Two books from Thames & Hudson about Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most durable legends in art. One offers his life-story, as told in letters written by himself, most of them to his brother Theo, who became a moderately successful art dealer. The other, by Mariella Guzzoni, is entitled Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him.
The two books do a very efficient job in explaining Van Gogh’s relatively brief career – ELS
Van Gogh was a relatively late beginner as an artist. He didn’t start until he was already 27 years old. Before that, he had tried art dealing, then tried being a man of god – a teacher and a missionary. He was, for the most part, self-trained. His career as a painter lasted only ten years, spent first in Belgium and in various parts of the Netherlands, then in Paris, then in Provence, and finally in Auvers-sur-Aube. He was never well known in his lifetime, though he knew and communicated with quite a number of other artists of the same epoch as his own. The best known of these relationships was one with Gauguin before the latter departed for the South Seas. In the closing years of his life, Van Gogh was troubled by episodes of mental illness, during which he was unable to paint. Eventually in July 1890 (though this aspect of his death from a gunshot wound has been recently challenged) he committed suicide after being released from the asylum where he has been confined and placed in the care of Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. His brother Theo, who had loyally supported him throughout his career, died of advanced syphilis less than a year later, in January 1891. Vincent’s estate and the bulk of his work was left in the care of Theo’s widow. Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who lived until 1924. She did a magnificent job, through exhibitions and publications, in making it better known. By the time she left the scene Van Gogh’s reputation, as one of the most influential artists of his time, was solidly established. He had become a significant figure in the history of European art, far outstripping nearly all of his contemporaries and now seen as the mythical creator, on a level with Rembrandt, the Netherlandish artist of the past whom Van Gogh himself most revered.
The two books cited here do a very efficient job in explaining Van Gogh’s relatively brief career, and also in illuminating his attitudes towards his own work. To take the smaller of them first, Vincent’s Books establishes that Van Gogh was formidably well-read. He knew Shakespeare and Dickens, and an extensive range of books in French. Quite a few of his paintings offer piles of books, many of them the French novels of the time. They lie scattered about. Sometimes you can read the titles, sometimes you can’t, but it’s evident that reading meant a great deal to him. Guzzoni’s text is good at explaining what he read, and also why it appealed to him. Painters, I think, are not usually such impassioned readers. Despite his wide range of acquaintances in the art world of his time, specifically the French art world after he left to Low Countries for Paris and then Arles, Van Gogh seems always to have been somewhat solitary. He never married. His closest relationship with a woman seems to have been, early in his career as a painter and before he left for France, with Sien Hoornik, a prostitute with two children, struggling to reform. Like his brother Theo, Van Gogh suffered – but in his case not fatally – from venereal disease. The two books reviewed give no information as to how he got the infection, whether from Hoornik or from some other, casual partner. The long series of letters, most of them written to Theo, do however tell one quite intimately about what he thought and felt.
They also tell one quite a bit about how his technical development as an artist. He was not originally at colourist. He learned to draw before he learned to paint, and the colours in his earlier paintings. His very earliest influences seen to have been graphic artists such as Luke Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer, working for various British periodicals, whose work he saw when he was living in London before he had decided to become an artist himself.
His most ambitious early composition, The Potato Eaters, painted in Nuenen in April/May 1883, is a Social Realist work with what would have called, had it been produced a generation later, a touch of Expressionism. It is quite subdued in colour.
The hues we associate with Van Gogh’s later work seem to have been initially inspired by what he saw in the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, by Hokusai and others, which were just becoming known in Paris. He encountered these after he went to France, and the light of the South of France encouraged him to experiment even more radically. It is these brilliantly coloured paintings that now define him, even though some of them, like the famous compositions of Sunflowers, have lost some of their initial brightness with the passage of time.
What characterises Van Gogh’s work, when it is compared with that of his contemporaries, is its directness, its immediate accessibility. There is no emotional barrier between him and the spectator. Yet, unlike the Expressionist artists of the generation that followed, he doesn’t hector. This makes his failure to make any kind of success in his own lifetime seem all the more ironic. Theo supplied the trickle of funds that kept him going.
There is another factor, as well. The fact that Van Gogh was originally inspired by British illustrators, then later by Japanese ukiyo-e printmakers, neither group practitioners of high art, supplies a clue. He admired the work of Rubens, for example, but at the same time thought it rather empty. Far more so than his own contemporaries, and certainly more so than the avant-gardist generation that followed him, Van Gogh is directly democratic. The spectator needs no special education to appreciate what he does, which explains his enduring appeal, quite apart from the tragic life story which supplies a context.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020