Why We Love Van Gogh
In his book on 19th-century post-Impressionism, the art historian John Rewald described Vincent van Gogh as “the painter of the period who most powerfully captivates today’s public.” Those words were written in 1956. Four decades later, they are still true, but one can omit the phrase, “of the period.” For in the intervening years, van Gogh’s appeal has grown to such an extent that he is now generally considered the world’s most beloved painter.
Indeed, the current exhibition of his works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is a direct result of that popularity.1 The show was made possible because the Amsterdam museum that houses these paintings had to be closed for renovation, a renovation required by the fact that when it was built in 1973, it was expected to accommodate 85,000 visitors annually—and last year’s attendance topped one million. Several hundred thousand people are expected to see the National Gallery show, which, fortunately, is small enough—70 paintings—to be manageable despite the large crowds. Even more of a blessing is the provenance of the group of paintings on display: they come from the collection that remained in the van Gogh family until the Amsterdam museum was founded to house them.
The man who created these works was born in the Netherlands in March 1853 but did not execute his first oil painting, a still life done in the studio of his cousin, Anton Mauve, until November 1881. By then, he had already failed in two previous attempts to make a career. In 1869, he had joined the international art dealers Groupil & Cie. He worked in their branch offices in the Hague, London, and Paris until 1876, when he was dismissed. After short stints as a teacher, assistant preacher, and bookseller, he began studying to be admitted to the theological faculty in Amsterdam. He abandoned that plan in 1878 to work as an evangelist among coal miners in the Borinage region of southern Belgium.
It was during what Ronald de Leeuw, the editor of van Gogh’s letters, calls his “humanitarian phase in the Borinage” that there occurred a “transformation of his love of God . . . into his love of art.” In 1880, at the age of twenty-seven, he took up drawing with a passion. According to John Rewald:
Though he had been an employee in art galleries, he had not previously shown the slightest inclination toward creativeness, and when the desire to draw had at last taken hold of him . . . the best-intentioned adviser could not have discerned in his first sketches the faintest gleam of promise. But with incredible stubbornness and ardor he had worked . . . until his unskilled hand began to follow more and more closely the dictates of his eye and mind.
By 1886, van Gogh had moved to Paris. There he met painters then associated with the Impressionist movement, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Emile Bernard, and received encouragement from Camille Pissarro. According to Rewald, Pissarro is supposed to have said later that van Gogh “would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. But I didn’t know that he would do both.”
Once he had decided to become an artist, Vincent depended for financial support on his younger brother Theo, to whom he was extraordinarily close. Theo would send him money on a regular basis to buy food and supplies, rent space, and hire models, and Vincent would send Theo pictures, often advising him which ones should be set aside as especially good. Theo himself was an art dealer, though never a very successful one; he was evidently quite shy.
Although frustrated by the lack of sales, Vincent later decided that it actually made more sense to accumulate a large number of canvases that could then be presented as his achievement to the world. In effect, this is what happened after his death in 1890, when Theo set about organizing an exhibit of his work. Within six months, however, Theo himself was dead, his grief over the loss of his brother having led to a complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. The task of figuring out what to do with the paintings then fell to Theo’s wife, who also was responsible for saving Vincent’s remarkable correspondence with his brother. Thus began the process of selecting, exhibiting, and selling van Gogh’s hundreds of works.
Because many of the pictures in the National Gallery show are those that successive family members refused to part with in the decades after van Gogh’s death, they link us to the painter in an unusually personal way. For that reason alone, as well as for what they tell us about the nature of van Gogh’s art, they deserve special attention. But this is not, it should be pointed out, how critics for the daily press generally have responded to the exhibit. The theme of much of the coverage has been that there really is nothing new or particularly significant to say about the Amsterdam collection, especially since it does not include many of the artist’s greatest works, like Starry Night (1889).
In fact, however, the show covers all phases of van Gogh’s painfully brief career. In addition to providing a record of his artistic development, it contains some of the most powerful and beautiful pictures he ever painted. It also illuminates aspects of van Gogh’s artistic program that bear directly on the question of why he exerts such a strong and universal appeal.
About that program, van Gogh was quite explicit. In a letter to Theo in 1882, he wrote:
What I want to express, in both figure and landscape, isn’t anything sentimental or melancholy, but deep anguish. In short, I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.
One need only look at three pictures in the National Gallery exhibition—The Yellow House (1888), Wheatfield with Crows (1890), and Landscape at Twilight (1890)—to see that in this, van Gogh succeeded.
The Yellow House is one of the most hauntingly beautiful paintings in the show. It is based on the house in the southern French town of Aries that van Gogh briefly shared with Paul Gauguin in the fall of 1888. According to one version of events, it was from this house that, after a particularly unpleasant quarrel, Gauguin went for a walk, shortly followed by van Gogh, brandishing a razor. After a brief, silent confrontation, van Gogh retreated to the house. Later that night he cut off his ear, or part of it, and went to a local brothel where he presented it to a prostitute named Rachel before returning home and almost bleeding to death.
Even without knowing this story, one can recognize the atmosphere of foreboding that pervades The Yellow House. It depicts a street scene in which a handful of people move about or sit at café tables. There is a sense of great emptiness, though not of space; on the contrary, the picture imparts a distinct air of claustrophobia. The vivid color and impastoed surface do nothing to allay the feeling of unseen menace but rather conspire somehow to produce it. Behind the flattened masses of yellow that make up the street and buildings—accented in the most remarkable way with green shutters, orange roofs, pink awnings, and lilac window-coverings—descends a sky of rich blue. From the quality of light, one cannot tell whether it is day or night—or rather, it seems as if it is both day and night simultaneously. Although the picture is alive with the movement of color and line, in the center sits van Gogh’s house, and inside, through the windows, there is only blackness (the actual color is a dark blue).
Van Gogh refers to that blackness—the deep depression with which he struggled throughout his life—many times in his letters to his brother. It is transformed again into art in Wheatfield with Crows. What one feels, standing before this picture of an impending storm of unstoppable power, is the painter’s courage in trying to face down forces beyond his control. The nature of those forces is suggested in his letters, where he acknowledges more than once that he knows he has behaved badly in some social situation or other (usually involving his family or friends), but adds that he could not help himself—and does not know why.
At one point in his life, van Gogh had feared that, because of his antisocial behavior, his father might try to have him committed to an institution. After the incident with Gauguin, he submitted to the demand of townspeople in Arles that he be temporarily locked up. In the last year and a half of his life, he was afflicted with a series of hallucinatory attacks later diagnosed as epileptic psychosis; in May 1889, he put himself in the asylum at Saint-Rémy where he continued to paint.
Van Gogh seems to have had no illusions about his mental illness.2 He knew it interfered with his work, and the hallucinatory attacks—during which, he would later learn from doctors, he did things like eat paint—terrified him. In his letters, he repeatedly relates how, despite his difficulties, he is resolved to keep on working as long as he can. In the end, as he himself suspected might happen, the ragings of his unstable mind proved too much to bear. In July 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a pistol, and two days later, in the arms of his brother, he died. He was thirty-seven years old.
His own consciousness of this unfolding tragedy—and of his inability to prevent it—is most fully expressed in Landscape at Twilight. In contrast to Wheatfield with Crows—a wild picture with thick strokes of blue, black, yellow, green, and red surging and swirling across the canvas—Landscape is almost serene in its beauty. Its imagery—of a path winding past two trees through fields toward a house behind which the fading sky is brightened by sunset—seems unremarkable. Nevertheless, in a mysterious but unmistakable way, it conveys a feeling of indescribable sadness. Looking into the bundle of crooked brushstrokes—black, green, and yellow—that make up the branches of the large tree on the right side of the painting, one finds it difficult to resist the urge to weep.
But not for van Gogh. As he wrote to his brother, he had no wish to become a martyr, and how he was able to avoid that fate is suggested by another statement from his letters that sums up the spirit in which he pursued his art. “Though I am often in the depths of misery,” he wrote,
there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. My mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.
Van Gogh’s love of the world as he found it—and his decision to make that world the sustaining basis of his art—is manifest in many of the paintings in the National Gallery show, beginning with the earlier works done in a dark palette and with a fairly traditional approach to composition. In pictures like Scheveningen Beach in Stormy Weather (1882), A Pair of Shoes (1885), A Basket of Potatoes (1885), and The Potato Eaters (1885), there is a striking congruence between the physicality of what is being represented and the physicality of the paint and brushwork. Up close, some of these surfaces could be considered quite ugly, but the solemn power they convey is undeniable. The subjects are presented for what they are, without refinement, and as a result the images are suffused with dignity.
Van Gogh’s credo is even evident in the very different, and far more technically-oriented, Impressionist pictures that follow—such as The Seine with the Pont de la Grande Jatte (1887), Banks of the Seine (1887), Courting Couples in the Voyer d’Argenson Park in Asnières (1887), and A Park in Spring (1887). Here the arrangement of strokes, dots, and patches of color triggers repeated sensations of visual and mental pleasure. While influenced by the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (as well as by Millet, Delacroix, Cézanne, Japanese prints, and English woodcuts), van Gogh steadfastly refused to tie himself down to any artistic system or fixed style. “Do you think that I do not care for technique?” he once wrote to a friend. “Certainly I do, but only in order that I may say what I have to say, and when I cannot yet do that satisfactorily, I try hard to correct myself.”
What he cared about, as much as anything else, was color. The “true drawing,” he once said, “is modeling with color.” Just what he meant by that can be seen in The Bedroom (1888), one of his most famous pictures and the most cheerful work in the National Gallery show. Its mood is a direct result of its simplified, childlike forms and pure, perfectly balanced color—a red bedcover against a yellow bed, a rose floor wedged between pale blue walls, an orange table below a green window—but also of the surprising way the painting creates a welcoming sense of space despite the smallness of the room depicted. With its bright colors, flattened images, and seemingly free composition, The Bedroom exudes a sense of safety and innocence bordering on helplessness.
An altogether different but no less uplifting emotional experience is afforded by The Harvest (1888). One of van Gogh’s own favorites, it presents a simple scene of fields, haystacks, laborers, and carts. But through an extraordinary banding and patterning of color, it creates a feeling of almost infinite space and an overpowering sense of tranquility. One feels, simply, absorbed by this picture. And something similar happens when one stands in front of Wheatfield with a Reaper (1889). With its blaze of pale green sky, purple mountains, yellow sun, and yellow ocher field of grain, this painting induces a feeling of harmony between man and the world. Van Gogh himself thought it suggested death, which for him may have meant the kind of peace and calm he rarely knew while he was alive.
Wheatfield with a Reaper also points to a key aspect of van Gogh’s modernism: the creation of “unnatural” forms—like a green sky, or a sun that sits on the surface of the picture, seeming to have risen from in front of the mountains—that together achieve a self-sustaining autonomy His genius lay in fusing into a single aesthetic experience an image from nature, the feeling it aroused in him, and the means of recapitulating it. As John Rewald puts it:
It becomes clear from van Gogh’s own commentaries that each subject he chose to paint released in him specific emotions or associations of ideas which he sought to express by means of composition, of simplification, and especially of color. Thus every one of his canvases has a spiritual content, crystallizes a genuine feeling. Though his paintings are of course self-sufficient and do not have to be explained, they convey the obscure impression that they say much more, and much graver things, than appear on their surfaces.
As for what those “graver” things might be, the National Gallery show gives us more than a hint. Looking in particular at The Harvest and Wheatfield with a Reaper, one becomes aware that what van Gogh’s art evokes, time and again, in small ways and large, in one painting after another, is the memory of our own recognition of God’s presence in the world. In my view, it is this religious feeling, and the artist’s triumph in finding the aesthetic means of recreating it, that accounts for van Gogh’s astonishing appeal.
In fact, religion had a place of unique importance in van Gogh’s life. The son of a minister, he had tried and failed to be accepted for missionary work. Although he later disavowed the church—motivated at least in part, it seems, by its rejection of him—the impulses that had once made him something of a religious zealot found an equally zealous outlet in his determined drive to become a painter. As an artist, he regarded as a matter of the first importance the question of how to express the kinds of basic human emotions that are associated with a religious response to the world. This was, as it happens, part of a long-running argument he had with Gauguin, who along with Emile Bernard had begun to introduce explicitly religious imagery into his work.
Van Gogh was adamant about the correctness of his own views on the subject. In a letter written in 1889, he bluntly chastised Bernard for “reverting to medieval tapestries” and for trying to paint “abstractions”:
I am telling you about these canvases . . . to remind you that one can express anguish without making direct reference to the actual Gethsemane, and that there is no need to portray figures from the Sermon on the Mount in order to express a comforting and gentle motif.
Van Gogh was animated by the aesthetic conviction that modern painting, if it were to touch people in a way that religious art had once done, had to be rooted in actual experience of the world as well as in the use of color to give expression to that experience. Here lies a key to his artistic program, if one unfortunately slighted in the commentary on the National Gallery show. Not only has very little been said about this aspect of his art, but what has been said has tended to minimize its importance by ascribing it to a kind of idiosyncratic pantheism. This omission probably has something to do with the fact that in general, and except as the target of blasphemy, God does not figure much in current discussions of art. Be that as it may, it is difficult to contemplate “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” without sensing that, in some way, He is in them.
1 “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam,” will remain on view until January 3. It will then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will run from January 17 to April 4.
2 Upon seeing van Gogh’s pictures, Cezanné is reported to have said they were the work of a madman. Cézanne’s own early works—with their images of murder, rape, and hermaphroditism—suggest a psychic turmoil of their own.