Read Me First
In a year filled with significant events, hardly anyone in Paris noticed the arrival of a ragtag, unknown artist with an unpronounceable name. Today, hardly anyone has an interest in the four major hurricanes[i], a volcanic eruption that destroyed the ‘eighth wonder’ of the modern world[ii], or the murderous Haymarket Riots[iii] while almost everyone knows and appreciates the art of Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh’s story survives mostly as myth, generated from a few events that occurred during the last year and a half of his life. This is surprising because an excellent record of almost twenty years worth of letters survive, written to his family, friends, and acquaintances[iv]. Not only are they an unprecedented cataloguing of an artist’s work, we learn of his hopes, his dreams, his disappointments, his failures. We can determine where he did what, when he did it, his sense of humour, his affection for his family, and his incredibly bad love life. From the visit of his younger brother, Theo, in 1872, to the last unfinished letter when he died, in 1890, we have an uninterrupted, personal account of one of the world’s most famous artists, with one spectacular exception.
It must be understood that most of Vincent’s letters were sent to Theo, who supported Vincent in every way, most notably, with cash. As such, Vincent considered himself employed by Theo and diligently reported to Theo all his expenses and described, in detail, all the works he produced. The one exception to this amazing record is an almost two year period, 1886 to 1888, when they lived together in the Montmartre suburb of Paris. Obviously, as they were living together, there was no need to communicate with letters. This is unfortunate for two reasons. We are denied Vincent’s self-description of discovering his sense of colour, of making the leap from a moderately talented craftsman to an artistic genius, and he would have provided us with a fascinating record of the day-to-day activities of Montmartre, one of the most exotic and entertaining locales that ever existed.
Before Paris, Vincent’s paintings are best described as lackluster. His most famous work from that period portrays a peasant family, almost as caricatures, the colours of bituminous darkness and tarnished metal. Afterwards, his bright complementary colours virtually leap from the canvas with an expressiveness seldom matched.
When Vincent arrived in Paris, the artistic community was still abuzz over Georges Seurat’s avant garde, scientific colour theory[v] utilizing small points of pure color. He would be unveiling his wall-sized masterpiece, ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’, at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition within six weeks. This painting was so controversial among the original Impressionists that some of them removed their works in protest.
The neighborhood of Montmartre, unlike most of the world at this time, was exceptionally diverse, inhabited by artists and laborers, prostitutes and clergy, as well as princes, paupers, and everyone betwixt and between[vi]. The interaction of such a diverse group led them to be at the forefront of a societal change that was starting to happen all over the world. To understand, one only needs to be told about the birth of communism, bombings of anarchists, and the rapid rise of labor unions[vii]. Wealthy individuals owned the factories, employed their own police, and made sure politicians did whatever it took to keep the status quo. The population required to operate huge sweatshops created vast slums of unprecedented squalor in most industrialised nations. In 1886, there were over a thousand strikes in the United States protesting working conditions[viii]. In the Borinage region of Belgium, Vincent describes going down seven hundred metres in a mine and seeing young children, both boys and girls, loading coal into carts for the trip to the surface[ix].
Just as society was in tremendous upheaval, so was the artistic world. Nowhere was this more evident than in the area of fine art painting. Throughout history people paid to have their portrait painted. The artist who could create the most pleasing, life-like rendition of their patron earned the most money. The same applied to landscapes, religious icons, battle scenes, flowers, and baskets of fruit. Realism ruled. Or so it was thought.
In the mid 1800s, a new technology was starting to become popular which put all artists to shame[x]. That technology was photography, and an image produced by a good camera was incomparable. For the first time, everyone had the opportunity to see an exact replica of whatever the camera was pointed at, rather than a somewhat flattering version of the artist's quasi-reality. Even more threatening, as new uses for photography were continually being found, it was constantly in the news. For example, in the previous year, Louis-Jean Delton became one of the first to photograph the end of a horse race at Longchamp, Grande Prix de Paris; one of the early attempts to obtain a ‘photo finish’[xi].
The answer to this onslaught of technology was conceived by a group of artists who met weekly at the Café Guerbois in Paris[xii]. The painters were Manet, Bazille, Sisley, Morisot, Degas, Guillaumin, Pissarro, Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir. What they tried to do was create their own, unique version of reality[xiii],[xiv].[xv],[xvi],[xvii],[xviii],[xix].
Using style, composition, colour, choice of subject material, in whatever combination, in each of his or her own way, they were able to create a more full and emotional viewing experience than could ever be achieved with a photograph, let alone the old, rigidly structured paintings of the past. As logical as it seems today, at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary and extremely threatening to the existing artistic community. Traditional artists spent years learning skills to become good enough to produce paintings on par with those hanging in the museums and galleries of the day. Art dealers had the benefit of hundreds of years of history to explain what good art was, and why one painting was worth five francs and another, fifty thousand.
Opposition to the new work was dramatic. Not only was the new style of painting not accepted for exhibition at the annual Salon nor any of the established galleries, it was ridiculed unmercifully. One cartoon shows a pregnant woman being forcibly blocked from entering an Impressionist art exhibition for fear of harming the unborn baby[xx]. This was particularly vexing for Theo van Gogh. As a gallery manager for one of the most respected art purveyors in the world, he was expected to keep pushing the company's product even though he saw the beauty and huge potential of the new works, not to mention his brother would go on to become one of the most successful in applying the new philosophy of painting.
Lastly, some common misconceptions about Vincent need to be corrected as soon as possible. He did not go mad in the sense that he gradually lost his mind unable to comprehend reality. In truth, he had epileptic-type seizures, sporadically, the last year and a half of his life. Many reasons have been postulated for his condition[xxi]. In the end, it is not important what caused his malady, only that he did not remember anything that happened during the episodes, and he was a brilliant artist in spite of his illness, not because of it.
The famous incident in which part of his ear was cut off remains a mystery. We do not know if it was self-inflected, or not. In a letter to Theo about five months after the incident, Vincent said the doctor who first treated him mentioned another case where someone had injured his ear during an epileptic seizure[xxii]. Some think Gauguin was involved as they were living together, and Gauguin, being an avid fencer, had all his equipment with him at the time[xxiii]. The fact that Vincent was keeping himself clean shaven using a straight razor during this period only adds to the uncertainty. The one thing we know for certain is the ear incident coincided with the first episode of whatever malady afflicted him[xxiv].
Another misconception concerns Vincent’s affairs of the heart. It is true he never had a traditional, long-term relationship with anyone. However, he did live with a woman and her children in a family situation for a year, had a romantic interest in at least three other women, and is implicated in fathering two children, all before arriving in Paris in 1886[xxv],[xxvi].
The last myth that needs to be examined concerns Vincent’s reputation for being serious and difficult. While his best friend, Emile Bernard, described him as being interminable in explaining and developing ideas, he also said he was not very ready to argue, with dreams of gigantic exhibitions and philanthropic communities of artists[xxvii]. Vincent inspired such loyalty that Toulouse-Lautrec challenged someone to a duel because they made disparaging remarks about Vincent’s work[xxviii].
When provoked, Vincent could raise his voice and argue in any one of four different languages[xxix], yet he was so thoughtful of those who viewed his paintings, knowing the problems they would have trying to pronounce his last name correctly, he signed his works, simply, ‘Vincent’[xxx]. Many times when asked to explain his work he would say, ‘My main goal is to leave the canvas more valuable after I’m through than it was before I started.’[xxxi] Such was the politeness and self-effacing humour of Vincent van Gogh.
[i] Atlantic Hurricane Work Group, “1886 Atlantic Hurricanes”, en.wikipedia.org. Accessed 7 February 2022.
[ii] "Pink and White Terraces on Lake Rotomahana", New Zealand National Archives, nzhistory.govt.nz. Accessed 7 February 2022.
[iii] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Haymarket affair". Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Apr. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Haymarket-Affair. Accessed 4 November 2021.
[iv] Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).
[v] Field, D.M., Van Gogh, pages 140, 142, Edison, New Jersey, 2005 Chartwell Books, Inc.
[vi] “Montmartre”, History, 19th Century, en.m.wikipedia.org. Accessed 8 February 2022.
[vii] Social and Political Impact of the First Phase of the Industrial Revolution, encyclopedia.com. Accessed 8 February 2022.
[ix] Letter 151, Letter to Theo: Petit-Wasmes, between Tuesday and Wednesday, 16 April 1879, Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).
[x] Rosenblum, Naomi ; Grundberg, Andy; Gernsheim, Helmut Erich Robert; Newhall, Beaumont. "history of photography". Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/technology/photography. Accessed 4 November 2021.
[xi] Baker, Kenneth, Stanford show captures early photographers trying to freeze a moment. SF Gate Entertainment. sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Motion-pictures-Stanford-show-captures-early-2651905.php. Accessed 8 February 2022
[xii] “Cafe Guerbois”, en.wikipedia.org. Accessed 9 February 2022.
[xiii] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Impressionism". Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Mar. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/art/Impressionism-art. Accessed 10 February 2022.
[xiv] Loyrette, Henri, Degas, pages 99-103, 2016, published by The Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Victoria 3004, Australia, ngv.vic.gov.au
[xv] Kinsman, Jane and Guegan, Stephane, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris & The Moulin Rouge, pages 54-56, 2012, Produced by the Publishing Section, National Gallery of Australia. Distributed in Australia by New South Books, 45 Beach Street, Coogee, NSW, 2034, Australia.
[xvi] Cogeval, Guy, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne & Beyond,
pages 17-20, 2009, Produced by NGA Publishing, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, nga.gov.au.
[xvii] Naifeh, Steven and White Smith, Gregory, Van Gogh, The Life, pages 498-502, 2011, Random House, New York, Profile Books, London.
[xviii] Samu, A. Margaret, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, October 2004
B. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, exhibit at The Met, Fifth Avenue, New York City, Feb 28- May 27, 2013.
[xix] “William-Adolphe Bouguereau”, en.wikipedia.org, Accessed 10 February 2022.
[xx] “Pictorial. Louis Leroy’s scathing review of the First Exhibition of the Impressionists”, arthive.com, Accessed 10 February 2022.
[xxi] Prins, Laura, On the Verge of Insanity, Van Gogh and His Illness, pages 122-128, 2016, published to accompany the exhibition at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Mercatorfords, Brussels, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
[xxii] Letter 776, Letter to Theo: Saint Remy de Provence, on or about Thursday, 23 May, 1889. Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).
[xxiii] Letter 734, Paul Gauguin to Vincent: Paris, between Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 16 January, 1889. And bibliography 10. Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).
[xxiv] Letters 734, 736, 737, 739, 765, 767, Tuesday 6 January to Thursday 2 May, 1889. Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).
[xxv] Naifeh, Steven and White Smith, Gregory, Van Gogh, The Life, pages 400-404, 2011, Random House, New York, Profile Books, London.
[xxvi] Naifeh, Steven and White Smith, Gregory, Van Gogh, The Life, pages 455, 466, 2011, Random House, New York, Profile Books, London.
[xxvii] Field, D.M., Van Gogh, page 172, Edison, New Jersey, 2005 Chartwell Books, Inc.
[xxviii] “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec”, en.wikipedia.org, Accessed 11 February 2022.
[xxix] Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).
[xxx] “Van Go? Van Gof? Van Gog? They’re all wrong, Van Gogh experts say”, edition.cnn.com, Accessed 12 February 2022.
[xxxi] Letter 645, To Theo: Arles, on or about Sunday, 22 July, 1888 and bibliography 10. Vincent van Gogh. The Letters. Ed. Leo Jansen. Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker. 6 volumes. London 2009 (Thames & Hudson).