Van Gogh: Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889

Another highlight of my London trip was a visit to The Real Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy, the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for over 40 years. The focus of the exhibition is Van Gogh’s correspondence. Nearly 40 original letters, rarely exhibited to the public due to their fragility, are on display; together with around 65 paintings and 30 drawings that are related to the content of the letters.

It is a brilliant exhibition, including paintings that I had never seen before, as well as exquisite line drawings, many of them included in the letters he wrote, mainly to his brother, Theo. The letters were frequently illustrated, and kept Theo up to date with the subjects that preoccupied him and the ways these might be translated into paintings.

Written mainly to his younger brother Theo, but also to other artists, the letters reveal that his attitude to colour developed through a careful reading of theoretical ideas about its use and close observation of the work of other painters. His love of nature comes across clearly in the letters and related paintings – expressive studies of olive, cypress and peach trees and luminous landscapes.

The exhibition is organised around seven themes, each of which has a room devoted to it.

1. Dutch landscape

Nature was a powerful force for Van Gogh, whether in his own childhood explorations or in the images of seventeenth-century Dutch painters who first embodied a Protestant conception of Nature as a revelation of God. However, in his early depictions of landscape he struggled with perspective – the creation of an illusion of depth
and the relative size of objects depicted in this space. Many of his landscape drawings have sharp recessional lines – a road, a ditch, some rooftops that take us back into space. In August 1882 he announced the acquisition of a new perspective frame, a device fitted with wires that gave, as he wrote, ‘a view AS IF THROUGH A WINDOW’.

Landscape and urban views were always saleable and Van Gogh’s first commission for twelve pen drawings of The Hague came from his Uncle Cornelis. If pen drawings could sell, so too should watercolours.

Van Gogh letter sketch: Rooftops, The Hague: 23 July 1882
Van Gogh Pollard Willow 1882, letter sketch
Van Gogh: Man pulling harrow, letter sketch, Drente: 28 October 1883
Van Gogh: Autumn Landscape, 1885

2. Peasant and the figure

The representation of the human figure seemed to Van Gogh to be the highest aim for an artist. Although he loved landscape he always expected to people it with figures, and generally these figures would be the peasants who worked the fields. Back with his parents in Nuenen, his first subjects were the local weavers working from home
and under threat from industrialisation. These usually showed single figures dwarfed by the complexity of the machines they operated. In a series of figure studies of peasants as well as portrait heads he worked towards an important multi-figure composition, The Potato Eaters (1885).

Van Gogh: Woman digging, letter Sketch, The Hague: 21 May 1883
Van Gogh: Peasant Woman Lifting Potatoes, sketch 1885

3. Paris: colour and Japanese prints

A few months after he arrived in Paris in February 1886, Van Gogh’s art underwent a dramatic change as he transformed himself into a daring colourist.  The eighth and last Impressionist exhibition was held in
that year. The most  striking painting to be seen was Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

At this time there was a taste for all things Japanese. The Impressionists had been attracted by the cropped compositions, unusual viewpoints and flattened perspective. Later artists appreciated their use of silhouette and strong, saturated colour. Van Gogh had first collected these prints in Antwerp and, in his second year in Paris, acquired many more, attracted by their colourful presentation of what became, in his eyes, an idealised harmonious civilisation. Van Gogh made a transcription of Plum Orchard at Kameido, intensifying the colours, making the transitions between them more emphatic and, with his active brushwork, completely changing the flat, printed surfaces of the Japanese work. Similar brushwork marked his use of the prints in the background to his portrait of Père Tanguy.

Van Gogh: Flowering Garden With Path, 1888
Van Gogh: Portrait of Pere Tanguy 1887

4. Portraits

Portraiture was more important for Van Gogh than any other genre.  “What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest…is the portrait, the modern portrait.  I seek it by way of colour.”  In Arles he created a series of bold, confident portraits, and was delighted to have the opportunity to portray an ‘entire family‘ – that of the postman Joseph Roulin.

Van Gogh: Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888
Van Gogh: Self portrait as an artist, 1888

Van Gogh wrote of this self portrait: “something different to a photograph”

5. Arles: the revelation of the South

When Van Gogh arrived in Arles he found it, unexpectedly, covered in snow, but within a few weeks he was out in the orchards painting the blossoming fruit trees.

Van Gogh: Orchard with Blossoming Apricot Trees, 1888
Van Gogh: Olive trees, Montmajour 1888
Van Gogh: Lawn with weeping willow, drawing, 1888

6. Cycles of nature

Blossoming trees were a sign of spring and the beginning of the cycle of seasons to which Van Gogh attached great importance. In Holland he had followed the different activities of the peasants, but in Provence it was the changing colour of the landscape – white and pink in spring, yellow and golden bronze in the summer harvest, red in the grape-picking of autumn – that inspired his work as a painter. At the same time he allowed himself the freedom to use colour for his own emotional responses rather than as a realistic representation. He returned to the figure of the sower a number of times and reworked Millet’s famous image in an even more romantic manner.

Van Gogh: Garden with Weeping Willow

Van Gogh: Still Life with Plate of Onions, 1889

7. The late landscapes

For me, the landscapes that Van Gogh painted in his time in the asylum at St Remy de Provence, studies of what he could see from the window of his room – olive trees and wheat fields, the rocks of Les Alpilles – will always remain very special.

Van Gogh: Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background, 1889
Van Gogh: Olive trees in mountain landscape, sketch
Van Gogh: Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889
Van Gogh: Wheat Field with Reaper at Sunrise, 1889
Van Gogh: Enclosed Wheat Field with Peasant, 1889
Van Gogh: Mountainous Landscape Behind Saint-Paul Hospital, 1889

Trees were an important subject during Van Gogh’s time at Saint-Rémy, whether olives, cypresses or pine trees. Years ago in Holland, he had seen a resemblance between the painting of a tree and that of a human being. Now in Saint-Rémy, the dark green cypresses stood clear with defined outlines, the density of their wisting branches conveyed with curling, leaping brushmarks that spread into the surrounding landscape as vehemence of movement replaced vehemence of colour.

For all the advances Van Gogh’s art had made in this last year, whether in his use of marks, his grasp of composition, or a more measured approach to colour, he still felt the sense of failure that had accompanied his first breakdowns. It was the idea of a new start that led him northwards to Auvers, near Paris, in May 1890. There, whatever his sense of failure, Van Gogh threw himself into work. In the last seventy days of his life he painted over 70 canvases, many of them his most assured works.

Van Gogh: Wheat fiels after the rain (The plain of Auvers), 1890
Van Gogh: Daubigny’s Garden, 1890

See also

2 thoughts on “The real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters

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