His Life’s Canvas

by Frances Billano

This chapter is a free excerpt from Biography of Van Gogh.

But while Van Gogh’s personal life was in shambles, his inner life as a painter would flourish.


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But while Van Gogh’s personal life was in shambles, his inner life as a painter would flourish.

His stay at Neunen in 1883 marked his emergence as a maturing artist. He poured all his pain and energy into his early oil-on-canvas works. They were again portrayals of the peasants of the area, particularly the weavers, but this time Van Gogh’s skills had grown considerably. By the time his father died in 1885, he completed what is now considered his first major masterpiece, The Potato Eaters.

The Potato Eaters is an iconic dirt-brown oil painting of peasants eating a potato supper. It was Van Gogh’s statement of solidarity with the poor. His choice of colors, and his subjects’ ugly appearance, were deliberate. “These folk...eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have tilled the earth... with these hands they are putting in the dish,” wrote Van Gogh to his brother Theo in Paris. “It speaks of manual labour...they have thus honestly earned their food (Van Gogh Letters, Vincent to Theo, Neunen, April 1885).”

His peaceful stay did not last. Local folk at Neunen began ostracizing the strange painter in their midst, accusing him of getting one of the peasant-girl models pregnant (Pickeral, Van Gogh). Running out of people to sit for him, Van Gogh turned to painting still lifes and landscapes, such as Still Life with Yellow Straw Hat (1885) and Autumn Landscape (1885), where his slowly-increasing use of color is evident. At the end of that same year, he left the Netherlands for good and headed to Antwerp, Brussels. He would never again return to his homeland.

The move to Antwerp gave Van Gogh the opportunity to take advanced painting and drawing lessons at the Academy of Fine Arts there. He also saw Japanese prints for the first time in Antwerp; he was drawn to their strong colors, patterns and oriental style. His sense of how patterns and colors gave meaning developed even further, as evidenced in his painting Backyard in Antwerp (1885).  

Van Gogh also began to suffer a decline in health, due to poor nutrition, frequent pipe-smoking, absinthe-drinking, and visits to the brothel (Dietrich, "The Illness of Vincent van Gogh").

Theo had been urging him to move to Paris to see the lighter, more colorful work of the Impressionists, instead of being limited to the drearier palette of the Dutch masters. Thus in March 1886, Van Gogh came to live in Paris with Theo in an apartment in Montmartre.

Paris was an eye-opener for him.

For the first time, Van Gogh saw the work of Impressionist greats such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley, and admired them (Van Heugten, et al, Van Gogh and The Colors of the Night). He joined Fernand Cormon’s art school, the Atelier Cormon, where other artist-students of the day congregated. There he met the younger crop of “Neo-Impressionists” like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Bernard, John Russell, and Louis Anquetin (Pickeral, Van Gogh).

Van Gogh stuck around the Atelier Cormon for only about four months, practicing the principles of academic art as it was taught in Cormon’s traditionalist studio. It was up to Theo to help his socially-awkward brother out with his connections. He helped introduced Van Gogh to other important artists like Edgar Degas, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, and most notably, the avant-garde Paul Gaugain.

Van Gogh also collected hundreds of imported Japanese woodblock prints which were sold readily in Paris. These would serve as additional inspiration for the rest of his life.

With such colorful exposure, Van Gogh quickly adopted a brighter palette (Van Gogh Museum, Van Gogh's Life). He synthesized elements from each of the artistic styles he encountered, even as his own came to light. Works from this period, such as Vase with Gladioli (1886), Two Cut Sunflowers (1887), the Portrait of Pére Tanguy (1887), Restaurant de la Siréne (1887), and Still Life with Quinces (1888), display a growing affinity towards very bright colors, particularly contrasting and complementary ones. One of his favorite combinations was blues and yellows, which he laid down in ever-intensifying strokes of paint.

Taking inspiration from Dutch master Rembrandt’s works, Van Gogh also painted 22 self-portraits during this time. His new color palette and bold brushstrokes gave a peculiar poignancy to his gaunt, orange-haired images. Yet, despite such prolific work, nobody was buying any of Van Gogh’s paintings. His financial dependence on Theo, plus his eccentric nature, placed great strain on both brothers (Letters, Theo to Family, Paris, 1885-1887). And Van Gogh’s sadness was showing up on the canvas.

By February 1888 the situation between him and Theo was stressful enough to prompt the older Van Gogh to leave Paris. “It seems to me almost impossible to work in Paris,” he explained to the younger man, “unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self (Van Gogh Letters, Vincent to Theo, Arles, February 1888).”

Van Gogh’s idea of such a place was the warm south of France. So he boarded a train to Arles.

He arrived just when winter was unfolding into spring. As the snow melted, the famed clear yellowish light of Provence bathed the area. He began painting straight away.

The move to Arles was an artistic breakthrough. Drawing upon his love of Japanese woodcuts and refining his sense of line and form, Van Gogh began generating paintings of the sun-drenched French province with ever-more exciting color contrasts and rhythmic brushstrokes. He also enjoyed painting some of the locals and scenes from their daily lives. Some of the most memorable paintings of his career were made within 1888, his first year of this period: Haystacks in Provence, Pont de l’Anglois, Portrait of Patience Escalier, Barges on the Rhone River, Terrace of the Cafe, Young Man in a Cap, The Zouave, Sower at Sunset, Starry Sky Over the Rhône, The Night Café, and the iconic Sunflowers, which used one of his favorite motifs. He also painted The Yellow House, a rendition of the house on number 2 place Lamartine where he lived.

The ever-faithful Theo continued to support his brother, sending him a small stipend each month. It was just enough for Van Gogh to get by, buy a few pieces of furniture for the little yellow house, and continue painting.

But what Van Gogh really wanted was to create an artist’s haven in Arles, where they could work and encourage one another. He would start by inviting Paul Gaugain over to live and work with him. In fact, the bulk of the paintings Van Gogh made in 1888 were meant to be decorations for the house, in anticipation of Gaugain’s arrival. With Theo’s financial help, Gaugain was persuaded to do so. He arrived in October 1888.

The arrangement lasted only two months. While Van Gogh saw in the older Gaugain an artistic mentor, Gaugain found him too eccentric to deal with. Moreover, Van Gogh was already making his highly-original paintings at an incredible pace of one or more per day—sometimes even creating a finished painting in one hour, as in the case of his work L’Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux), Van Gogh’s take on Gaugain’s own portrait of café owner Madame Ginoux (Café at Arles).

It sparked a bit of jealousy, perhaps, in the somewhat arrogant Gaugain. They had opposing views on art, and they quarreled bitterly over it. Van Gogh grew increasingly agitated and tormented, knowing Gaugain would most likely leave. His growing disappointment was evident in his paintings of their empty chairs, Van Gogh’s Chair and Gaugain’s Chair (Gayford, The Yellow House).

On the night of December 23, 1888, Gaugain fled to a local hotel. He claimed that Van Gogh tried to attack him with a razor, after being informed of his plan to leave. While Gaugain was away, Van Gogh did the unthinkable: he took that razor and severed part of his left ear, and gave the severed piece to a local prostitute (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “A Tale of Two Ears”). He walked back home and slumped onto a pool of his own blood on the floor, where he was later found by Gaugain and the police.

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