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Vincent van Gogh

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Vincent van Gogh: 1853-July 29, 1890...Holland

"As a painter I shall never signify anything of importance. I feel it absolutely."
~Vincent van Gogh

The lead “Expressionist” artist was none other than Vincent van Gogh. An expressionist is an impressionist that focuses on the feelings that are communicated through their works. "From what you told me about 'impressionism,' I have indeed concluded that it is different from what I thought, but it's not quite clear to me what it really is." At the age of sixteen, Vincent began to work for a few art dealers that he knew through his family connections. In those early years he wanted to be a Christian preacher like his father and his grandfather who were well known Protestant ministers. Vincent studied theology for the ministry, but failed the examinations. After some time and a good word in by his father, in 1878 at the age of twenty-five, the church allowed him to preach in the poor mining region of the Borinage in Belgium. He was soon dismissed by the missionary society for giving money and belongings away, living in a barn, and "literally interpreting Christ’s teachings," among other reasons. Living in Belgium, he knew he wanted to paint. But he also knew that he needed a strong foundation in drawing before he could be a any kind of painter. He began to paint at twenty-seven years old. He did receive some training form several sources over the years, including his training under his artist cousin Anton Mauve, classes at the Brussels Academy, working with influential artists of the day in Paris, France (like Émile Bernard, Georges Seurat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and others). Van Gogh also copied the work of the artists he respected, like Jean Millet, Peter Paul Rubens and Joseph Israels. These artist had a great impact on his early techniques and subjects. We can really see the Millet shine through on Vincent’s first great work, The Potato Eaters.

This early Millet influenced work, The Potato Eaters  is known as an example of Van Gogh’s Dutch Period work. Like Millet representing the workers around him, Vincent incorporates the miners, farmers, and weaver that worked around him throughout his career. The Potato Eaters was the most important works of his early years. The better part of the winter of 1884 was spent studying to create this painting. With this, and many other artworks, subject was the main interest, but he did pay attention to other art principles, like composition and rhythm. "I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and they have honestly earned their food." We can also see qualities found in Japanese art rubbing off on his work. Technically, he starts his paintings with a contour line drawing that is layered up with painted lines. Applying several thin layers of paint would build into a thick impasto. He mixed the layers so quickly that many colors can be seen swirled together in a single brush stroke.

The Potato Eaters
1885. Oil on canvas. 32¼  × 45 inches. Van Gogh Museum, Postbus, Amsterdam.

Vincent began to find himself in odd relationships with the women in his life. Vincent’s intense personality set him up to be rejected by most people. It all started with Eugenie Loyer. She was his landlord’s daughter, who also happened to be engaged. Then was Kee Vos-Stricker. Her husband had died and she was left with an infant son. Vincent loved her and wanted to support them and marry her. But she was not at all interested. So he began to stalk her. Vincent was, by most standards, an unattractive man, but the real turnoff was that they were cousins. His behavior toward his cousin angered his parents so much that he was thrown out of there house, where he was living. For a short time he was involved in an affair with Margot Begmann, a thirty-nine year old neighbor. He’s guilt and family persuasion caused him to cut off the relationship; which also resulted in Margot’s suicide attempt. Later, he would move in with another unmarried mother, Clasina "Sien" Hoornik, who was a prostitute. When they met, she had a five year old daughter and was also pregnant. He viewed her as a perfect companion because she needed him. His inability to manage money did put a major strain on the couple. He would spend a considerable amount of money on art supplies and tobacco over food. The other reality was that she was drawn to the streets and needed money, gin, and cigars more than Vincent. She would leave him but not before giving him one last gift, gonorrhea. The last note worthy lady in Vincent’s life was the prostitute that came between Paul Gauguin and himself, but we'll get more into that story in due time.

First off, Vincent had moved from Belgium to Paris to be closer to his closest brother and friend, Theo, in 1886. Vincent very much needed the support of his brother for money, artistic guidance and companionship. Vincent enjoyed living in the Paris neighborhood of Montmartre. He became great friends with Paul Signac and Lucian Pissarro (Camille Pissarro’s son).

In February of 1888 van Gogh had left Paris for Province, then moving to Arles, in southern France. Van Gogh would become very well known for his letter writing, that would also keep communication about the project going. It was his belief that artists needed a location where they could live and learn from one another. This fraternity of artists would be called the Studio of the South. He set up the first residence in what was called the Yellow House. Through his brother, he got Gauguin to join his cause. Vincent very much respected Paul. The world traveling, self-conscious, cynic with swagger was all Paul, but living with the hyper, emotional, and passionate Vincent; maybe not the best mix of roommates. In fact, this iconic set of artistic roommates only lasted for nine weeks.
 
Vincent was a little up set on Christmas eve of 1888. He had just got news that Theo was engaged to be married. This meant that Theo’s time, money, and focus was going to turn away from Vincent and turn to his new wife. Paul had painted The Painter of Sunflowers, a picture of Vincent painting sunflowers in his bedroom. Paul presented this to Vincent as a gift and when Vincent saw it he said, "That's me alright, but me gone mad." Paul was insulted at his remarks and they argued over the work and finally Paul left the house to go to the café that was around the corner and owned by their landlord. Vincent followed him and continued to push the issue. One thing led to another and Vincent threw a glass at Paul. Paul was mad and left the café. Vincent followed him into the street. Now, at this time in history, artists did not generally buy paint pre-made, like one would buy in a tube today. They would buy a block of pigment, shave some off with a straight edge razor knife, grind it into a powder, and mix that up with oil into the paint. On the street Vincent pulled out his straight edge razor knife. Paul was not about to get into this situation and he was gone for the night. Vincent was still upset and he went up to his apartment to calm down. How? He would paint. Using the same straight edge razor knife, he began to shave off some pigment to mix up some paint when he would have an infamous accident.
 
This accident has been a major point in Vincent’s label as a nut-job artist. Some contend that he was a crazy man that cut his ear off in an ultimate temper-tantrum. Others say that it was Gauguin, who was a skilled fencer, that removed the ear, but Vincent being the needy friend he was, quickly forgave Paul and had him leave and made up the story so he would not get arrested. Whatever the truth is, I feel an obligation not to confuse Vincent’s personal flaws with being crazy. He was a passionate artist who likely suffered from several mental illnesses, including: manic depression, bipolar disorder, delusions, and coprophagia (the consumption of feces). He was a very well educated man, who completely literate in four languages. He loved to read William Shakespeare, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. He was far from the savage beast that many so-called art educators portray to the public.
 
The Painter of Sunflowers
1888. Oil on canvas. 29.25 × 36.75 inches. Van Gogh Museum, Postbus, Amsterdam

Vincent had an epileptic-like seizure. Now, Vincent was not born with epilepsy or any thing like that, so how did this happen? Well, when Vincent would go out and paint on location he would need to take all of the supplies out and then bring them back, as well as the finished painting. Oil paint takes a lot of time to dry. He needed the brushes to be cleaned off so they would not get paint on everything, he would clean the brushes off in his mouth. One of the components of a lot of paint at this time was lead. Lead can attack any organ in the human body. When it is in a high dose, it will cause brain damage. In other works, ones brain would dissolve. But the one thing Van Gogh had going for him was that he was also an alcoholic. The alcohol in his system helped to neutralize or flush out the lead in his system. Over time, he slowly was destroying his body; the lead was attaching his organs and rotting his brain away, and the alcohol was flushing his body out, but also causing his body great stress.
 
No one will ever know without a doubt, what lead to Vincent having a severed ear, but my best educated reconstruction of the story is that it was the result of a seizure. During the seizure, on Christmas eve of 1888, Vincent unintentionally cut off his lower ear lobe. He awoke from the seizure in a pool of blood. He found the lobe, placed it in a small box with some cotton. It was known by Vincent that Paul spent a lot of time in the company of a prostitute only known as Rachel. She also caught Vincent’s eye, however, she she refused to be with Vincent, even for payment! It is also speculated that Paul was in her company on the Christmas eve in question. According to the police reports, Paul arrived home at 7:30 the next day to a crowd around the place that had been known as the Yellow House. Vincent was released from the hospital three days later. At some point after this release, Vincent went to the brothel with a box for Rachel. But this was no charm bracelet in a gift box. This box contained his ear. The hospital had diagnosed his condition as "acute mania with delusions". More bouts with seizures while living alone resulted in another hospitalization. Upon his return home he was met with a sealed Yellow House that was under police surveillance. His reputation as an odd artist quickly shifted to the belief that he was an insane freak, and he was very unwelcome. The community had petitioned for his landlord to evict him on the grounds of being a menace.
 
Vincent placed himself into the care of the Saint-Rémy asylum after having paranoid delusions and the dream of an artist colony was dead. At the asylum he created his most recognized work from memory, Starry Night. Although it was based upon his observed realities, the painting and its location is completely invented. Some of his most known works from observation are his many self protraits. One of my favorites of these works was the monochromatic . The swirls of the background mesh with the swirls in his suit. Swirls were a major Self-Portrait 1889 focus of his at his time in his life. This was likely the last of the some thirty-five painted self-portraits. "I purposely bought a mirror good enough to enable me to work from my image in default of a model, because if I can manage to paint the coloring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women."
 
Starry Night
1889. Oil on canvas. 28.7 × 36.25 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, USA.
 
Self-Portrait
1889. Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 21.25 inches. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France.

He left the asylum in May and visited Theo and his new wife Johanna in Paris. Theo and Johanna had a son, born on January 31, 1890 who was named after Vincent (Vincent Willem) dispite the elder Vincent's objection. Vincent traveled on and on May 21 he settled in Auvers-sur-Oise under the watch of Dr. Gachet; a psychologist, amateur painter, and art collector. He felt very alone. There were no other artists, he had heard rumors of Paul Gauguin planning on an artist’s studio in the Tropics, Theo was planning on moving, and he felt that the art dealers in Paris wanted nothing to do with his work. Theo, on the other hand, saw success on the horizon for Vincent. He knew some dealers and collectors that were taking notice of his style. During Vincent’s last seventy days of life he made seventy paintings. He was in high production mode. In a session with Dr. Gachet ten days before he died, he complained of having too calm of a mood. His last work in believed to be Wheat Field with Crows. Maybe by ironic chance or perhaps by his own plan, in a wheat field on July 27, 1890, at the age of 37, Vincent shot himself in the chest with a gun he was given to shoot crows. After he shot himself, he fainted, and again awoke in a pool of blood. He wanted to finish himself off, but oddly enough, he had lost his gun. He could not just sit there, so he walked home and got into bed. When Theo arrived to his bedside two days later, Vincent was proped up in bed smoking his pipe. Septic fever soon resulted into his falling into a coma. Vincent’s last known words to his brother were, "I wish it were all over now." He dies two days later.
 
"My aim in my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then, at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, 'Oh, the pictures I might have made!'"
 
Wheat Field with Crows
1890. Oil on canvas. 19.8 × 40.5 inches. Van Gogh Museum, Postbus, Amsterdam.

One of the more remarkable things in his life occurred after Vincent van Gogh died. Keep in mind he only painted for ten years, but in those ten years he created almost 2000 works. That is an equivalent to having painted more than one work every one-and-a-half days. After Vincent’s death, Theo is physically and mentally crushed. Six months after his brother's death, he dies on January 25, 1891, and is burried next to Vincent. But it was Theo's wife, Johanna, that continued to show, sell, and market Vincent's paintings and allow them to be seen by Vincent’s millions of admirers.
 
What advice did Van Gogh leave for the younger generations of artists. He advises us to "Go to the museum as often as you can; it is a good thing to know the old painters also..." He understood the work we need focus on: "...make little sketches, a strongly developed feeling for outline is absolutely necessary as well as for intensifying the drawing later. I believe one does not aquire this without effort, but first by observation, and particularly by strenuous work and research..."

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Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063