Vincent van Gogh: on the Road to Revolution

How well do you really know van Gogh? Part one of a two-part series that reevaluates the legendary painter.

| Fall 2018

  • Giant Peacock Moth (1889), Vincent Van Gogh
    Image courtesy of The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
  • The Sower (1888), Vincent Van Gogh
    Image courtesy of The Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam
  • Self-Portrait as a painter (1887-1888), Vincent Van Gough
    Image courtesy of The Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam

On December 23, 1888, an agitated 35-five-year-old Dutch man turned up at a brothel in a provincial town in the south of France and presented his severed ear to a prostitute. This gruesome local incident event would be lost in police records had it not been for the fact that the man handing over the body part was Vincent van Gogh, a painter whose art, most of it produced within a single decade, helped created a new language for nearly every 20th century movement in European painting.

Today millions of tourists flock to museums, crowding in front of van Goghs like The Starry Night (1889) and Sunflowers (1888). The art has been reproduced en masse, on posters, prints, calendars, key chains, tote bags, coffee mugs, umbrellas, fabric covers and even bathing suits. Yet the artist’s struggles with mental illness in the last year or so of his life have been magnified into cautionary tales about art, feeding a toxic popular myth that artists are insane, antisocial, and self-destructive. He is a wide-eyed messianic savant in Vicente Milleni’s Lust for Life (1956), an irritable and immature malcontent in Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990), and an institutionalized and emaciated victim in Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991). Having exhausted van Gogh’s biography, filmmakers have turned the art-as-madness propaganda campaign on to other artists’ lives, from Mr. Turner (2014) and Pollock (2000) to Basquiat  (1996), and Edvard Munch (1974). The message — unfailingly negative and absurdly reductive — is that artists are quasi-mystic misfits whose charming works were the byproduct of sick souls. In addition to further stigmatizing mental illness, these misrepresentations reinforce the lie that such illnesses strike painters in disproportionate numbers compared to the rest of the population. Armed with psychoanalytic theory and cultural studies, curators, critics and academics pile on, framing an artist’s work in spurious speculations about their inner lives and secret agendas. This insulates both academe and mass culture from engaging with art as complex and subversive forms of knowledge. Admire it, get its “messages,” but don’t take art too seriously. In turn, foundational principles from art like “creativity,” “imagination,” and “vision” get emptied of subversive meanings, appropriated for TED Talks and marketing campaigns while bungling inventors and venture capitalists become our modern-day Leonardo da Vincis. If the hijacking of van Gogh’s biography started us down this road, then revisiting van Gogh through the prism of newly published books about his life and aesthetics can chart a new course toward understanding the achievements buried beneath the myth.

After all “geniuses,” like “stars,” come and go with every news cycle. What makes van Gogh great was an ingrained mission he adopted, one that would test whether painting could expand the very phenomenon of experience itself. Judicious, well-read, focused, resourceful and unremitting, he learned and then rejected numerous conventions in order to break down the supposed distinctions between nature and art, between the world as it is and the world as it is painted. To this end, more radically than his equally talented and industrious Post-Impressionist peers, van Gogh undid long held Western assumptions about spatiality, color, and composition. Dispensing with three-dimensionality and chiaroscuro, he remade canvases into allover fields of undiluted, sharply contrasting colors and unpredictable densities of brushwork. Seemingly hurried and unrefined, his paintings helped advance abstraction in art by revealing how an object’s details can stand alone as self-contained exemplifications of the picture’s whole, as if painting itself had harnessed the ocular magic of telescopes, microscopes and zoom lenses. In all these respects, van Gogh discovered and mapped out unknown interrelationships between psychological depth and frank intimacy, audacious color and pure spatiality that guided much of 20th century art, from Pablo Picasso’s flattened planes of Cubism to Pierre Bonnard’s lushly colored interiors and into the art scenes across the Atlantic, from Frida Kahlo’s high-keyed probing self-portraiture to Joan Mitchell’s lyrical Abstract Expressionist evocations of nature.   

Vincent Van Gogh came out of nowhere. Born in Zundert in The Netherlands in 1853, he was the eldest son of a caring, censorious reverend in the Dutch Reformed Church and an equally protective and often judgmental mother. To appease his parents, in his early 20s, he went to work for the international art dealer Goupil & Cie. Goupil posted him first in The Hague, then in London, and, briefly, in Paris. Though enthralled by the range of European art he handled, the art-dealing career which so suited his younger brother Theo did not suit his intrepid temperament. After Vincent was laid off by Goupil he studied theology for a time, working as an evangelical preacher. A churchgoer in England around October of 1876 would have heard a rare Sunday sermon by van Gogh, a speech which he transcribed in a letter to Theo. In it he echoes a long-standing motif among Protestant evangelicals that defines human beings as “pilgrims in the earth and strangers.” This formulation, reiterated in his early letters, reflects a kind of enlightened nihilism that may eventually have been his unspoken credo. On the one hand, the stark phrase “pilgrims and strangers,” enshrines a sort of tranquil alienation as being endemic to the natural world and to humanity. But in its secular or existential associations, about which van Gogh often ruminates, the formulation levels class hierarchies and incites fellowship between humans and a kinship between humanity and the nonhuman world.

Ultimately, promoting Christianity to congregants suited van Gogh as poorly as had selling other people’s art. Writing in 1882, as he began drawing in earnest, he assures Theo, “Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.” And, contrary to the then fashionable belief in supernatural inspiration, he defines art as a patient effort, trial-and-error, and, most interestingly, as an ongoing act of nonconformity. “Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation,” he tells Theo, adding that, “by dogged, I mean in the first place incessant labor, but also not abandoning one’s views upon the say-so of this person or that.” In his letters to Theo he names himself a “painter of peasant life” mainly because he saw everyone, including himself, as peasants tilling the earth as if it were a fief run by an absent overlord.

Once he decided to make art, he studied, drew and painted laborers — diggers and sowers, miners and weavers. In this respect, he learned from social realists and magazine illustrators while, unbeknownst to the young van Gogh, the Impressionists in France were already remaking the rules for painting. For his part, as he began to paint he did so in earth tones and dim interiors brightened here and there by relatively muted light, and held what he witnessed as the only criterion for choosing subject matter. “ I see [potential] paintings and drawings in the poorest cottages, the dirtiest corners,” he tells Theo, “And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.”

This creative upsurge kicked into full gear around the time he turned 30, an activism through art fueled by reading social realists like Charles Dickens and Émile Zola and studying his favorite painter, Jean-Francois Millet, as well as rereading Shakespeare, the Gospels, and Victor Hugo. Newly animated and bankrolled by Theo, he formulates visual perception as an interpersonal dynamic connected to drawing. Against his brother’s advice and alarming his parents, he briefly shared a home with Clasina (Sien) Maria Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, all the while delving into landscape drawing. “Picture me sitting at my attic window as early as 4:00 in the morning,” he writes to Theo, “studying the meadows & the carpenter’s yard with my perspective frame.” He was sure that disciplines of close observation and social realism would yield art reflective of that diligence. But an autodidactic approach would only get him so far. He enrolled for a short time in the Art Academy in Brussels and apprenticed with two successful artists — esteemed Dutch painter Willem Roelofs as well as his own second cousin, Anton Mauve. But his time living with his brother Theo in Paris from late 1886 to early 1888 would completely alter his art and produce the Van Gogh we know.

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