Picking Figures” (F 587), “Daubigny’s Garden” (F 776), etc; green and orange in “Poppies and Butterflies” (F 748); blue and red in “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” (F 594); green and pink in “The Brothel” (F 478)”; red, green, blue and yellow in “Paul Gauguin’s Armchair” (F 499); white, orange, and blue in “Three White Cottages in Saint-Maries” (F 419), “Village Street in Auvers” (F 802); white, orange, green, and blue in “Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Figures” (F 795); white, yellow, green, and blue in “The White House at Night” (F 766), “Auvers Town Hall on 14 July 1890” (F 790), etc.

Whatever the reason, yellow and blue are the major colors in most of Van Gogh’s masterpieces; yellow and blue are components of his magnificent artistic style.

People and Portraiture in Van Gogh’s Art

Van Gogh was concerned with painting people in different settings from the beginning of his artistic career. People featured in his paintings were workers, as in “Weaver Near an Open Window” (F 024), peasants, as in “Potato Planting” (F 172), townspeople, as in “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (F 25), etc. Quite often his personages were sketchy, a characteristic that remained constant in many of Van Gogh’s paintings over the years. Van Gogh’s portraits showed his ability to capture the essential features of his subjects, as in “Head of a Peasant with Cap” (F 160a), “Head of a Woman” (F 156), “Head of a Peasant Woman with a White Cap” (F 146a), “Head of a Peasant Woman with a White Cap” (F 140), “Head of a Woman with her Hair Loose” (F 206), “Head of an Old Woman with a White Cap (The Midwife)” (F 174), “Portrait of an Old Man with Beard” (F 205), “Portrait of Woman in Blue” (F 207a), etc.

While in Paris, Van Gogh’s paintings rendering people in different settings and his portraits improved in color and refinement, as in “Lane at the Jardin du Luxembourg” (F 223), “The Bois du Boulogne with People Walking” (F 225), “Terrace of a Cafe on Montmartre (La Guinguette) (F 238), “Montmartre” (F 272), “Street Scene in Montmartre: Le Moulin a Poivre” (F 347), “A Woman Walking in a Garden” (F 368), etc., and “Portrait of a Man” (F 209), “Portrait of Pére Tanguy” (F 364), “Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Cafe du Tambourin” (F 370), “Woman Sitting by a Cradle” (F 369), “Portrait of the Art Dealer Alexander Reid, Sitting in an Easy Chair” (F 270), “Portrait of the Art Dealer Alexander Reid” (F 343), etc.

During the same period, Van Gogh started painting self-portraits, as in “Self-Portrait” (F 178v), “Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat” (F 295), “Self-Portrait with pipe and Glass” (F 263a), “Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat” (F 296), “Self-Portrait” (F 380), “Self-Portrait” (F 356), “Self-Portrait” (F 109v), “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” (F 469), etc., often showing a deeply meditative image of the artist himself. It is as if Van Gogh was searching for his own identity. He painted himself so many times as if asking himself, “Who am I?”

It seems obvious that Van Gogh enjoyed making paintings with people, formal portraits, and self-portraits. His subjects are shown colorfully, expressively, and truthfully. Most often, reality was shown as it was, without the least intention of making the image pleasing or cute. The backgrounds of his portraits and self-portraits often suggested the momentary emotions of his subjects. Perhaps Van Gogh painted this way instinctively, but there was a lot of deep understanding and insight, too.

In his self-portraits, one can see Van Gogh as contemplative in “Self-Portrait with Pipe and hat Straw” (F 524), concerned but self-confident in “Self-Portrait” (F 501), aware of his problems in “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (F 527), “Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe” (F 529), worried about his mental distress in “Self-Portrait” (F 525), “Self-Portrait” (F 626), and “Self-Portrait” (F 627)(a fantastic portrait!). Van Gogh did not paint any self-portraits while in Auvers-sur-Oise, but that period in his life was very short.

Van Gogh’s portraits in Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise most often represented a few friends and acquaintances, and other people connected to the events in his life, as in “La Mousmé, Sitting” (F 431), “Portrait of Patience Escalier” (F 444), “Portrait of Eugene Boch” (F 462), “L’Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books” (F 488), “Mother Roulin with Her Baby” (F 490), “Portrait of Armand Roulin” (F 492), “Portrait of Camille Roulin” (F 538), “Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin” (F 503), “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (F 435), “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (F 439), “Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey” (F 500); “Portrait of Madame Trabuc” (F 631), “Portrait of Trabuc, an Attendant at Saint-Paul Hospital” (F 629), “L’Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux)” (F 540); “The Little Arlesienne” (F 518), “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano” (F 772), “Portrait of Adeline Ravoux” (F 768), “Young Girl Standing Against a Background of Wheat” (F 788), “Portrait of Doctor Gachet” (F 753) (another fantastic portrait!), etc. It is interesting though, that Van Gogh had never painted his brother, Theo.

He wrote about portraits:

(Letter 482, Arles c. 4 May 1888): As for me, I shall go on working, and here and there something of my work will prove of lasting value – but who will there be to achieve for figure painting what Claude Monet has achieved for landscape? However, you must feel, as I do, that someone like that is on the way – Rodin? – he does not use colour – it won’t be him. But the painter of the future will be a colourist the like of which has never yet been seen. Manet was getting there but, as you know, the impressionists have already made use of stronger colour than Manet has.

I cannot imagine this painter of the future living in small cafés, setting to work with a lot of false teeth, and going to the Zouave’s brothels, as I do.

But I am sure I am right to think that it will come in a later generation, and it is up to us to do all we can to encourage it, without question of complaint.

Van Gogh’s subjects continued to be peasants, workers, and townspeople, as in “The Sower” (F 422), “The Night Café in the Place Lamartine In Arles” (F 463), “The Brothel” (F 478), “The Dance Hall in Arles” (F 547), “Two Lovers” (F 544); “The Spinner” (F 694), “First Steps (After Millet)” (F 668), “Two Peasant Women Digging in Field With Snow” (F 695); “Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)” (F 702), “Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon” (F 704); (Auvers-sur-Oise), “Village Street and Steps in Auvers with Two Figures” (F 796), “Two Women Crossing a Field of Wheat” (F 819), and others. Van Gogh’s painting of people, his formal portraits and self-portraits are major components of his art. He expanded the technique of painting portraits through use of vivid colors and by rendering not only the physical aspects of his subjects but also their feelings and emotions, as in “Self-Portrait” (F 627), and “Portrait of Doctor Gachet” (F 753), and their connections to their milieu, as in “The Potato Eaters” (F 82), “The Dance Hall in Arles” (F 547), “The Sower” (F 422), and others of his paintings.

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