Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, is generally considered to be the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt, and, with Cezanne and Gauguin, the greatest of Post-Impressionist artists. Vincent van Gogh created Postimpressionism and powerfully influenced the current of Expressionism in modern art, though he had little success during his lifetime. Van Gogh produced all of his 900+ paintings and 1100+ drawings during a period of only 10 years before he succumbed to mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, and committed suicide. The striking, bold, intense colors, the emphatic brushwork, and contoured forms of his work are highly expressive, even emotional. Van Gogh used the symbolic and expressive values of colors for expressing emotions rather than, as did the Impressionists, for the reproduction of visual appearances, atmosphere, or light. The term Post-Impressionist does, however, acknowledge that Impressionism had shaped this artist.

Art works of

> analysis of art, paintings, and works...

  1. The Potato Eaters (1885)
  2. Self Portrait (1887)
  3. Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum (1888)
  4. Portrait of a Peasant (1888)
  5. Starry Night (1889)
  6. The Bedroom (1888)
  7. Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies (1890)


The Potato Eaters (1885)

Get a high-quality picture of The Potato Eaters for your computer or notebook. ‣ The painting Van Gogh made in 1885 was his first attempt to produce a masterwork which would establish his reputation. Having barely mastered the art of painting, the task he set himself was virtually beyond his reach. Portraying five figures and making them look natural is impossible for an unpracticed hand, while achieving the effects of light cast by an oil lamp made the project even more difficult. His use of colour was no less ambitious, for he wanted to render a gloomy interior as brightly as possible. Van Gogh had made preparations well in advance. He produced numerous portrait studies and several composition sketches in charcoal and oil before tackling the definitive canvas.

The dark setting and spiritual depth of this painting evoke one of Van Gogh's favourite artists, Rembrandt.

Van Gogh explained his views on the painting in a letter to Theo. 'I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land, that they have toiled with their hands - that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown'.

Van Gogh's Potato Eaters is an attempt to breathe life into the peasants' untamed expressions within the setting of their own homes. Their baseness, their feral nature, was crucial to the picture's meaning, which is what Van Gogh was trying to convey when he described the canvas as a 'real peasant painting'. 'But if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm'.

Van Gogh wanted to express that lack of refinement not only in the hands, roughened by work, but even more in the faces, as Millet had done. According to Sensier Millet had in later life been preoccupied with 'the study of human types, the significance of physiognomy'. He was struck by the 'ugliness' of country people and 'did not shrink from depicting coarse-looking faces in his rustic compositions, unrefined, or at best uncultivated figures, whose expressions seem to affirm that human beings are not always superior to animals'.

Gross, brutish, coarse and ugly. This is how Van Gogh wanted to portray his Brabant peasants. As a friend once observed, he made a point of selecting 'the ugliest of them as models'. In Nuenen he had portrayed a woman with the expression of 'a lowing cow'. He sought out models with 'coarse, flat faces, with low foreheads and thick lips, not sharp ones, but full and Millet-ish', corresponding to the stereotypes he had read about in the theories of Gall and Lavater. In their view, fleshy lips betrayed 'a high degree of coarseness and an element of cunning', while in combination with prominent cheekbones, they were characteristic of the prototypical African, 'a person devoid of intelligence'. A flat face, 'the upper half almost entirely without curves', and a low brow were the signs of a 'stupidity stemming from obduracy, with very little sensitivity'.

These features - thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads - can be seen in all Van Gogh's portraits of peasants, as well as in the figures of The Potato Eaters. Their mouths and cheekbones are exaggerated. The woman on the right in the painting and the man on the left with the flat brow and protruding ears, are little more than grotesque caricatures. Other striking features are the wide-open eyes of the two figures on the left, both of whom also appear in Van Gogh's individual portraits of country peasants. The enormous eyes were presumably intended to convey 'the extremes of the animal eye; they are incapable of expression except for the occasional look of surprise, devoid of intelligence. It is impossible to reading anything else in them; such eyes never betray a single thought'.

This emphasis on the feral nature of the characters in The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh insisted, was not intended to malign them. He simply saw them as typical of country people. In short, the painting was an attempt to portray peasants at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life. Like animals, they lived in harmony with their unspoiled, natural environment, and it was this that Van Gogh admired.

The Potato Eaters is Van Gogh's first ambitious painting, in which he synthesises his ideas about art and society: he conceived it as a painting not only of peasants, but for peasants. And yet Van Gogh was never a prosaic realist; he had a charged sense of painting as visual ecstasy. In his letter to Theo explaining this painting, he elaborates his theory of colour, comparing his scintillating combinations to the ones weavers use.

The project that Vincent had pinned his hopes on proved less successful than he had anticipated. The Potato Eaters was not exhibited at the Salon, nor did Theo show it to the influential art dealer Durand-Ruel, as Vincent had impulsively requested. The only people who are known to have seen it are Theo's neighbour, Alphonse Portier, an enthusiastic rather than successful art dealer in Impressionist work, and an older artist friend, Charles Serret.

Self Portrait (1887)

Get a high-quality picture of Self Portrait for your computer or notebook. ‣ Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait, is typical of many of his works produced while living with his brother, Theo, in Paris in 1887. One is struck by the profusion of red and blue dots swarming over the dark green background and by the manner in which the reddish brown of the jacket is rendered in a kind of mosaic of dark blue-green, orange-red, and yellow dots. The bright red beard and yellow-brown hair have been built up from separate brushstrokes in forceful colors, and Vincent has left touches of unmixed complementary green in the eyebrows, hair and beard.

It's difficult to speculate on what Van Gogh himself thought of this work. Vincent often discussed in great detail on many of his own works through his letters to Theo; however, during the time that Vincent actually lived with Theo the letters, naturally enough, stopped. Still, one can comment on the interesting technique employed in this work. Note the Pointillist style Vincent employs - typical of a number of his paintings at this specific stage in his career as an artist. During his time in Paris Vincent became familiar with many of the Impressionist artists of the day - men who were struggling with new ways of expressing themselves through art. Georges Seurat was one of the many painters Vincent came to know.

Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum (1888)

Get a high-quality picture of Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum for your computer or notebook. ‣ Vincent van Gogh's The Cafe Terrace stands as one of the painter's most remarkable works. It is also, without question, one of the most famous produced in Van Gogh's brief but prolific career.

This work is the first in a trilogy of paintings which feature starlit skies. Starry Night Over the Rhone came within a month, followed by the popular Starry Night painted the next year in Saint-Remy. An interesting companion to these three can be found in the Portrait of Eugene Boch (painted in the same month as Cafe Terrace and Starry Night Over the Rhone) - note the starry motif in the work's background.

Vincent was enthusiastic about The Cafe Terrace and wrote to his sister Wil:

In point of fact I was interrupted these days by my toiling on a new picture representing the outside of a night cafe. On the terrace there are tiny figures of people drinking. An enormous yellow lantern sheds its light on the terrace, the house and the sidewalk, and even causes a certain brightness on the pavement of the street, which takes a pinkish violet tone. The gable-topped fronts of the houses in a street stretching away under a blue sky spangled with stars are dark blue or violet and there is a green tree. Here you have a night picture without any black in it, done with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square acquires a pale sulphur and greenish citron-yellow colour. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot. They used to draw and paint the picture in the daytime after the rough sketch. But I find satisfaction in painting things immediately.

Van Gogh's works are often inspired by literary references or by the works of other painters (see his copies after Jean-Francois Millet). Cafe Terrace has a similar style and compositional structure to Avenue de Clichy in the Evening by Anquetin. Regardless of whether Van Gogh was directly inspired by Anquetin's work, the composition of Cafe Terrace is unique among all of Van Gogh's art. Note how the lines of composition all point directly to the centre of the work where a horse and carriage are found. Everything seems to be drawn inward, like a vortex, and yet the overall tone suggests tranquillity and not turmoil. The overall scheme is dark, but without the slightest trace of black.

More than one hundred years after Vincent painted it, the Cafe Terrace is still in Arles serving drinks to its thirsty patrons. It's now called the Cafe Van Gogh, appropriately enough, and has been remodelled to appear as it did more than a century ago.

Portrait of a Peasant (1888)

Get a high-quality picture of Portrait of a Peasant for your computer or notebook. ‣ Vincent van Gogh's The Portrait of Patience Escalier marks a significant turning point during the artist's prolific Arles period. Perhaps the last realistic portrait of a peasant in the tradition of Western painting. It is perhaps also the only great portrait of a peasant.

In some ways this work encapsulates the best aspects of the entire breadth of Vincent van Gogh's career. Van Gogh always felt an affinity toward the common labourer. This is clear in many of his early Nuenen paintings and sketches as well as his copies of the works the painter Jean-Fransois Millet who also favoured labourers and peasants as subjects. The choice of Patience Escalier clearly shows that Van Gogh never lost his love of "the true peasant race". And yet, in terms of style, this painting marks a radical departure from the peasant works of Van Gogh's Nuenen period and is even a stark contrast to the works he produced only a few months previously. In many ways The Portrait of Patience Escalier stands out as a pivotal work in Van Gogh's career.

In a letter to Theo Van Gogh writes "...I am returning to the ideas I had in the country before I knew the Impressionists". Vincent refers to this painting in his letter and it's noteworthy that he mentions specifically that his outlook toward his painting was returning to a period before he came to Paris. During the two years he lived with his brother in Paris Vincent came to know many of the great artists of the time: Gauguin, Lautrec, Pissarro and Seurat to name a few. Their style and unusual new ideas would influences Vincent's own technique, but it's important to note that in this letter Van Gogh is suggesting that he is reverting to an earlier approach and, at the same time, moving beyond what he was able to learn from the Impressionists. Van Gogh was evolving into a new and compelling style that was uniquely his own.

Although the portrait of Patience Escalier is certainly a remarkable and surprisingly colorful picture, it does not quite give the impression of heat and blazing sunlight that one would expect from Vincent's description. The most striking effect is not the red and orange of the face, but the bright yellow of the straw hat against the deep blue sky. Only when the old peasant was persuaded to pose for a second portrait a few weeks later did Vincent really manage to achieve the "exaggeration" he had had in mind.

Starry Night (1889)

Get a high-quality picture of Starry Night for your computer or notebook. ‣ Starry Night is probably Vincent van Gogh's most famous painting. Instantly recognizable because of its unique style, this work has been the subject of poetry, fiction, as well as the well known song "Vincent" or "Starry, Starry Night" by Don McLean.

While there's no denying the popularity of Starry Night, it's also interesting to note that there is very little known about Vincent's own feelings toward his work. This is mainly due to the fact that he only mentions it in his letters to Theo twice, and then only in passing. In his correspondence with his brother, Vincent would often discuss specific works in great detail, but not so in the case of Starry Night. Why? It's difficult to say.

Starry Night was painted while Vincent was in the asylum at Saint-Remy and his behaviour was very erratic at the time, due to the severity of his attacks. Unlike most of Van Gogh's works, Starry Night was painted from memory and not outdoors as was Vincent's preference. This may, in part, explain why the emotional impact of the work is so much more powerful than many of Van Gogh's other works from the same period.

Some people have made stylistic comparisons to Vincent's other well known and equally turbulent work Wheatfield with Crows. Does the tumultuous style of these works reflect a tortured mind? Or is there something more we can read within the Vincent's raging night sky? This is what makes Starry Night not only Vincent's most famous work, but also one of its most frequently interpreted in terms of its meaning and importance.

The Bedroom (1888)

Get a high-quality picture of The Bedroom for your computer or notebook. ‣ The striking colours, unusual perspective and familiar subject matter create a work that is not only among Van Gogh's most popular, but also one that he himself held as one of his own personal favourites. The painting shown here is actually one of five versions: three oil on canvas and two letter sketches. This specific painting, now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, was the first of the three oils that Van Gogh produced and, some would argue, the best executed. Furthermore, because Van Gogh was so pleased with the painting he described it at great length in letters to his family. In fact, Vincent describes this painting in no less than thirteen letters and, as a result, a great deal is known about the artist's own feelings about the work. In a letter to his brother, Theo, Vincent wrote:

My eyes are still tired by then I had a new idea in my head and here is the sketch of it. Another size 30 canvas. This time it's just simply my bedroom, only here colour is to do everything, and giving by its simplification a grander style to things, is to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.

The walls are pale violet. The floor is of red tiles.

The wood of the bed and chairs is the yellow of fresh butter, the sheets and pillows very light greenish-citron.

The coverlet scarlet. The window green.

The toilet table orange, the basin blue.

The doors lilac.

And that is all - there is nothing in this room with its closed shutters.

The broad lines of the furniture again must express inviolable rest. Portraits on the walls, and a mirror and a towel and some clothes.

The frame - as there is no white in the picture - will be white.

This by way of revenge for the enforced rest I was obliged to take.

I shall work on it again all day, but you see how simple the conception is. The shadows and the cast shadows are suppressed; it is painted in free flat tints like the Japanese prints. It is going to be a contrast to, for instance, the Tarascon diligence and the night cafe.

The bright and bold use of colour in Vincent's Bedroom in Arles is typical of the vibrant palette he began to use beginning late in his Paris period. Yellow was Van Gogh's favourite colour throughout his Arles and Saint-Remy period - whether outdoors in wheatfields under the Provencal sun or indoor works such as the bedroom.

Probably the most striking and unusual aspect of the painting is the peculiar perspective. The work is unrealistic in its warped portrayal of the bedroom, with the subjects skewed downward toward the viewer. This is one of the aspects that makes the painting so unique and easily recognizable. The perspective seems extreme, but later in his career as an artist Van Gogh was not only rebelling against the muted colours of the Dutch artists of the time, he was also breaking free from the confines of the perspective frame which dictated a precise and realistic approach to a work's perspective. Van Gogh often rejected conventional perspective in the latter half of his career as an artist - particularly in many of his Arles paintings.

Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies (1890)

Get a high-quality picture of Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies for your computer or notebook. ‣ Wheat Field with Crows stands out as one of Vincent van Gogh's most powerful, and most fiercely debated, paintings. The many interpretations of this particular work are probably more varied than any other in Van Gogh's art. Some see it as Van Gogh's "suicide note" put to canvas, while others delve beyond a superficial overview of the subject matter and favour a more positive approach. And some more extreme critics cast their vision even further - beyond the canvas and the brushstrokes - in order to translate the images into an entirely new language of the subliminal.

Contrary to popular myth Wheat Field with Crows is not Van Gogh's final work. Admittedly, it does make for a neatly wrapped interpretive gift if the painting really were Van Gogh's final work before his suicide. The painting is, without question, turbulent and certainly conveys a sense of loneliness in the fields - a powerful image of Van Gogh as defeated and solitary artist in his final years. Furthermore, both the popular films Lust for Life and Vincent and Theo rewrite history and depict this painting as Van Gogh's last - with more of an interest in dramatic effect than historical accuracy.

They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness. I hope you will see them soon - for I hope to bring them to you in Paris as soon as possible, since I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, the health and restorative forces that I see in the country. Now the third canvas is Daubigny's garden, a picture I have been thinking about since I came here.

The paths: It's not a difficult leap to symbolically equate the separate paths in Wheat Field with Crows with the paths, past and future, of Van Gogh's own life. The paths are basically comprised of three sets: two in each foreground corner and a third in the middle winding toward the horizon. The left and right foreground paths defy logic in that they seem to originate from nowhere and lead to nowhere. Some have interpreted this as Van Gogh's own ongoing confusion about the sporadic direction his own life had taken. The third, middle path has remained the most fertile for symbolic interpretation. Does the path lead anywhere? Does it successfully transverse the wheat field and seek new horizons? Or does it, in fact, terminate in an inescapable dead end? Van Gogh leaves it to the viewer to decide.

The sky: From his earliest years as an artist Van Gogh was fond of scenes involving stormy skies (see Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather, for example). Van Gogh held a great deal of respect for the forces of nature and includes turbulent skies in a number of his works because the subject is so powerful and so full of artistic potential in the face of an empty canvas. Furthermore, Van Gogh once wrote about the liberating possibilities of storms: "The pilot sometimes succeeds in using a storm to make headway, instead of being wrecked by it." Of course, as the years passed and Van Gogh's own mental state of well being became more battered, his perceptions toward nature may have darkened. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Van Gogh perceived storms as a vital and positive part of nature.

The crows: Perhaps the most powerful image within Wheat Field with Crows is that of the crows themselves. Again, much symbolic interpretation has sprung from the depiction of the flock of crows. Much of the speculation hinges on whether the crows are flying toward the painter (and, hence, the viewer) or away from him. If the viewer chooses to perceive the crows flying toward the foreground, then the work becomes more foreboding. If away, then a sense of relief is felt.

The various interpretations of Wheat Field with Crows range from the simple to the absurd. Symbolic interpretation can be an often interesting, occasionally revealing, pursuit. But the potential of over-interpreting a work of art puts the viewer at risk of "missing the forest for the trees". The works of Vincent van Gogh provide the viewer with an incredibly complex and beautiful range of subjects to explore and to admire. His drawings are the product of a draftsman of indescribable skill and his paintings are always brilliant, often sublime. Viewers spending time searching for in-depth meanings within Wheat Field with Crows may be disappointed. For some, their unquenchable desire to understand the Van Gogh mythology better even sends them on a quest for hidden "holy grails" that don't exist.


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