Saturday, November 03, 2007

Paint Your Palette Blue and Gray

Do you ever wonder what it would have been like to live a hundred years ago? Or what it might have been like to know someone famous before he or she became known?

I do. I sometimes wonder about the lives of writers and other artists whose names are immediately recognizable today, but
who were anonymous during their lifetimes. I wonder what they experienced, struggling to pursue their art in the face of indif-
ference and rejection. It takes single-mindedness and mental toughness to believe in yourself when no one else does.

Tonight I find myself thinking about Vincent van Gogh. He did
not earn the recognition he deserved while he lived. In fact, legend has it that he only sold one painting during his lifetime--The Red Vineyard, which he painted 119 years ago this week. Here it is:

Van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Netherlands. His father was a Protestant pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. Vincent himself was a preacher for a time as well as an art dealer. Religion and art were themes played over and over in his life.

Young Vincent had difficulty finding himself. He lost his job as an art dealer because of his complaints to the customers about the commercialization of art. He was fired from his job as a minister because the church authorities were upset by his insistence on living like his poverty-stricken flock. By the time he was 27, his father was already considering committing him to a lunatic asylum.

Vincent's younger brother Theo, an art dealer, encouraged him to become a painter (and financially supported that effort throughout both men's lifetimes). Van Gogh attended classes at the Royal Academy of Art in Brussels. His earliest paintings were dark and somber portraits of the peasants and miners he'd lived among.

At age 33, van Gogh moved to Paris where he became interested in the work of the Impressionists. During two years in Paris, he painted over 200 oils. In 1888, at age 35, he moved to the south of France where he painted many of the colorful canvases we now immediately recognize.

Vincent convinced the artist Gauguin to join him in the country, but after a violent argument with his friend, van Gogh cut off part of his own left ear in remorse. He was first hospitalized and then institutionalized in an asylum. From that point on, his mental stability was unreliable although he painted furiously during his moments of lucidity. His famous work The Starry Night was completed during this time as well as his paintings of cypress and olive trees. In the 70-day period before his death in 1890, he painted 70 oils.

On July 27, 1890, at the age of 37, Vincent van Gogh walked into a field and shot himself. He died two days later.

Van Gogh produced 750 paintings and 1600 drawings during his brief career. Legend has it that his last painting was Wheatfield With Crows. While the ominous oil was certainly among his last works, it's unlikely this was the last one.

There are many theories as to the nature of van Gogh's illness. He suffered from malnutrition--when his brother sent him money, he'd spend it on art supplies rather than food. He was a heavy smoker and drank a lot of absinthe. Speculation also includes the possibility that he suffered from syphilis (which killed Theo six months after Vincent's death), lead poisoning (lead was an ingredient in paint), or epilepsy.

In one of his letters to Theo, Vincent wrote, "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself exaggerate the essential and to leave the obvious vague."

Take a few minutes to view this video of van Gogh's work, accompanied by Don McLean's 1971 tribute to the artist, titled Vincent. Keep in mind all of these paintings were completed in the five-year period from 1885 to 1890.


Stephen Parrish said...

Van Gogh is everyone's darling. I have to wonder, though, how famous he and his paintings would have become had he not shot himself.

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I'm going to assume here that you regard van Gogh's deliberate distortion of perspective as a sign of incompetence.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you don't believe me, take another look at his early painting "A Pair of Shoes" in the video I posted. He was a superb draftsman when he chose to be.

Following his move to Paris, he was heavily influenced by the Impressionists' use of bright light and vivid colors as well as the simplicity of Japanese woodblock prints.

For the remainder of his life, he moved away from the realism that I suspect you prefer to the expressionism that is the hallmark of his later work.

If I can find good reproductions, I'm going to do another post on my two favorite van Gogh paintings.

Warm regards,


Stephen Parrish said...

Ouch. That's an incorrect assumption. I love van Gogh. I'm a student of van Gogh (I come from a long line of oil painters). I said nothing about van Gogh's perspective.

The retrospectives and memorial exhibitions his colleagues organized after his death catapulted him to international fame. The story might have been different (and his place in history might be different today) had he not shot himself.

Some years ago National Geographic published a photograph---the first and only---of the interior of the room in which van Gogh died. It's hard to tear your eyes away.

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: Sorry I misunderstood. I read an implied criticism of van Gogh where none was intended.

I'm glad you love him, too.

Heather B. Moore said...

Love Van Gogh. My sixth grade teacher played this song in class (many years ago) and every since, I've been hooked. My son chose to research him for his 6th grade project. It all came full circle.