Vincent Van Gogh Essay, Research Paper
Instructor: Theresa Joseph
March 29, 2000
Art is a severe Goddess, who in return for her smiles demands many sacrifices. No one did more to please her, and no one was so insufficiently rewarded as Van Gogh. Several times the blows that she dealt him were painful enough to make any reasonable man resign. Only fanaticism and faith in her would permit one to leap the abyss between reality and desire. With cruel, merciless method, art asked from Van Gogh everything. It was a loan that multiplied with time and was never paid back. It haunted him within the recesses of his soul, it flirted with him and raises his hopes, it took away from him everything that was dear, and when it could finally take no more, it decided to take his life.
Vincent Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in the small village of Groot-Zundert, Holland, to Theodorus Van Gogh and Anna Cornelia. He had a normal childhood and was in no way distinguished from his peers by any uncommon character traits. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to Goupil & Cie, art dealers from Paris with a branch established in Hague by his uncle Vincent.
The working place afforded him enough time to become acquainted with the classical painting masters and the different schools of painting at that time. Because of his extreme honesty, he was considered a poor salesman and the company chose to
transfer him to the London branch. The change did not improve his standing and soon enough he exchanged the clerical position for that of a pastor.
He was sent to Borinage, a coal-mining district in Belgium. Van Gogh thought he had finally found his vocation. He was an educated man amongst the illiterate miners and their families. Ironically enough, he found more virtue, patience, and holiness among this class than the educated, upper classes. His overzealous attempts to preach were cut short from a visit by his superiors. They were much surprised that a member of the church would live in such shabby dwellings as his, and dress in such poor clothes that could not distinguish him from the masses. He was instantly dismissed. It was a painful blow, the effects of which he felt for a long time afterwards.
The church closed its doors to the young man. Business had abandoned him already. What else could remain but the domain of art, in which the passionate seems to thrive always. His interest in painting revived. He had drawn some small sketches while still in Borinage and shown them to his brother Theo. Theodore, unlike his older brother, had made a success of himself and had been constantly improving his economical status. He decided to support the fledgling artist.
The decision marked a turning point in Van Gogh’s life. It helped him to become financially secure and it lifted the economical burden off his shoulders. He could finally devote himself to painting without any concerns about money. He settled close to his parents, in Brabant. He started painting extensively and chose his subjects among the peasants that lived around Brabant. Then, as in later life, he always preferred the poor rather than the rich, the simple rather than the sophisticated. His first important painting
was to be the Potato Eaters. “Every night he went back to the De Groots. He worked until they were too sleepy to sit up any longer. Each night he tried new combinations of colors, different values and proportions; and each day he saw that he had missed, that his work was incomplete” (Stone 286).
For 12 days the painter struggled to depict the essence of these simple and poor folk whom he loved tenderly. For 12 entire days he revised, corrected, reasoned, and observed and yet, canvas after canvas were destroyed after he had seen them in the sober light of the day. He painted the De Groots during the final evening, before he would leave for Paris, and was just as unhappy with his first painting as with the last. He sat dreamily on his bed for entire hours, smoking his pipe to the last dregs while the better part of the night was slowly fading away and giving rise to dawn. All of a sudden he arose and prepared another canvas. The white color of it had never been as inviting as it was now. He painted the peasants just as he had seen them, seating around the table, with the youngest daughter tenderly attending to her father and the two women in the corner dressed in shabby, dark colors that resembled those of a potato. He painted portraits but while following nature, he now bent it to his whims. The whole painting depicted these peasants’ way of life in artistic form. The painting brush fell from his hands as the last stroke was completed. He smiled happily as the last ounce of energy surged within him. He had painted his masterpiece.
He left for Paris the day after. Paris had become the center of arts and painting, in particular. A whole new world, bursting with light and new meaning was laying
underneath the older and darker one, just like a sleeping volcano lays underneath the brown core of the Earth. It was war against the formal, the dark, the conventional.
Light was struggling to find a way into the dark paintings of that time and modern, pioneering painters were bravely opposing the critics and the scornful, conventional opinion, oblivious to everything else but the efforts to express themselves in new tones, new colors, and new ideology.
Van Gogh was caught in the movement. It arrested his attention and increased his awareness towards his paintings. He constantly compared them with others and found out that while he thought like these painters, he shared with them none of the colors and forms. It was a race to find the sublime under the temporary, the beautiful under the mutilated, the sacred under the immoral, and he decided to borrow from them only the means of conveying his message. His previous works were studied, rearranged, criticized by the new standards, and then refuted. What the young painter was looking for was character; Character at the very end, so that even if he painted landscapes or animals or just bare fields with cypresses one would still feel that all such things at a point in time came in close contact with man. No subject was low and unworthy of consideration. It was particularly at this time that Van Gogh’s friendships with other post-impressionist painters like Gauguin, Cezanne, Pissaro, and Lautrec were cemented. They proved to be instrumental in his later days, and even though he tried to improve his painting techniques by learning theirs he never fell to imitating.
While still in Paris, Van Gogh was constantly meditating on a painting style and technique of his own, and he associated some elements of it with those seen in the paintings of Delacroix. It was fortunate that he came to know Delacroix’s paintings. It
drove him to desire a land which was brighter in color and character than Paris. His attention was directed towards Arles, south of France.
As always, the brothers discussed the idea and with Theo’s support and free from the influence of any other painters, Van Gogh traveled to Arles. His stay in Arles proved to be the most productive period in his life. Many a time the natives would see Van Gogh, pass by them, with a canvas, a color box, and carrying a frame underneath his arm, his red beard even more noticeable and rougher now that no formal appearances were required of him. He would poke his hat and slide candles through the holes so that he could paint during nighttime as well. He wore the haggard hat the whole time because he loved painting outdoors, and the sun of the French Province would burn one’s skin up in a matter of hours. He was used to the opposition of the elements of nature and took it as the natural order of things. In Holland, he used to paint among howling winds, most of the time with an empty stomach due to his extreme poverty, and the sun of the Provance didn’t deter him in the least.
He was producing painting after painting that did not sell. To these years belong the masterpieces such as The Starry Night, Sunflowers, and The Postman. No one understood the intrinsic value of his style. And this prodigious, hard working painter, fond of his art but always poorly rewarded was destined to spend the remainder of his life
in poverty, depending solely on his brother’s income. What was worse, this steady income was slowly deteriorating as well.
One can only take so many blows without wincing, but nature in the end, always more resourceful, and better equipped takes its toll. Vincent Van Gogh was always taken for a visionary. Now another element was added to that list: Madness.
Whether it was the sun of the French Provance, his fatigue, his straining after perfection, or simply the result of so many troubles while new ones were piling up on him no one will ever be able to tell. He was locked up in a lunatic asylum in Saint Remy after cutting off his ear with a razor blade. He was occasionally allowed to paint outdoors but only when accompanied by a guard.
It was the middle of July. Vincent had just come from his brother’s where he had witnessed the poor state of Theo’s living. He thought himself as a burden to others, with no other use in this world but that of a painter who never sold anything. Well, then, he would paint. He left his hotel room and headed towards the fields. He chose his subject carefully. It was a wheat field that hadn’t been harvested yet. So were his paintings, perhaps. The years had passed by, taking each one of them a portion of his love for life, reducing him to a mere madman whom everybody ridiculed. The years were like crows above this wheat field. That is what he would paint. He laid layer after layer of thick yellow and black. He painted the yellow wheat, the black crows, below a dirt path leading to a dead end, somewhere among the field, and above a furious sky, venting his anger upon every unlucky blossoming plant.
He loved life. He loved it passionately, madly, he loved it to insanity but it was
time for him to leave. He pulled out a revolver from his pocket and aimed it in his stomach. A deafening noise disrupted the silence of the wheat field and the finished canvas rolled on the ground together with the body. Vincent was dead.
Stone, Irving. Lust for life . New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934.
Van Gogh, Vincent. A self-portrait. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1963.