Even a cursory look at van Gogh paintings reminds us that his style was unique. van Gogh remains one of the few famous painters who didn't belong to an art movement.
van Gogh lived in Paris during 1886-87 with his brother Theo, and was acquainted with aspiring painters like Pissarro, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin. Although influenced by
Vincent van Gogh. Spring of Flowering Almond Blossom in a Glass, February-March 1888. Oil on canvas, approx. 9 1/2" by 7 1/2". Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Impressionism, van Gogh paintings from early 1888 definitively separated him from that movement.
In the diminutive Sprig of Flowering Almond Blossom in a Glass, van Gogh conveys both the hope he felt for a simpler life in Arles after leaving Paris -- and his distance from his fellow Impressionist painters.
van Gogh employs color to convey emotion rather than to achieve greater naturalism. The painting appears unfinished and hurried in places, as in the table-top through which tan priming appears, yet the almond blossoms and leaves are meticulously crafted and bursting with life.
Imagine Sprig without the horizontal vermillion line to appreciate how completely van Gogh mastered color.
Arles reintroduced van Gogh to peasantry, a recurrent subject matter in earlier van Gogh paintings. van Gogh befriended a farm-hand named Patience Escalier, and describes him in a letter to Theo:
I wanted to paint a little old peasant, who very much resembles our father in features... Behind the head... I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, most intense blue I can conceive, and by this single combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I get a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.
Perhaps the palpable passion toward Patience Escalier stems from this paternal familiarity.
I prefer to believe that this is the debut of van Gogh's chromatic personality, juxtaposing complementary colors to render the peasant like a star.
Each of the facial features of Patience Escalier has its own palette, shapes and movement
Vincent van Gogh. Portrait of Patience Escalier, 1888. Oil on canvas, 25-1/4 x 21-1/2 in. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, CA.
which coalesce into a cohesive portrait, perhaps via the peasant's riveting, direct stare. The frenetic brushstrokes and thickly applied paint are now hallmarks of van Gogh paintings but at the time, marked his stylistic independence from other painters and any art movements.
As Vincent van Gogh wrote to Theo,
My brush has no system at all. I hit the canvas with irregular touches of the brush, which I leave as they are. Patches of thickly laid-on color, spots of canvas left uncovered, here and there portions that are left absolutely unfinished, repetitions, savageries... (1)
That description of van Gogh's painting technique belies the beauty and mastery in Patience Escalier.
Vincent van Gogh. Detail from Portrait of Patience Escalier, 1888. Oil on canvas, 25-1/4 x 21-1/2 in. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, CA.
This beloved van Gogh painting will be on exhibition at the Frick Collection in New York from October 30, 2012 until January 20, 2013, leaving its home at the Norton Simon for the first time in nearly 40 years.
And just how is it that van Gogh's unrealistic color is so evocative and credible? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
(1) Letter B3, p. 478.