1888

Vincent van Gogh up close

Museum Folkwang

Zoom into the painting ›Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges‹ to look over van Gogh’s shoulder and discover the immense energy driving his brush and the paint.

Museum Folkwang’s collection is one of the few museums across Germany to boast several paintings and drawings by the famed Dutch painter. One of these is the painting Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges. It is certainly one of the most unusual themes in van Gogh’s oeuvre. The painter here depicted barges being unloaded from above, from a so-called bird’s-eye view.

Not seeing the horizon makes for a far more compacter setting, one that thrives on the vibrant contrast between the green water and the mostly yellow jetty and barges.

The essentially calm surface of the water contrast strongly to the representation of the dockers unloading the barges, where van Gogh has opted for a myriad of small details painted with an animated brush and striking colours.

Van Gogh painted this scene in the summer of 1888 in Arles, and described it to his brother Theo in a letter as follows: “I am now working on a study, namely of ships as seen looking down from the quay. The two ships are purple-pink, the water is a strong green, …

… no sky, a tricolour flag on the mast. …

… A worker unloads sand with a wheel barrow.”

In the course of his career, Van Gogh honed his sense of details and colour contrasts. He was inspired by the colouring and composition of the Japanese wood cuts by Hokusai and Hiroshige. He collected prints such as this one from Utogawa Hiroshige’s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.

The strong accentuation of outlines, the bird’s eye perspective used and the way the image seems to be but a section of a larger whole all point to van Gogh’s pre-occupation with Japanese art.

Van Gogh captured his subject matter – in this case a heavy chain used to fasten the boats to the quay – with the simplest of means, such as the contrast between black lines and colour fields.

The filigree rendering of the barges and their freight, of the narrow gangplanks, oars and masts conveys the impression of this being a swaying platform above the water. In contrast, the unambiguously uniform jetty provides a firm point for the eye.

The depiction of the wharf in particular lends itself to studying van Gogh’s expressive painting style: It consists of paint applied thickly, mainly by means of parallel brushstrokes. The surface of the painting seems almost relief-like in this section.

The painting has been in the Folkwang collection since 1912. In 1888, the year it was made, van Gogh had first given it to the painter Émile Bernard as a present.

In 1892 the latter exhibited it at Parisian gallery Le Barc de Boutteville in memory of his friend. The piece was finally brought to Germany and to Museum Folkwang by art dealer Eugène Druet 20 years later.

Karl Ernst Osthaus, the museum’s founder, was the first museum director in Germany to buy works by the Dutch painter for his collection.

He acquired several paintings by van Gogh for Museum Folkwang between 1902 and 1905: Along with the Portrait of Armand Roulin (1888), which on the photograph taken in 1907 can be seen to the right of the passageway into the next room, he also purchased The Wheatfield behind Saint Paul's Hospital with a Reaper (1889) and A Corner of the Asylum and the Garden with a Heavy, Sawed-Off Tree (1889).

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was born in Groot-Zundert. His artistic development was mainly influenced by his work in France. He lived in the city of Arles in the south of France between 1888 and 1889, creating numerous works here. All of the paintings and drawings now owned by Museum Folkwang were made in the Arles area.

Armand Roulin, portrayed here at age 17, was the eldest son of postmaster Joseph Roulin, a neighbour and friend of van Gogh’s. The portrait’s captivating, reduced composition draws on the powerful interplay of colour, surface and contour.

A Corner of the Asylum and the Garden with a Heavy, Sawed-Off Tree shows the garden of the clinic where van Gogh stayed in 1889 while suffering from depression.

The window of his room looked out onto an acre that van Gogh painted and drew several times. In a letter to Émile Bernard the artist wrote he had addressed the “question of the devilish nature of yellow” in these studies.

Van Gogh was to elucidate this metaphor for his brother Theo: “In this reaper – an undefined figure, fighting like the devil in this strong heat in order to finish his work – I see an image of death, in the sense that people are the corn that is being cut down with a sickle.”

Alongside the four paintings shown here, the collection also holds four drawings by Vincent van Gogh. His choice of subject matter and quality of line can be better examined when comparing these directly.

Van Gogh’s art was shaped by his interest in everyday life from the very beginning of his artistic career in the Netherlands through to his late work.

Similarly to the painting Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges created three years later, this drawing made in 1885 also focuses on a commonplace activity – in this case, the work of a gleaner.

The drawing Enclosed Field with a Sower in the Rain of 1890 shows an isolated human being amidst an expanse of nature. The grouping and change in direction of what are mostly short lines and areas of hatching create a dense and atmospheric impression in this piece.

Van Gogh honed the unmistakable quality of line, which can be found throughout both his drawings and paintings, to perfection by creating scenes such as the one we see in the drawing Cypresses with Four People Working in the Field. He managed to find powerful ways of expressing and transporting strong moods and feelings in his works by employing this quality of line together with strong colours. This turned Vincent van Gogh into one of the most important forerunners of Modernism.

Museum Folkwang, 2016
Credits: Story

Text: S. Pizonka, H.-J. Lechtreck, M. v. Lüttichau, P. Daners / Museum Folkwang, 2016

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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