Paris and Vincent Van Gogh

This is my EPQ essay I wrote earlier this year, in my last year at sixth form college. For those of you who don’t know, EPQ stands for ‘Extended Project Qualification’ and is worth half an A level. You can pick any topic you like (within reason) to research and write an essay about, as well as making a little presentation at the end. I absolutely loved doing this project – through it I got to deepen my understanding of Vincent Van Gogh in way that shed light on his complex motivations, inspirations and desparations. I learnt so much and I thought I would share my essay here.

How significant was Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Paris for the work that he subsequently produced in Arles?

The two years that Vincent Van Gogh spent in Paris saw his art transition from an earthy, subdued Dutch realism to the vivid, expressive and strikingly modern use of colour and line for which he is so famous today. Two self-portraits indicate this very clearly. Self-Portrait with a Dark Felt Hat [Fig. 1] is not unlike a portrait by one of the Dutch Masters, with its sombre chiaroscuro and muted earth tones , and was painted when Van Gogh had just arrived in Paris. Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat [Fig. 2], painted towards the end of his time in Paris, is very different, using energetic brushwork and rich colour. This development was the result of Van Gogh absorbing a range of new artistic approaches in Paris, allowing him to unlock his artistic potential.

Fig. 1
Self portrait in a grey felt hat
Fig. 2

Van Gogh had embarked on his artistic career relatively late in his life, working first as an assistant art dealer, a schoolmaster and then as a missionary preacher. His first great painting, The Potato Eaters, was created in Neunen in 1885. Much of his early work is of this ilk: scenes of unromanticised peasant life, muddy, windswept landscapes and still lives of humble objects such as clogs and cabbages. His first experience of city life was in Antwerp, where he had a degree of artistic training at the Antwerp Academy. He left for Paris in February 1886, to live with his brother Theo, an art dealer who financed and supported Van Gogh throughout his life.

He had arrived in Paris at a time when Impressionism, which had been in its heyday in the 1870s, was dissolving into a myriad of ‘isms’, including Symbolism, Synthetism and Pointillism. It was an eclectic artistic melting pot- art historian Mark Roskill describes how there was “a feeling among artists of the time that Paris was in every sense the stronghold of modernity.” However, when Van Gogh arrived in Paris, he knew very little of Impressionism itself. His absorption of Impressionism took place alongside an appropriation of these radical new artistic approaches, meaning that he was able to integrate various different influences. Gallery director Nicholas Maclean’s assertion that: “he was soaking up all the influences around him. He developed using their techniques to create his own style” is apparent in the way that Van Gogh never subscribed to one particular movement, but synthesised elements from many.

After two years of experimentation in Paris, Van Gogh moved to the Provençal town of Arles, where he lived from February 1888 until May 1889. The 187 paintings which he produced there can be thought of as the immediate, radical effects of Paris. Yet, in many ways, they also indicate that the influences from before Paris, such as the Realist school and Christianity, remained extremely potent. In addition, the Arles paintings indicate that Van Gogh’s art was very much the product of his psychology, especially regarding the use of colour. Considering the impact of Paris is therefore less straightforward than it initially appears.

One key Parisian influence on the Arles paintings was that of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which, according to art critic Roger Marx, were as important for modern art as classical antiquity had been for the Renaissance. The prints’ style of representation was refreshingly different to the European tradition: perspective was disregarded or distorted; edges were cropped; and boldly delineated outlines and areas of pure colour replaced conventional Western tonal modelling. The subject matter was also inspirational – the prints tended to focus on scenes from everyday life, or details from nature. In Paris Van Gogh collected hundreds of these prints and put on an exhibition of his collection in spring 1887 at the Café du Tambourin in Montmartre. He bought many of them from dealer Samuel Bing, who also published a periodical celebrating Oriental art, La Japon Artistique, of which Van Gogh was a reader. Although the influences of Japanese art merged with the influences of the other artists around him, Van Gogh went directly to the prints themselves for inspiration, rather than using the precedents set by Degas, Manet and others. It was a very fresh, raw approach. For Van Gogh, the prints became a touchstone for his painting: in Arles in 1888 he declared “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”. In Van Gogh’s Arles paintings, he frequently uses the pure colours and bold contours of the prints, as well as the new, radical way of using pictorial space. What art critic Ernest Chesneau wrote in his 1878 book Japan in Paris about the prints could easily apply to Van Gogh’s Arles paintings:

We could not but admire the impartiality of composition, the science of form, the richness of tone, the originality of picturesque effect and, moreover, the simplicity of the means employed to achieve such results.

In terms of both form and subject matter, The Bedroom [Fig.3], has the influence of Japanese prints at its heart. It depicts Van Gogh’s bedroom in his ‘Yellow House’ in Arles, with an emphasis on its humble simplicity. The furniture is outlined in bold, accentuating its solidity, and the colours are pure and vibrant. These work alongside the clean contours to give the image the two-dimensional quality of an ukiyo-e print. The use of perspective, too, is reminiscent of these prints, as it is somewhat exaggerated, so the floor appears to be sloping downwards.

Fig. 3

This technique is employed in prints such as Interior of a Bathhouse by Torii Kiyonaga, which similarly aims for clarity and boldness over realistic perspective. The simple subject matter, a poor man’s bedroom, depicts the same humble, everyday subjects as the prints portraying tea houses and brothels. These qualities also apply to the Night Café, Van Gogh’s Chair with his Pipe, and Still Life with Coffee Pot, Earthenware and Fruit, as well as many other Arles paintings. Siegfried Wichmann develops this argument further, stating that the prints were also instrumental for Van Gogh’s depiction of the natural world. He writes that prints such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa [Fig. 4], like Van Gogh’s nature paintings, “choose sensational events in the landscape in order to transform the effect of reality into symbolic, unique pictorial events.” The use of symbolism, as will be discussed further, was significant for many of the Arles paintings, and so Wichmann’s argument is likely to be valid. Comparing Green Ears of Wheat [Fig.5] to The Great Wave, it is apparent that, although the wave is a more visually immense natural force, both images capture a moment of natural energy and represent the overall power of nature in a single detail, which is made monumental and iconic.

Great Wave
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Although not underestimating the significance of the Japanese prints, historian Simon Schama undermines the argument that they were an important part of Van Gogh’s Parisian development by commenting that it was in Antwerp, not in Paris, that Van Gogh first encountered and began collecting them. This argument has some merit, as the seed of Van Gogh’s love for the prints was indeed sown in Antwerp. He wrote to Theo in 1885 that “my studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting…” However, his print collection grew so extensively in Paris that it is clear that it was Paris which allowed this seed to grow into something bigger and for the prints to provide a more direct and stimulating influence. It was in Paris that he directly experimented with the style, by making his copies of the prints and subsequently deliberately evoking them in stylistic homages such as The Italian Woman.

Van Gogh’s time in Antwerp, from November 1885 until March 1886 , was significant in that it provided a foundation for Van Gogh’s Parisian artistic development. Schama contends that in Antwerp, Van Gogh was “thinking about the process of lightening and loosening” (before he even encountered the Impressionists) because of the influence of “Rubens’s gorgeous lushness.” Van Gogh became familiar with artwork by Rubens in Antwerp’s Musée Moderne, and one painting he certainly saw was St Theresa of Avila through Christ’s intervention rescuing Bernardinus of Mendoza from Purgatory [Fig. 6] which was painted in around 1630. As Schama argues, these paintings did initiate Van Gogh’s interest in a dynamic use of brushwork and light-filled canvases. In his Portrait of a Woman with a Red Ribbon [Fig.7] painted in December 1885 , the flesh tones have the tonal warmth of a Rubens, and the pure hue of the red ribbon accentuates the rosy pinks of the woman’s cheek, in the same way that in St Theresa, the red of Christ’s robe highlights the warmth of the flesh tones. The brushwork is energetic and apparently spontaneous, as is Rubens’. Van Gogh himself wrote that “Rubens is certainly making a strong impression on me”.

Fig. 6

Examining this painting alongside Portrait of Eugene Boch [Fig.8], painted in Arles, indicates how the influence of Rubens can be credited to the development of the Arles style. In his portrait of Boch, Van Gogh has similarly used strokes of pure, warm hues to convey vitality and the luminosity of the skin. However, as is apparent in Self-Portrait with a Dark Felt Hat, this stylistic approach was not dominant when Van Gogh arrived in Paris. In the case of both the Japanese prints and of Rubens, Schama’s argument must be moderated: Antwerp is significant as it was a springboard to Van Gogh’s reception of Parisian artistic approaches, but this is dependent on Paris and therefore only undermines its significance to a limited extent.

Fig. 8

Alongside the use of pure colour in the Japanese prints, in Paris Van Gogh became familiar with the approach to colour espoused by the Pointillists. The Pointillist movement, begun by Georges Seurat, was based on the concept of ‘optical mixing’: tiny dots of pure colour being ‘blended’ by the eye of the viewer to create a coherent image. To accentuate this effect, the Pointillists often directly juxtaposed complementary colours. Van Gogh was introduced to Pointillism by Paul Signac, who encouraged him to take up the technique. He also saw Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the first great Pointillist painting, in the exhibition at the Salon des Independents in 1886. The Pointillist approach is apparent in many Arles paintings. In Flowering Garden [Fig. 9], for example, Van Gogh has explicitly used the ‘dot’ technique, applying dabs of paint whose colours juxtapose to give the impression of dazzling brightness. In The Sower [Fig.10] from June 1888 , the field is depicted with contrasting pure hues of orange and blue. Both paintings take on the Pointillist idea of using colour, not form, as the crucial component of the image: the forms of the brushstrokes serve to accentuate the effects of the colours.

Flowering garden
Fig. 9
Fig. 10

Again, it is possible to argue that Van Gogh’s pre-Paris experience somewhat undermines the significance of Paris, as it laid the groundwork for this development. Seurat based some of his ideas about colour on the theories and practise of Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863). Delacroix advocated the juxtaposition of complimentary colours in order to accentuate their visual affect, and he often rejected the use of tonal contrasts. Van Gogh had explored Delacroix’s approach while living in Neunen in 1885, reading Theophile Silvestre’s book Eugène Delacroix: Documents Nouveaux. He wrote to Theo in April 1885, enthused about Delacroix’s ideas:

If the complementary colours are taken at…the same degree of brightness and light, their juxtaposition will raise both the one and the other to an intensity so violent that human eyes will scarcely be able to bear to look at it.

Roskill points out that Van Gogh’s reading of Silvestre’s book means that “his theory at this point was exactly akin to the first stage of Seurat’s thinking.” Van Gogh had already absorbed the basis of Pointillist theory by the time he arrived in Paris, and this may explain why he was so receptive to the movement. The experience of Paris building on previous artistic experience undermines its significant to an extent, as it means that 1886-7 cannot be considered as a complete turning point. On the other hand, it is important to note that the significance of Paris lies in not only the stylistic approaches which Van Gogh applied to his own oeuvre, but also in the way that he was able to combine and synthesise them. The significance of Pointillism for his Arles paintings is increased by the fact that he combined its approach with that of the Japanese prints, and also Impressionism and of Monticelli. This is something that he could not do before entering the eclectic art world of Paris.

Van Gogh also encountered the work of Adolphe Monticelli in Paris, as six of his paintings had been acquired by Theo. Monticelli was an artist from Marseilles who died in 1886 and used dynamic impasto and strong colours, which Van Gogh was hugely inspired by. In Arles, in September 1888, Van Gogh wrote “sometimes I really believe I’m continuing that man’s [Monticelli’s] work”. It was also through Theo that Van Gogh was able to familiarise himself with much Impressionist art, as Theo was dealing in work by Monet and other Impressionists. At the exhibition at the Salon des Independents that Van Gogh attended in 1886, alongside post and neo-Impressionist works such as La Grande Jatte, there were works by key Impressionist artists like Monet and Camille Pissarro. The Impressionists were known for their light-filled canvases and inspired Van Gogh to move from brown hues to a much fresher, brighter palette. The influence of Monticelli and the Impressionists is present most noticeably in Van Gogh’s depiction of the landscape around Arles. The evocation of momentary effects of weather, the fluidity of the brushwork and the thickness of the paint are all examples of this influence.

A good indication of how Van Gogh was able to fuse these influences together is Landscape under a Stormy Sky [Fig. 11]. The billowing clouds above the field are rendered in spontaneous impasto, a technique reminiscent of Monticelli. Like many Impressionist paintings, it is luminous and dynamic, the dynamism giving it a sense of transience. The influence of the Japanese prints is apparent in the use of bold contours to define the trees and the horizon, and the casual attitude to perspective, as there are few markers of the recession of the field.

Landscape Under a Stormy Sky
Fig. 11

Also present in the painting are the stippled dots of Pointillism; they form the flowers in the field, distilling them into dots of pure colour which come together to form the impression of a field full of life. However, the Pointillist approach to the application of colour moves beyond optical mixing and into a more decorative element, which can be manipulated beyond the limits of optical mechanics. This decorative quality, also present in Flowering Garden, merges into the expressionistic. In this way, Van Gogh took the basic approach of Pointillism- using pure, unblended colours- and transformed it from the objective to the subjective. The Impressionist-influenced brushwork which forms the clouds of Landscape under a Stormy Sky, for example, allow us to visualise the energetic motion of Van Gogh’s hand as it wields the brush. Van Gogh was aware that Pointillism was perhaps dangerously too close to becoming a totally mechanical, dehumanised way of representing the world.

When examining Van Gogh’s use of colour in Arles, it is vital to consider its symbolic and emotional role as well as its descriptive and decorative purpose. To a certain extent, this use of colour decreases the significance of Paris, although simultaneously relies on it.
In his letters, Van Gogh reveals the significance of colour for expressing the meaning of his paintings. He wrote to Theo about the Night Café [Fig.12], painted in September 1888, which depicts the Café de la Gare, where Van Gogh had been living since May.

Fig. 12

Van Gogh told his brother “I’ve tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green.” In a letter written the following day, he writes that, through the use of colour, he had “tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can destroy oneself, go mad or commit a crime… to express the powers of darkness in a common tavern.” The garish clash of the complementary colours is symbolic of the dark force which drives the figures at the Café to alcoholism and prostitution, and the sense of chaos and confusion which follows. Incidentally, the influence of Paris can be credited here: artists Van Gogh had met in Paris such as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec also depicted the victims of urban modernity. There is a strong similarity between Degas’ In the Café (L’Absinthe), which was described at the time as “a study of human degradation”, and the subject matter of the Night Café.

Another key example of colour symbolism is the Sunflowers [Fig. 13]. Van Gogh painted four paintings of these flowers to decorate the walls of his ‘Yellow House’, ready for the arrival of Gauguin. His dream for Arles had been to set up a ‘Studio of the South’, an ‘artists’ cooperative’ in the style, he believed, of Japanese artistic communities. The artists would work together to create ‘the art of the future’, an alternative to religion. After a long and frustrating period when it appeared that no other artists were willing to join him, Gauguin, whom Van Gogh had met in Paris, finally agreed to come and live with him. The Sunflowers were painted in August, two months before Gauguin arrived. The electric, dazzling yellow is a symbol of Van Gogh’s hope for the realisation of his dream. The yellow is also symbolic of the South: it is not only the colour of the house which he would share with Gauguin, but it was also the same yellow as the sun which re-energised him after the wintery cold and grey of Paris. In a letter to Theo from August 1888, Van Gogh wrote

Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can only call yellow — pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is! …Ah, I’m always wishing that the day will come when you’ll see and feel the sun of the south.

Yellow was also a colour used frequently by Monticelli, who lived and worked in Provence and whom Van Gogh saw as the definitive ‘painter of the south’. Indeed, it was Van Gogh’s ardent love for Monticelli which was one of the motivations for his journey south. The colour yellow signifies regeneration, artistic energy and the promise of a new art which he would create with Gauguin.

Fig. 13

This symbolic, expressive use of colour has many possible influences. As we have seen, Van Gogh had enthusiastically responded to Delacroix’s ideas about colour, who himself had gone some way to using colour to express emotion. However, it is clear that much of this approach came from within Van Gogh himself. Martin Gayford describes how Van Gogh sought to create a ‘language of colour’; using colour like a musical composer uses notes and chords. One persuasive theory is that this was the result of synaesthesia, which is when a response to stimuli linked to one sense is also produced by another. For example, people with synaesthesia may hear colours, taste words, or associate different personalities with different shapes. Van Gogh’s use of colour to express mood, passion and emotion may be enough to indicate that synaesthesia was a key influence, but it is made more likely by the fact that he also aimed to use colour to express personality and relationships. In August 1888, for example, he wrote that he would like to paint a portrait of “an artist friend who dreams great dreams” and that the portrait will express “the love that I have for him” through “the shining fair head against the rich blue background.” This imagined painting was realised in the portrait of the artist Eugene Boch. The warmth of the “orange, chrome, pale yellow” against the “richest, most intense blue that I can contrive” is a visual manifestation of Boch’s friendship with Van Gogh and mystery as a creative individual.

K. G. Bekker describes this use of colour as an “instinctive form of communication”. The evidence of this is apparent in Van Gogh’s descriptions in letters written long before he decided to become an artist. A letter from 1876 describes a storm, and reveals colour to be key in Van Gogh’s perception of the world around him:

The sea was yellowish, especially close to the shore. On the horizon a streak of light and above it immensely large dark grey clouds…the wind blew the dust from the little white path among the rocks into the sea…to the right, fields of young green corn…”

This kind of vivid, colour-focused description is not uncommon in his early letters. Therefore Van Gogh’s use of colour arguably came not from an external influence, but from within him. This undermines the significance of Paris to an extent, as Van Gogh’s expressive use of colour, as we have seen, is a defining aspect of his Arles paintings. Bekker argues that this is because his emotional and psychologically experience intensified during his stay in Arles, leading to a more intense use of colour. The combination of inner instinct and intensified experience can be thought of as the reasons for the dazzling vibrancy of the Arles paintings. On the other hand, although the Parisian influences cannot be credited with this specific, extremely personal use of colour, they clearly gave Van Gogh the tools with which to express himself. The colour techniques of the Japanese prints, Impressionists and Pointillists gave Van Gogh the ability to act upon his instinct: this is clear from the simple fact that bright colour did not appear in his art until he went to Paris. In the same way that Pointillism arguably initiated his use of expressionistic brushwork; the bright colours he encountered in Paris initiated his use of expressionistic colour.

As well as embedding elements of the work of Monet, Seurat and Hokusai into his art, in Arles Van Gogh returned to many of the artists he had admired before arriving in Paris. His painting exhibits continuity as well as change. The Realist Jean-Francois Millet, referred to by Van Gogh as “father Millet”, was the touchstone for Van Gogh’s pre-Paris art and his influence is apparent after Van Gogh had left Paris. Millet depicted the daily life of peasant workers in the French countryside. Although portraying the drudgery of their toils, he treats them with reverence and imbues them with dignity, which hugely inspired Van Gogh. An example which epitomises Millet’s oeuvre is Man with a Hoe [Fig.14], painted in 1862. The labourer is exhausted, bent over his hoe, and yet he has a deeply heroic quality, rising up against the empty sky. There’s an intense earthiness to the image, and the similarity with the Potato Eaters  is apparent in muddy brown hues, the simultaneous roughness and heroism of the peasants, and the evocation of a hand-to-mouth existence.

Man with a hoe
Fig. 14

It is this earthiness and dignity which remained a potent aspect of Van Gogh’s Arles paintings. Critic Jonathon Jones argues that “it is wrong to think that when [Van Gogh] went to Paris and encountered Impressionism, he simply abandoned his realist mode.” Jones’ argument is made feasible by the numerous portraits Van Gogh painted of the Roulin family, as they are directly comparable to the Millet-inspired studies of peasants (over forty of them) which Van Gogh undertook in preparation for the Potato Eaters. Van Gogh had become close friends with the father of the family , the postmaster Joseph Roulin, and he completed a seated portrait of him in August 1888 [Fig.15]. The most striking aspect of this image is its sense of pride; Roulin is looking out at the viewer with a frank, direct expression, as open and clear as the word ‘postes’ which is emblazoned in gold on his hat. In Head of a Peasant Woman with Dark Cap (1885) [Fig. 16], as with the portrait of Roulin, the sitter fills the frame, and a plain background means that she is the sole focus of the image. Both portraits therefore are full of a sense of dignity, a dignity which alludes explicitly to the vocation of the sitters. The woman, with her plain, mud-coloured clothes and weathered face, is undoubtedly a peasant, in the same way that Roulin, with his bright blue uniform, is undoubtedly a postmaster. This is a direct link to the influence of Millet, whose peasants are both heroic and intrinsically linked to their labour.

Fig. 15
Peasant woman

This veneration of physical labour is a key indication of the influence of Millet, and is apparent not only in Van Gogh’s portraits but also in his series of Sower paintings and The Red Vineyard [Fig. 17]. The latter was painted in November 1888 and depicts the grape harvest, with the workers immersed in their labour beneath a radiant sun.

Red vineyard

With both paintings, the actions of the workers are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s paintings of potato planters and wood gatherers which he painted in Neunen in 1884, with their solidity and heroism. It is an attempt to realise his old ambition of being a ‘painter of peasant life.’ In addition, the model for the Sower, and the other paintings of the same motif, was Millet’s own Sower, which similarly depicts a sturdy, energised labourer striding across a field. In this way, the paintings are in many ways products of the Realist tradition of Millet and are rooted in a veneration of the lives and dignity of those who work the land. This validates the argument of writer John Berger, who states that physical labour defines Van Gogh’s art:

…nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work. He saw the physical reality of labour as being… the essence of humanity throughout history…he believed that reality could best be approached through work because reality itself was a form of production.

The influence of other Realist painters can also be seen in these paintings. The Barbizon painters, among them Theodore Rousseau, Jules Dupre, and Charles Daubigny , were revered by Van Gogh in his early career and exerted a huge influence on his pre-Paris work. Van Gogh admired the Barbizon painters alongside admiring their key inspiration, the Dutch Masters. These artists, such as Van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael , similarly portrayed landscape with realism and reverence, as well as emotional resonance and even a sense of the epic. In the Red Vineyard and the Sower, Van Gogh has used this directness, forcefulness and freshness in his depiction of the landscape. There is a sense of reverence towards the land, which goes deeper than the influence of Impressionist landscapes he encountered in Paris: it is in many ways a continuation of the Dutch tradition. This enduring influence of the Realists, which arguably underpinned his originality , challenges the influence of Paris to a degree. Clearly, Paris did not completely transform Van Gogh into an artist completely unlike the one he had been before. When he left the city, he took with him some radical new developments, but also was able to return to the influences which had previously dominated his art. He was not completely reliant on the artistic stimuli provided by Paris.

The underlying layer of Realism in Van Gogh’s Arles paintings is, however, modified by his exaggerative, expressive use of colour and brushwork. Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon describes this as “an ecstatic version of caricature.” With the Sower, Van Gogh wanted to ‘translate’ the “colourless grey” of Millet into his ‘language of colour’. He wrote: “Can we now paint the sower with colour, with simultaneous contrast between yellow and purple for example?… Yes — definitely.” Similarly, in the Red Vineyard, the sense of power and ripeness which the landscape is given comes from the richness of the reds and the stunning yellow of the sun-filled sky. It’s the Realist idea, but conveyed in Van Gogh’s own way with the use of expressive colour. As discussed, this can be traced back to the use of bright, pure colour advocated by the Impressionists, Pointillists and Japanese prints and the energised brushwork of the Impressionists and Monticelli. These influences are therefore applied to the influence of Millet and the other Realist painters.

Graham-Dixon’s use of the adjective “ecstatic” is indicative of the key difference between Van Gogh’s Arles art and the art of Millet. Whereas Millet’s art depicts labourers oppressed by the harshness of their work (as in Man with a Hoe), Van Gogh’s paintings of labourers are radiantly optimistic. Whereas with Millet, the heroism comes from the suffering of the workers (Robert L. Herbert states that Millet “usually shows the peasant in a struggle with obdurate nature.” ), with Van Gogh it comes from their energy and their unity with nature. This optimism is apparent in his Sower series, the Sunflowers, his portraits of the Roulins, as well as his portraits of the labourer Patience Escalier. Arguably, this optimistic, radiant quality in these paintings is the result of the merging influences of Van Gogh’s old religious faith and his psychology.

Van Gogh had been a zealously religious man, with many of his early letters reading like sermons , but began to become disillusioned around 1881 when he fell out with his Protestant pastor father. When Van Gogh lost his faith, he transferred many of his religious ideas into his art. For Van Gogh, art should become modern alternative to religion, providing the solace which people in the past sought from the church. This idea was the crucial reason why Van Gogh was so determined to set up an artists’ cooperative: to create this ‘art of the future’ alongside Gauguin. One of these religious ideas which permeated Van Gogh’s Arles paintings was the concept of infinity, or eternity, viewed by Van Gogh in terms of regeneration and renewal and often associated with intense physical labour. These ideas can be traced back to his early, fanatically religious letters. In 1876, for example, he writes:

The old eternal faith and love of Christ, it may sleep in us but it is not dead and God can revive it in us. But though to be born again to eternal life, to the life of Faith, Hope and Charity – and to an evergreen life – to the life of a Christian and of a Christian workman be a gift of God… yet let us put the hand to the plough on the field of our heart…

In the case of the Sower series, Van Gogh uses a motif representing “an exemplar of the Biblical labourer” and Jesus’ Parable of the Sower to represent regeneration and infinity as a creative force. Van Gogh wrote to fellow artist Emile Bernard that he had “a hankering after the eternal of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols”. Arguably, all of Van Gogh’s Arles nature paintings are influenced by these ideas. His paintings of blossoming trees, fields of wheat, harvests and the autumn leaves emphasise the changing and regenerative power of the seasons, and of nature as a source of the infinite – an alternative to God, or perhaps just another way of seeing him. Similarly, in his portraits of the Roulins, Van Gogh sought to “paint men or women with the touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the halo, and which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring”. In the same way, the use of the colour yellow to express hope for the ‘art of the future’ in the Sunflowers relates to this quasi-religiosity. The majority of the flowers in the version at the National Gallery are seedheads. They therefore symbolise creative potential, linking to the Biblical parable of the seed of the Gospel falling on fertile ground. They also relate to Van Gogh’s idealisation of hard work- the tireless and glorious labour of the sower. Appreciating nature and working hard were seen as part of the worship of God in the Protestant tradition in which Van Gogh was raised.

The ability to make such vivid connections between symbolic meanings and to achieve this intensity of vision in creating these masterpieces may be attributed to Van Gogh’s mental illness. Gayford persuasively argues that this was bipolar disorder , which allowed Van Gogh to see the world “with rare intensity” This is because people with bipolar, although experiencing terrible periods of depression, have periods of ‘mania’ when they are often filled with creativity, huge ambition and indefatigable energy. They see the world with great intensity, and many view it as a positive experience. It is difficult to ascertain what Van Gogh’s art would have been like without this mental illness. According to Bekker, it would have never reached such heights of colourific intensity. It is perhaps probable that Van Gogh’s love for the countryside would have linked with the lessons of Paris, but his images would have lacked expressive force and their complex associative meanings. It is not misleading to conclude that mental ill health is an extremely significant influence. In addition, Bekker’s argument that Van Gogh’s art grew in intensity because his psychological experience intensified in Arles is feasible. The paintings from before Paris, such as the Potato Eaters, have the sense of drudgery of a painting by Millet and not the optimism and vitality of the Arles paintings. Therefore, it is likely that is was the increasing impact of bipolar which led Van Gogh to make the link between the creative energy of his new art and the force of his old religious beliefs.

It is evident that the numerous influences on Van Gogh were not only wide-ranging and varied, but also synthesised in complex ways. It is this process of synthesis which gives Paris its significance for the artworks created in Arles. Because Van Gogh arrived in Paris at a time when the artistic culture was so varied and dynamic, he had the opportunity to absorb a range of different artistic approaches while maintaining independence from any one particular art movement. In this way, Paris provided a range of exciting tools which Van Gogh could use for his own art in his own way. Paris cannot, however, be regarded as a complete watershed for Van Gogh. It built on ideas and experience he had gained in Neunen – learning about colour theory – and in Antwerp, encountering Rubens and Japanese prints. However, it was the amplified stimuli which Paris provided that enabled Van Gogh to take these approaches much further. In some ways, it is true that the significance of Paris for the Arles paintings is undermined by the fact that Van Gogh returned to the influence of both the Realists and the religious ideas from before he went to Paris. These two influences were merged through Van Gogh’s psychology: his associative though processes and intensity of vision, and the symbolic meaning behind his paintings, were most likely the result of psychological intensity brought about by bipolar disorder. Internal stimuli therefore provided a direct influence on the Arles paintings. On the other hand, it was the tools that Japanese prints, Pointillism, Monticelli and Impressionism gave Van Gogh which enabled him to realise this psychological intensity so vividly in paint. To conclude, psychology probably determined the meaning and spiritual aim of Van Gogh’s art, but it was the tools provided by Paris- tools of composition, expressive line, (to some extent) subject matter and most importantly colour, which enabled the art to portray this. As someone who believed that “the artist of the future will be a colourist the like of which has never yet been seen” , the importance of Paris for Van Gogh’s realisation of his instinct for colour should not be underestimated.

My bibliography:

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Image credits


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