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Reflections on Van Gogh's Painting (III)

By Cristian Peri

Van Gogh’s Painting Technique & Ways of Expression

Van Gogh decided to become an artist at a time when European art had already started to undergo significant changes. The Impressionists replaced excessive formalism, sobriety, and artificiality with the informality, pleasantness, and charm of life. The freedom of ideas brought the freedom of techniques with remarkable progress in color and brushwork. With the Exhibit of the Independents in 1874 and Impression – Sunrise by Monet, the era of modern art started. The most talented of the new movements in art were people determined to become artists, often against the odds, like Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and others. Painting in ways hardly accepted at the time, they swelled the crowd of starving artists. Even though they went through a certain process of training, these artists were mostly self-taught, learning where they could, because what they painted was not taught or accepted in any schools, universities, or academies of art. Vincent van Gogh’s experience in the Art Academy in Antwerp can be inferred from his letters to his brother Theo.

(Letter 447, Antwerp, c. 28 January 1886: The advice Verlat gives me is very severe, and also what Vinck of the drawing class tells me, and they strongly advise me especially to draw for at least one year, if possible to draw nothing but plaster casts and the nude, and that this would be the shortest way, and than I shall go back to my other outdoor work or my portraits quite a different man [[What a torture! – Cristian Peri]]; and I believe it is true, so I must try to be somewhere where both plaster and casts and nude models are within my reach, at least at first. … …

Some of the fellows have seen my drawings, one of them, influenced by the drawing of my peasant figures, has started at once to draw the model in the nude class with a much more vigorous modelling, putting the shadows down firmly. He showed me this drawing and we talked it over; it was full of life, and it was the finest drawing I have seen here by any of the fellows. Do you know what they think of it here? The teacher Sibert expressly sent for him, and told him that if he dared to do it again in the same way he would be considered to be mocking his teacher. And I assure you, it was the only drawing that was well done, like Tassaert or Garvani. … …
Well, I am still very pleased that I came here, whatever may happen, and whatever the results may be, whether I get along with Verlat or not. I find here the friction of ideas I want. I get a fresh look at my own work, can judge better where the weak points are, which enables me to correct them……
I do not think it is impossible that in the long run, especially if the other fellows can’t help beginning to draw stronger shadows, that then Verlat of someone else will pick a fight with me, even if I systematically try to avoid it.)

(Letter 450, Antwerp 1st half of February 1886: That Sibert, the drawing-class teacher who at first spoke to me in the way I wrote to you about, definitely picked a fight with me today, perhaps to get rid of me, but he did not succeed because I told him, “Pourquoi cherchez-vous dispute avec moi, je ne veux pas me disputer, et en tout cas je n’y tiens aucunement à vous contredire, seulement vous me cherchez dispute exprés.” [ Why do you pick a quarrel with me, I do not want to qaurrel, and in any case I don’t desire the least bit to contradict you, only you pick a quarrel with me on purpose.] Apparently he did not expect this, and just this once could not say much in answer, but next time he can of course start a fight all right.
What’s behind it is that fellows in the class are discussing my work, and that I have said – not to Sibert, but outside the class to some of the fellows – that their drawings were absolutely wrong.
I can tell you, if I went to Cormon, and if sooner or later I got into trouble either with the teacher or with the pupils, I should not mind it a bit. Even without a teacher I might go through that course of drawing from the ancients, by going and drawing at the Louvre, for instance. And if necessary I should do so, though I should by far prefer to have my work corrected, as long as it does not become deliberate nagging – that correction without any other motive than a certain peculiarity in one’s way of working which is different from that of the others. If he begins again I shall say loud in the class, “Je veux bien faire mécaniquement tout ce que vous me direz de faire, parce que j’y tiens à vous rendre ce qui vous revient à la rigueur, si vous y tenez, mais pour ce qui est de me mécaniser comme vous mecanisez les autres, cela n’a, je vous assure, pas la moindre prise sur moi.” [I am quite willing to do all that you tell me to do mechanically, because, if necessary, I particularly want to give you your due, if you desire, but as for mechanizing me as you mechanize the others, I assure you it will not influence me in the least.]).
(Letter 452, Antwerp 1st half of February 1886: I must also tell you that, although I keep going there, that nagging of those fellows at the academy is often almost unbearable, for they remain positively spiteful.
But I try systematically to avoid all quarrels, and go my own way. And I feel I am on the track. And I feel I am on the track of what I am seeking, and perhaps I should find it the sooner if I could go my own way when drawing from the plaster casts. After all I am glad I went to the academy, for the very reason that I have abundant opportunity to observe the results of prendre par le contour.
For that is what they do systematically, and that is why they nag me. “Faites d’abord un contour n’est pas juste, je ne corrigerai pas ça, si vous modelez avant d’avoir sérieusement arrêté votre contour.” [First make a contour, your contour isn’t right; I won’t correct it if you do your modelling before having seriously fixed your contour.]
You see that it always comes to the same thing. And now you ought to see how flat, how lifeless and how insipid the results of that system are; oh, I can tell you I am very glad just to be able to see it close up. Like David, or even worse, like Pineman in full bloom. I wanted to say at least twenty-five times, “Votre contour est un truc, [Your contour is a joke] etc.” but I have not thought it worth while to quarrel. Yet I irritate them even though I don’t say anything; and they me.
But this does not matter so much, the problem is to go on trying to find a better working method. So – patience and perseverance.
They go as far to say, “La couleur et la modelé c’est peu de chose, cela s’apprend très vite, c’est la contour qui est l’essenteil et plus difficile. ” [Colour and modeling aren’t much, one can learn that very quickly, it’s the contour that is essential and the most difficult.]
You see, one can learn some new things at the academy. I never knew before that colour and modeling come so easily.
Just yesterday I finished the drawing I made for the evening class’s competition. It is the figure of Germanicus that you know. Well, I am sure I shall place last, because all the drawings of the others are exactly alike, and mine is absolutely different. But I saw how that drawing they will think best was made. I was sitting just behind it, and it is correct, it is whatever you like, but it is dead, and that’s what all the drawings I saw are. Enough of this, but let it annoy us so much that it makes an enthusiastic for something nobler, and that we hasten to achieve this.)

After five years spent in the Netherlands perfecting his craft as an artist, Van Gogh was well aware that the next step in his formation as an artist was Paris. He wrote to his brother clearly expressing his thoughts and feelings.

(Letter 443, Antwerp, early January 1886: I must also tell you that in view of that longing of studying the figure, in case I should not succeed here, I should rather go farther away than go back to Holland before I had worked for a time at some studio. That “farther” might perhaps be Paris, without any hesitance.
You may be of the opinion that I am an impossible character – but that’s absolutely your own business. For instance, I need not care, and I am not going to. I know that your business routine induces you again and again to lapse into the old evil with regard to me. What I seek is so straightforward that in the end you cannot but give in. So let’s conclude by saying, The sooner the better.
Good bye with a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent.)
(Letter 452, Antwerp 1st half of February 1886: Dear Theo,
I decidedly want to tell you that it would make me feel much better if you would approve of my coming to Paris much earlier than June or July. The more I think about it, the more anxious I am to do so. … …
If I rent a garret in Paris, and bring my paintbox and drawing materials with me, than I can finish what is most pressing at once – those studies from the ancients, which certainly will help me a great deal when I go to Cormon’s. I can go and draw either at the Louvre or at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts.)
(Letter 456, Antwerp, c. 18 February 1886: I know only one thing, that everything decidedly points to my not acting otherwise than as I wrote you – namely – to my not postponing going to Paris. ….
I feel that you do not approve of my going straight to Paris, otherwise you would already have answered me. And yet it is better to do it at once. Here I have the opportunity to consult people who work quite seriously, and I am fully convinced it will be the best thing to do. In fact, we ought to have it done long ago.)
Van Gogh showed great drawing skills early on, even before he created his first master-pieces in oil, as can be seen in “Arm”, F (1160v), “Arm” (1160r) (What beautiful drawings!), “Bench with Four Persons” (F 0952r), “Bent Figure of a Woman” (F 0935), “Hands” (F 1360r), “Carpenter’s yard and laundry” (F 0944), “Peasant Woman Lifting Potatoes” (F 1273), “Plaster Statuette (Type C)” (F 1707), and many others. Later, many of his drawings - detailed, gracious, and expressive - looked like blueprints for his paintings, as can be seen in “The Café Terrace in Place du Forum, Arles, at Night” (F 1519), “La Moulin de la Galette” (F 1396a), “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin” (F 1458), “Sower with Setting Sun” (F 1441), “Starry Night” (F 1540), and many others.

During his two years in Paris, Van Gogh perhaps considered that he was still learning. He painted 222 paintings - quite a number, many of them still life(s) including flowers, fruit, and plaster torsos, and also landscapes, portraits and a few excellent self-portraits. Paint enough to learn enough, a sound philosophy, was perhaps one of his concepts to which he remained faithful over the years. With time, there was a visible turn in his use of colors, which became vivid and brighter, and in his portraiture that gained in color and expression. The freedom in the choice of subjects, color, and brushwork brought by the impressionists helped an innovative artist like Van Gogh. A certain influence of the Impressionism can be seen in a few landscapes as in, “Entrance of Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnières” (F 305), “Fishing in Spring” (F 354), “Lane in Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnières” (F 276), “Interior of a Restaurant” (F 342), and others. Elements characteristic of Van Gogh’s painting, such as thick layers of paint, as in “Path in the Woods” (F 309), and short stripes of colors, as in “Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat” (F 344), become more evident.

Van Gogh’s passionate and impatient nature made him paint with fervor. His intense feelings and even joie-de-vivre are well expressed in colors and brush strokes while in Arles, Saint-Remy, and Auvers-sur-Oise in spite of spells of depression. Outside Paris, he was on his own, free from any artistic influence, free to fully express his creativity in his paintings. The more he painted, the more he became the adept of the impasto technique, stripes of color and curly lines, as in “View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground” (F 409), “Arles, View from the Wheat Fields” (F 545), “Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers” (F 454), “The Sower” (F 451), “Olive Grove” (F 715), “Cypresses with Two Female Figures” (F 620), “ Portrait of Dr. Gachet” (F 753), etc.

Van Gogh’s scenes were painted from any and often difficult angles, whether drawn in a studio or seen from wherever the artist decided to stop and establish his point of observation. Difficult angles did not seem to bother the artist in the least if this contributed to the aesthetic effects of paintings such as “Street Scene in Montmartre: Le Moulin a Poivre” (F 347), “Undergrowth” (F 308), “Les Alyscamps” (F 487), “Quay with Man Unloading Sand Barges” (F 449), “The Sower” (F 451), “The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles” (F 519), “Green What Field” (F 718), “Wheat Field with Cypresses” (F 615), “Road with Cypress and Star” (F 683), “Vineyards with a view of Arles” (F 762), “Green Wheat Fields” (F 807), “Les Alyscamps: Falling Autumn Leaves” (F 486), etc.

Van Gogh painted many still life(s) with flowers before he painted “The Sunflowers” masterpieces. When he painted sunflowers, irises, and even thistles, he showed that he loved and understood “the flower”. It was as if he spoke with the flowers when he painted them, even with the thistles, as in “Two Thistles” (F 447a) and “Thistles” (F 447). The same can be seen in “Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers” (F 454), “Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” (F 455), etc. Quite often in Van Gogh’s art, beauty got strong support from simplicity, as in “Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” (F 456), “The Sower” (F 450), “The Green Vineyard” (F 475), “The Bedroom” (F 484), “Still Life: Vase with Irises” (F 680), etc.

A beautiful and magnificent sun appears in a few of Van Gogh’s paintings, usually at sunset as in “The Red Vineyard” (F 495) suggesting a day of work and the time for harvesting, and in “The Sower” (F 451), “The Sower” (F 422), and “The Sower” (F 450). The sun is present in a few other paintings as well, as in “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun” (F 710), etc. Van Gogh enjoyed painting the sky and also the celestial bodies as it appears in “Evening Landscape with Rising Moon” (F 735), “Starry Night” (F 612), “Road with Cypress and Star” (F 683), etc.

Van Gogh’s paintings often depicted his environment. “So I live” he seemed to say in “The Bedroom” (F 484), and “Vincent’s Chair with Pipe” (F 498), and “Here I live” in “Vincent’s House in Arles (The Yellow House)” (F 464), “The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital” (F 730)”, “The Entrance Hall of the Saint-Paul Hospital” (F 1530), etc. The environment is also depicted in “The Night Café in Arles” (F 1463), “Terrace of a Café on Montmartre (La Guinguette)” (F 238), “The Dance Hall in Arles” (F 547), “The Brothel” (F 478), “The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles” (F 519), “Montmartre” (F 272), “Boulevard de Clichy” (F 292), “Avenue in Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnières” (F 277), “View of Paris from Montmartre” (F 262), “Entrance to the Public Park in Arles” (F 566), “Les Alyscamps” (F 569), “The Garden of the Saint-Paul Hospital” (F 734), etc.

The elements of Van Gogh’s paintings are, in general, strongly expressive. He often found beauty in places where many believed there was none at all. In general, he avoided unnecessary details and painted the essential, often using rough lines and strong colors, rough and powerful as his life and his feelings.

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