The course notes request a painting by Seurat, van Gogh or Gauguin. The Art Gallery of NSW has an early van Gogh, so I have selected that for my focus.This is quite a dark picture, so click on the link to the Gallery site for a better image.
The painting is around about life size and feels warm and intimate. I get a real sense of an individual, a particular person with his own story. He’s looking down, perhaps weary or lost in thought, but I think I can see smile lines around the eyes – life may have been a struggle but he has had times of pleasure. The clothing may be rough, dark and drab, but also warm and comfortable.
The picture’s colouring is based on the red / green complements, generally dark, muddy and subdued. The face is lit from the left side, while the lighter background on the right allows us to see the shape of the face and body on that side.
Every line of the painting seems to be an angle, and the paint itself often leaves a thick raised line. I get a sense of the energy and commitment of the artist, loading up his brush, pushing and dragging the pigment around the canvas. With those lines and angles there is no softening, no sentimentality about the hard life of the man portrayed.
This portrait was one of a “Heads of the People” series van Gogh worked on early in his artistic career while living Nuenen, a rural area in the Netherlands. Van Gogh wanted to make many such studies – fifty or more – and despite my initial comments above about the individual further reading has shown that he desired to find “the type distilled from many individuals” (1). Art could show something with soul, something more than any one individual.
“I don’t yet know what I shall do with those heads, but I want to extract the motif from the characters themselves”(2) wrote van Gogh in December 1884. Just a few months later, in April 1885, he had almost finished his painting The Potato Eaters which is now in the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. The web image in the Google Art Project has better detail than the museum website – see www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/the-potato-eaters/7gFcKarE9QeaXw?projectId=art-project. It seems one of the heads is very closely based on the study which is my focus picture, although here connecting with his gaze to another figure. Not wanting to turn this post into a marathon, I’ll just link to a couple of van Gogh’s letters which I found interesting particularly in respect to colour. Writing to Theo on 30 April 1885 (see vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let497/letter.html) van Gogh talks about how far he has moved with colour, and goes into considerable depth on colour use by weavers. He’s also concerned about the framing of the picture, wanting it surrounded by gold or else on a wall “a deep tone of ripe wheat”. Apart from the colour interaction he wanted, that reference to wheat seems symbolic. In a similar vein, van Gogh notes the “rough and coarse look” of the painting, not at all the “conventional smoothness” which he believes would be wrong for this subject. In another letter just days later (see vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let499/letter.html) there is a lot more about colour, and a phrase that I’ve seen quoted repeatedly about the colour of the heads “something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course” plus quoting Senier about Millet’s painting “his peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow”. Colour and interactions of colour are vitally important, but the literal accuracy of the seen colour is not. Colour, texture and line are used to carry and deepen the meaning of the picture.
A further comparison to my focus picture is given by van Gogh’s 1888 Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), now in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum (see www.nortonsimon.org/collections/browse_artist.php?name=Gogh%2C+Vincent+van&resultnum=4). This has the lighter, brighter palette than I automatically associate with van Gogh (before this exercise!), developed following his exposure to more Impressionist works while in Paris and by the light and colour in Arles where he was then living. With this painting van Gogh was explicit: “Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.” (3)
The course notes ask about “Post-Impressionism” – its very name defined by what was happening before. Was it a significant movement in its own right, a stepping stone to Cubism and Expressionism, just “different stuff that happened after Impressionism”…? The name itself was coined by Roger Fry in a show he organised in 1910 in London, “Manet And The Post Impressionists”, which included the work of Seurat, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Cézanne. Together with a second exhibition two years later, Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, the exhibitions are seen as highly significant to British artists (see www2.tate.org.uk/archivejourneys/bloomsburyhtml/bio_fry_modernart.htm). It continues to be a useful concept, for example appearing on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/poim/hd_poim.htm). However while all seeking something more, something new, something authentic to themselves, the artists grouped under “Post-Impressionism” were following quite different lines of inquiry. It’s not a term or a grouping they would have recognised – the main figures were all dead by the time of the exhibitions. In fact I wonder if their rather short painting careers, especially compared with some of the giants of Impressionism and later – Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Braque – could be a factor. If each of the Post-Impressionists had been able to develop their ideas further, would it still be possible to lump them together? – quite possibly “Yes”, when you consider the range of artists regarded as “Impressionists”.
However based on the reading I’ve done on van Gogh, he is most definitely “After-Impressionist”. He was highly aware of the work of artists before him, and of those working at the same time. He drove himself to build skills, to experiment, to find a way to achieve the paintings that were in his head. He consciously used the previous work of those he admired – for example Millet’s Man with a Hoe – combining it with his own experiments with colour and line. Van Gogh’s very deliberate use of line and colour to represent his ideas about his subjects, not their physical appearance, seems to me something quite new at the time. I’ve just come back from a few days in Canberra, looking mainly at the work of abstract expressionists as preparation for the next assignment. In a room with work by de Kooning and Pollock I thought I could see some echoes of van Gogh.
Some other oddments which didn’t fit into the flow above but I would like to capture:
* A talk by Judy Sund of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York: Van Gogh’s Peasants: The Essence of Earthiness Van Gogh’s portraits of Patience Escalier, is available at http://vimeo.com/72295421. My focus picture and of course Potato Eaters are included in her discussion of the later work. I found this quite late in my research and there’s a lot of overlap in material. Sund’s inclusion of literary and musical links is very interesting.
* In my research I found different accounts of van Gogh’s perceptions of peasants. He was interested in having his work reproduced, so that even the poorest could have art on their walls. In 1882 he wrote to his brother Theo “I believe that if one wants to make figures, one must have a warm feeling, what Punch calls in its Christmas picture, Good will to all – that means one must have real love for one’s fellow creatures. I for one hope to try my best to be in such a mood as much as possible.” (4) In 1885: “No — one must paint the peasants as if one were one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves. As not being able to be other than one is. I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world. Not in all respects, because what do they know of art and many other things?” (5), and in 1888 “an unspoiled creature with the instincts of a wild beast” (6). In her talk Judy Sund provides a number of quotes where van Gogh seems to see peasants as dangerous, brutal beasts. It makes me question my initial description of the painting – is there really the warmth and affection that I see?
* An article in Nature shows a newly discovered van Gogh painting – found underneath an unrelated landscape. It seems clearly to be one of his Nuenen peasants, and I was surprised to see the level of detail including partial colour obtained using a Synchrotron X-ray and known metallic components of pigments used by van Gogh. See Ball, P 2008, ‘The hidden van Gogh’, Nature, 454, 7204, p. 563, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 23 November 2013.
(1) vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let298/letter.html Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. The Hague, 3 January 1883.
(2) vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let477/letter.html Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, 30 December 1884
(3) vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let663/letter.html Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. Arles, 18 August 1888
(4) vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let277/letter.html Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. The Hague, 29 October 1882
(5) vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let497/letter.html Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, 13 April 1885
(6) vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let716/letter.html Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Emile Bernard. Arles, 1 or 2 November 1888
UA1-WA:P2-p4-Ex Annotate a Post-Impressionist image
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project four: Impressionism and post-impressionism
Exercise: Annotate a Post-Impressionist image