For fans of Vincent van Gogh paintings, Amsterdam's van Gogh Museum is a slice of heaven on earth. Not only does the museum house works by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and friends, contemporaries and muses of van Gogh, but it also has the most extensive collection of Vincent van Gogh paintings in the world.
The museum's permanent collection divides his work into five periods, of which I'll overview three in this post:
1. Vincent van Gogh paintings up to 1886
After determining to become a painter at age 27, Vincent van Gogh lived at his father's vicarage in Nuenen, Holland, from 1883 - 1885. It was here that he painted Potato Eaters, which showed influences on van Gogh from the peasant imagery of Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875) and Jozef Israels (1824-1911), whom van Gogh described here as "the Dutch Millet".
Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters. Oil on canvas, 1885. Approximately 32" x 45". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Vincent van Gogh was financially dependent on his brother, Theo, with whom he corresponded for the duration of his artistic career. He shared his pleasure with Potato Eaters with Theo, writing:
In contrast to a great many other paintings, it has rusticity and a certain life in it. And then, although it's done differently, in a different century from the old Dutchmen, Ostade, for instance, it's nevertheless out of the heart of peasant life and - original.
Explore the similarity between Potato Eaters and works by Millet and Israels.
2. Vincent van Gogh paintings from Paris 1886 - 1888
After moving to Paris in 1886 to live with Theo, van Gogh jettisoned the Dutch tradition of painting after his exposure to Impressionism and Japanese prints, becoming in short order
a modern artist. Vincent van Gogh paintings from this period show his initial use of bright colors, and looser, sketchier brushstrokes that were often dashes or stipples.
Vincent van Gogh. Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes, 1887. Oil on canvas, approx. 19" by 26".
Two painters were of particular influence on van Gogh at this juncture:
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), whose technique of peinture a l'essence (using diluted oil paint to create transparent layers of paint) intrigued van Gogh, and
the French painter, Adolphe Monticelli (1824-86), whose thick, swirling brushstrokes appealed to van Gogh.
Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes was based upon Delacroix's color theory involving the use of complementary colors. Rather than depicting the realistic, detailed fruits of a traditional still-life, van Gogh created a study of the color yellow and investigated its interactions with ocher and browns.
He painted the frame yellow; it remains the sole surviving painted frame of van Gogh's. Explore the brushstrokes and frame of Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes with the van Gogh Museum's enlargement technology.
Like the Impressionists, van Gogh was mesmerized by Japanese prints, which he and Theo collected. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bridge in the Rain (After Hiroshige), pure homage to Hiroshige's Sudden Shower.
Left: Hiroshige. Sudden Shower of the Great Bridge near Atalke, 1857. Woodcut. Right: Vincent van Gogh. Bridge in the Rain after Hiroshige, 1887. Oil on canvas, approx. 29" by 21". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Pronounced diagonals in both the bridge and the shoreline are key elements of both works. The strong verticals of the bridge's trestles counterbalance that movement.
3. Vincent van Gogh paintings from Arles 1888 - 1889
After exhibiting symptoms of depression, van Gogh decided to move south to Arles and establish a "Studio of the South", or artists' colony. He rented rooms in a sprawling yellow house which he painted in 1888; his rooms are those with green shutters.
Van Gogh was enchanted with the colors of Provence, telling Theo
What a powerful sight, those yellow houses in the sun and then the unforgettable clarity of the blue [sky].
He continued to paint the everyday life about him, including The Bedroom, his actual one in the yellow house and one of the most highly cherished Vincent van Gogh paintings. Again, the influence of Japanese prints is evident from the blocks of color and flatness. Above his simple bed hang his portraits of the soldier Paul-Eugene Milliet and of Eugene Boch.
In describing the complementary colors of The Bedroom to Theo, Vincent alluded to its "pale violet walls".
Vincent van Gogh. The Sunflowers, 1889. Oil on canvas, approximately 3'1" by 2'5". Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
But these walls are blue, not violet.
This mystery of The Bedroom's wall color was recently resolved and announced at the re-opening of the van Gogh Museum in its show, "Van Gogh at Work". A joint venture called Van Gogh's Studio Practice performed technical analyses of numerous van Gogh paintings, and determined that he had been using a newly developed synthetic pigment. This red eosin, when mixed with blue to make purple, ultimately faded and left only the blue pigment behind.
The consortium resolved another unknown about The Bedroom. Because van Gogh had begun making multiple copies of his painting, dating of individual canvases is sometimes problematic.
Examination of the van Gogh Museum's copy of The Bedroom revealed faint areas of newsprint. Based upon letters to Theo in which van Gogh described a flood and sponging water from this wet canvas with newspaper, this version of The Bedroom has been dated to 1888, making it the first of three versions (the other versions of The Bedroom are at the Art Institute of Chicago, and included in this exhibition, and at the Musee d'Orsay).
Vincent van Gogh. The Bedroom, 1888. Oil on canvas, approximately 2'4" by 2'11". van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Paul Gauguin was the sole artist who agreed to work at the "Studio of the South". In preparation for his arrival, van Gogh began paintings sunflowers - a subject matter of van Gogh's that Gauguin had earlier admired - to adorn his guest's bedroom. Van Gogh intended a series of 12 canvases, completed four, and deemed two worthy to be hung in his friend's bedroom.
Gauguin arrived in September, and the two artists painted and discussed art for nine weeks. Tensions between the two rose, however, and van Gogh suffered a psychotic episode during which he cut off part of his ear. Gauguin left Arles, where van Gogh stayed in the hospital before transfering to an asylum.
Coming up next: Vincent van Gogh paintings from his time at an asylum (1889-1890), and those from his time in Auvers (1890).
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