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.”1 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.”2 He believed that he could make his paintings endure only by abandoning “photographic resemblance” and striving for “passionate expression.”3

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.”4 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.”5

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.”6 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.”7 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.8 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


  1. Vincent van Gogh to Willemien van Gogh, Auvers-sur-Oise, 5 June 1890, from Vincent van Gogh, the Letters (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum and Huygens Institute, 2011), .

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, 30 April 1885, .

  5. Vincent van Gogh to Emile Bernard, Arles, c. 5 October 1888, .

  6. Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Saint Rémy, 28 September 1889, .

  7. Vincent van Gogh to Willemien van Gogh, Arles, 9 and c. 14 September 1888, .

  8. See Meyer Schapiro, Vincent van Gogh (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1950); Albert Boime, “Van Gogh’s Starry Night: A History of Matter and a Matter of History,” Art Digest LIX (December 1984): 86-103; and Lauren Soth, “Van Gogh’s Agony,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 68, no. 2 (June 1986): 301-313.

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
Vincent Willem van Gogh (Dutch: [ˈvɪnsənt ˈʋɪləm vɑŋ ˈɣɔx] (listen); 30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) was a Dutch post-impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterised by bold colours and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. He was not commercially successful, and his suicide at 37 came after years of mental illness, depression and poverty. Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Gogh drew as a child and was serious, quiet, and thoughtful. As a young man he worked as an art dealer, often travelling, but became depressed after he was transferred to London. He turned to religion and spent time as a Protestant missionary in southern Belgium. He drifted in ill health and solitude before taking up painting in 1881, having moved back home with his parents. His younger brother Theo supported him financially, and the two kept a long correspondence by letter. His early works, mostly still lifes and depictions of peasant labourers, contain few signs of the vivid colour that distinguished his later work. In 1886, he moved to Paris, where he met members of the avant-garde, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were reacting against the Impressionist sensibility. As his work developed he created a new approach to still lifes and local landscapes. His paintings grew brighter in colour as he developed a style that became fully realised during his stay in Arles in the south of France in 1888. During this period he broadened his subject matter to include series of olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers. Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions and though he worried about his mental stability, he often neglected his physical health, did not eat properly and drank heavily. His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor when, in a rage, he severed part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy. After he discharged himself and moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris, he came under the care of the homeopathic doctor Paul Gachet. His depression continued and on 27 July 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a Lefaucheux revolver. He died from his injuries two days later. Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and he was considered a madman and a failure. He became famous after his suicide and exists in the public imagination as a misunderstood genius, the artist "where discourses on madness and creativity converge". His reputation began to grow in the early 20th century as elements of his painting style came to be incorporated by the Fauves and German Expressionists. He attained widespread critical, commercial and popular success over the ensuing decades, and he is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist. Today, Van Gogh's works are among the world's most expensive paintings to have ever sold, and his legacy is honoured by a museum in his name, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which holds the world's largest collection of his paintings and drawings.
Wikidata
Q5582
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Introduction
Except for some brief periods of formal instruction, van Gogh was self-taught; he collected prints and reproductions to study and copy, especially those of Millet. His life and work are legendary in the history of art, making him the quintessential misunderstood, tormented, even insane artist, who sold only one work in his lifetime but whose paintings achieved record auction sales prices after his death. Van Gogh was active as an artist for only ten years, during which time he produced around 1000 watercolors, drawings and sketches and nearly 1250 paintings. His styles included an early dark, Realist style and a later colorful, intense, expressionistic style. Almost more than on his oeuvre, his fame has been based on the extensive, diary-like correspondence he maintained, in particular with his brother, Theo. Comment on works: Landscapes, genre, Portraits, still life
Nationalities
Dutch, Netherlandish
Gender
Male
Roles
Artist, Genre Artist, Painter
Names
Vincent van Gogh, Vincent Willem van Gogh, Vincent Van Gogh, Vint︠s︡ent Van-Gog, Vincent-Willem van Gogh, Fan'gao, Fan-kao, Fangu, Wensheng Fangu, Fan-ku, וינסנט ואן גוג, ゴッホ, ビンセントゴッホ, 梵高, Gogh, j. van gogh, van gogh, v. van gogh
Ulan
500115588
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License
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