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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My View of Van Gogh (Part One)

Red Vineyards Near Arles, 1888
The one painting Van Gogh sold.
If everyone says you're dead, you need to lie down.
  Perhaps the greatest artist who ever lived took this advice too literally.
  Having spent spent ten years on his craft, sketching and painting over two thousand art pieces, unable to sell more than one painting, it is generally believed that Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in despair, perhaps while he was ill.  Astonishingly, the oil paintings we know him by were done in a five year period.  There are over 800 of them.  During this time, his brother Theo, an art dealer, supported him, as did other artists, though they could not find buyers for his work.

Self-Portrait, 1889 (Inset, Vincent at 18)
  Though we might believe that a man who painted 37 self-portraits was awfully vain, I think it actually shows us how insecure he was.  Study the many different ways he painted himself: his nose is crooked in some paintings, smooth in others, his cheeks, his eyes, even the shape of his head changes.  Was he, in fact, trying to find out who he really was?  Was he trying out different visualizations of himself, in order to avoid the one vision he could not accept- that of a failed artist?  Imagine if you were Vincent Van Gogh, with his artistic eye, and you were told that the works that you had painted were worthless.  It staggers the mind.  It did his.  It certainly staggered his soul.    And one day in July, 1890, either in a wheat field, or in a barn--his isolation so complete that no one even knows where he was that day--he shot himself, then walked back to town, dying 29 hours later.  The fact that no pistol was ever found, and the artist was not known to own one, leaves many questions.  The writers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, authors of Van Gogh: The Life, have even postulated that Van Gogh had either been accidentally shot by mischievous boys or shot by a teenager in town with whom Van Gogh was known to argue.
  Whichever it was, I know one thing.  Early on, Vincent was not the melancholy spirit I had always believed him to be.  I've been reading his letters, and have found that he was a very happy, enthusiastic young man.  He was not a revolutionary painter who wanted to redefine the art world.  He was always speaking of the great artists who had come before, as well as his voracious search for new artists.  He was not a genius who disdained the talent of others.  In January of 1874, while in London, Vincent wrote to Theo about his (Theo's) new interest in art:

     I'm glad you like Millet, Jacque, Schreyer, Lambinet, Frans Hals, etc., for as Mauve says, "That's it."  That painting by Millet, L'angules du soir, "that's it," indeed- that's magnificent, that's poetry.  How I wish I could have another talk with you about art; but we'll just have to keep writing to each other about it.  Admire as much as you can; most people don't admire enough.

  And so I offer these works of Van Gogh, for all to admire.  If you are interested in reading more about Van Gogh, Delphi Classics has a great ebook collection of his work (all of his paintings) as well as a biography by Van Gogh's sister-in-law, and over 800 of his personal letters.  It can be viewed on your browser, so you can see all of his paintings in color.  The collection is $2.99.  Find it here.
Prisoners Exercising, 1890
Backyards of Old Houses in Antwerp, 1885
Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889
Girl in the Street, Two Coaches in the Background, 1882
Crab (Upside Down), 1889

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