What makes a portrait modern? And what makes a modern portrait continue to appear modern, even decades after it was created? For Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), the answer was clear: color. “What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest in my profession,” he enthused to his sister, Willemien, “is the portrait, the modern portrait. I seek it by way of color.” With its vivid palette, spirited handling, and exuberant background, Portrait of Joseph Roulin (1889) gives form to Van Gogh’s conception of the modern portrait. Roulin—a postal worker whose close-knit family and progressive political views appealed to Van Gogh—is painted in colors that depart from those seen in nature: his forehead, cheeks, and nose are streaked with green and his beard is flecked with blue and purple. This unconventional use of color was vital to Van Gogh’s ongoing effort to create what he described as “portraits which would look like apparitions to people a century later.” He believed that he could make his paintings endure only by abandoning “photographic resemblance” and striving for “passionate expression.”
When Van Gogh had resolved to become an artist nearly a decade earlier—following stints as an art dealer, teacher, and missionary—his first works centered on the human figure. For the lithograph The Potato Eaters (1885), he began by drawing and painting over a hundred studies of impoverished workers in the rural village of Nuenen (located in the region of the Netherlands where he was born). These studies culminated in a large-scale oil painting of five farmworkers gathered around a humble meal, a painting intended to convey the considerable hardships of life in the countryside. “I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. “And so it speaks of MANUAL LABOR and—that they have thus honestly earned their food.” Van Gogh likened the coarse finish of the painted Potato Eaters to the homespun fabrics worn by his sitters, both the product of manual labor. Similarly, the lithograph adapted from his studies emphasizes the artist’s hand, with dramatic contrasts between light and dark achieved over the course of hours spent drawing on a stone in the workshop of a local printer.
Several months after completing the Potato Eaters series, Van Gogh left the Netherlands for Antwerp, then Paris, with the goal of advancing his art. In the French capital he adopted the brilliant palette and broken brushwork of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, whose works he encountered in galleries and studios. But the metropolis eventually exhausted Van Gogh, prompting him to move to Arles, in southern France, in February, 1888. There, his hopes of establishing a community of artists were briefly fulfilled when Paul Gauguin joined him in October at a rented residence called the Yellow House. Though both artists shared an interest in subjective approaches to line, form, and color, their time together at the Yellow House was marked by stormy debates about the origins and aims of art. Gauguin advocated working from memories, dreams, and imagination, while Van Gogh was committed to drawing and painting from life. “I’m still living off the real world,” he wrote to their mutual friend, the artist Émile Bernard. “I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes to the subject, but still I don’t invent the whole of the painting; on the contrary, I find it ready-made—but to be untangled—in the real world.”
One real-world subject Van Gogh painted repeatedly was the landscape, terrestrial and celestial. While in Arles, the artist depicted fields, orchards, and meadows, portraying the seasonal rhythms of rural life with a reverence modeled after that of Jean-François Millet, an artist he deeply admired. The natural world remained central to Van Gogh even after mental illness led him to relocate from Arles to nearby Saint-Rémy, where he entered an asylum in May, 1889. Throughout the summer, he painted multiple canvases in an adjacent olive grove, captivated by the ever-shifting hue of the trees. “It’s silver, sometimes more blue, sometimes greenish, bronzed, whitening on ground that is yellow, pink, purplish or orangeish to dull red ochre,” he wrote to Theo. “But very difficult, very difficult.” This broad range of pigments is present in The Olive Trees (1889), from the orange, ochre, and purple of the gnarled trunks to the blue, green, white, and yellow of the curled leaves. Like the brightly pigmented and boldly twisted olive trees, the hills, mountains, and clouds surrounding them seethe with color. Far from static, Van Gogh presents the earth as an undulating mass that rises and falls, ripples and whirls.
It was not only the earth that attracted Van Gogh. Since leaving Paris for southern France, he was enchanted by the prospect of painting the sky in the hours between sunset and sunrise. “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored in the most intense violets, blues, and greens,” he wrote to Willemien. “If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow...it’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.” A night sky can be glimpsed in two paintings from Arles, Café Terrace at Night and Starry Night Over the Rhône. Yet it was in Saint Rémy, in June 1889, that Van Gogh devoted an entire canvas to his nocturnal vision with The Starry Night. In this work, the predawn sky pulses with motion: the moon and stars gleam, radiating concentric bands of yellow, pink, green, and “forget-me-not” blue light, as the space around them churns. Scholars have determined that Van Gogh fused observed and imagined views of Saint Rémy, incorporating astronomical realities, spiritual aspirations, and artistic imperatives. For instance, to the right of the cypress burns Venus, a planet that did in fact illuminate the night sky in spring 1889. But the towering cypress, sleepy village, and pointed church spire below were not visible from the artist’s residence; he turned to studies made elsewhere in Saint Rémy (and perhaps beyond) while at work on these elements of the painting. Usually eager to discuss his art in letters to family and friends, Van Gogh had surprisingly little to say about The Starry Night. But it has prompted countless viewers to “look carefully,” as its creator urged his sister, to see beyond the visual cliché of “white spots on blue-black.”
Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, 2020