I was fortunate to celebrate a life-long friend’s birthday in Amsterdam recently. Having admired Van Gogh for what seems like a lifetime a detour from festivities was a must to tick off one on the bucket list – The Van Gogh Museum.
A modern building opened in 1973 and renovated in 1999 hosing the biggest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world. This extensive collection of paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and letters are accompanied by artwork from Van Gogh contemporaries that his family collected or exchanged.
Vincent’s younger brother Theo encouraged him to pursue his artistic endeavours and was the main financial supporter of Vincent’s work. Following Vincent’s death on 27th July 1890 all works went to Theo who died unexpectedly a mere 6 months after Vincent. Theo left behind a very young wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and 6 month old son Vincent Willem van Gogh who was named after his troubled artistic godfather. Theo’s son became legal owner of all Vincent’s work as well as Theo’s extensive collection of European and Japanese art from this exciting art period. Johanna became trustee of the extensive collection and dedicated her life to ensuring Vincent’s van Gogh work and tragic life gained recognition. Johanna was a savvy businesswoman and after Van Gogh’s work became internationally acclaimed she rarely sold any works after 1920. Vincent Willem assumed responsibility for the collection following the death of his mother in 1925. In 1962 his collection was transferred to the newly formed Vincent van Gogh Foundation now on permanent loan to the Dutch state for us all to admire and enjoy.
The interactive tour was well worth the extra as one can experience a personalised tour with insightful snippets into the life and character of Vincent van Gogh. I was in awe to be up close and personal with the masterpieces long admired in books or had as posters on my bedroom wall. To see such an extensive body of work covering 9 short years of Vincent’s artistic life makes one realise what a prolific artist he was. I am honoured to gain a personal insight into his artistic development from fledgling sketches as he starts his artistic journey in 1881 to the bold brush stokes of a master painter in 1890. The Potato Eaters was van Gogh first large figurative work, his coming out masterpiece and he had worked hard studying hands and faces, making mini sketches and refining the composition.
The dark pallets of his Dutch influences where thrown up for lighter, brighter pallets as he migrated south first to Paris then to his beloved Arles. One has a sense of how he was influenced by the impressionists as he tried his hand at brighter, lighter almost pointed brush strokes leaving glimpses of bare linen canvas peeking through in his Paris street paintings.
As with most artists of the late 1880’s there was a great fascination with Japanese art and Vincent himself collected Japanese prints particularly Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). In the Summer of 1887 he worked on several studies after Japanese artists however Vincent’s colours where more intense of pigment with vibrant contrasting range of colours. He even decorated the frames with Japanese calligraphy or elaborate scenes.
In 1888 Vincent moved from bustling Paris to the quite surroundings of Arles. In this coastal scene near Arles Vincent’s fishing boats are reminiscent of Japanese influences with bright elaborate decor and colourful masts.
Vincent’s love of painting peasants remained throughout his short career, he felt there was something pure about their pursuit of honest labour and loved to portray their daily tasks and toil. He spent Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1888 roaming the countryside around Arles producing vast bodies of work, trees and orchards in blossom, wheat fields, scorching harvests and rustic plough scenes.
Vincent had his most productive period during his time in Arles taking on the “lightning speed” he so admired in his Japanese contemporaries. One feels a sense of joy and contentment in his paintings from his period in Arles, things were starting to look up for the painter who was just starting to be recognised and admired as a painter. He dreamt of having a co-operative studio where like-minded artists could live and work in the Yellow house in Arles. Sadly this was not to be, in late 1888 during Paul Gauguin’s visit the first sign of Vincent’s illness appeared when he chopped off his left ear lobe. He had a type of epilepsy accompanied by delusions and psychotic episodes leading to his rapid decline and in April 1889 he committed himself to Saint-Paul-De-Mausolea asylum near Saint-Rémy.
Vincent was permitted to paint when is health allowed and Theo rented an extra room for a studio. He painted from his room or in the garden or out in the surrounding countryside under supervision. Many are of the opinion that his colour palette became more muted during his stay at the asylum with a number of his works having a biblical reference. This maybe related to reminiscing back to his brief interlude as an evangelist in the mining region of Borinage in southern Belgium prior to pursuing his artistic talents.
The natural world was a source of inspiration for Vincent during his time at the asylum, he painted the garden, plants, moths, butterflies and flowers. Towards the end of his stay in the asylum Vincent painted a series of still life flowers. Every time I see a purple Iris I’m reminded of Vincent’s bright and happy ‘Irises’ 1890 painted only 2 weeks before his release from Saint-Paul-De-Mausolea asylum
After his release form the asylum in late May 1890 Vincent van Gogh spent 2 days in Paris visiting Theo before retreating to the quite rural village of Auvers-sur-Oise. During his short period here Vincent painted many large canvases of sweeping wheat fields and describe the environment as “healthy and heartening I find the countryside”
Sadly on the 27th July Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest only 4 days after ordering new paint for planned new paintings he never got to paint. Vincent van Goth died 2 days later from his chest wound with his brother Theo by his bedside
To be able to take a guess at what technique Vincent may have used with his brush stoke or why a particular subject matter was chosen was marvellous. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh museum and will forever treasure the joy I experienced. Imagine what we would have missed if Johanna van Gogh-Bonger had not been such a fierce advocate of Vincent Van Gogh’s work or if his brother Theo had not supported his artistic development during this fleeting time in art history. I believe he painted more in those 9 years that most artists paint in a life time.
Would love to hear who your favourite artist is? Do you have a bucket list of art work you would like to see? What are your top 3? Please don’t go without leaving a comment below.