He had been art dealer (thanks to a family connection), a teacher, and then, with increasing religious fervor, a missionary in a poor coal mining district in Belgium. Always emotionally troubled, Van Gogh threw himself into art with feverish commitment.
Van Gogh was inspired by Lhermitte’s depictions of rural life and he asked his brother Theo to send reproductions of Lhermitte’s work. This painting is typical—a sympathetic scene of peasant life depicting three generations. Van Gogh’s own early subjects included peasants and miners.
Jules Breton was an artist Van Gogh admired. He specialized in images of peasants. The harsh subject of a poor girl is softened by her blue shirt, the green grass, and her restful pose. She sits in profile but looks directly at us.
Unlike the painting by Breton, this woman is older and bends forward at work harvesting potatoes. Her labor is expressed by the angular arm that breaks the horizon. The colors muddy like the soil. Van Gogh’s is a less sentimental view of peasant life.
Van Gogh, Early Years
Van Gogh’s early works are dark and very different from paintings like Starry Night and so many other brightly colored landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes that we know so well.
Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother, who was an art dealer in Paris, criticized the darkness of these early works and urged his brother to brighten his palette. That would happen in 1886, when Van Gogh traveled to Paris and saw the work of the Impressionists but these paintings are earlier.
Van Gogh wrote his brother, “...these folk,...tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish,...they have honestly earned their food.” To viewers used to sentimental paintings this was coarse, but Van Gogh wanted “a real peasant painting.”
Still Life with Bible (October 1885 - 1885) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
Van Gogh’s father, a minister, died suddenly in 1885. This is his father’s bible. The closed book is Zola’s novel The Joy of Life. The tension between these volumes mirrors Van Gogh’s own conflict between his father and his life as an artist.
Van Gogh in Paris 1886-87
Here is the Van Gogh we recognize. At this time, Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir explored the effects of light using brilliant colors and loose brushstrokes.
On the long wall to the right are paintings that demonstrate that Van Gogh has absorbed the lessons of Impressionism. On the far wall, two brightly painted canvases show that Van Gogh had also been looking at Japanese art—another important influence for artists at this time.
Here is Van Gogh the Impressionist. Well-dressed figures enjoy a day in a Parisian park. The bright colors are Impressionist while the small touches of paint recall the Neo-Impressionist Seurat, who had taken the art world by storm the previous year.
Models are expensive, but a mirror is cheap. Van Gogh painted 29 self-portraits in Paris. He became more daring, learning to use color expressively. Here, Van Gogh paints part of his beard orange, and his right eye with a touch of turquoise.
Van Gogh is thinking about complementary colors—colors on opposite sides of the color wheel (red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet). Here, the artist contrasts blues and oranges in the background, and reds and greens in his jacket.
The Bedroom (1889) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)The Art Institute of Chicago
Van Gogh moved to Arles in the South of France. In this painting, color is expressive and independent of nature. Van Gogh described the wood of the bed and chairs as “the yellow of fresh butter.” Van Gogh has found his own voice.
Van Gogh in Saint Remy
Van Gogh suffered most of his life from depression, bouts of anger, and unreasonable behavior. In December 1888 he fought with the artist Gauguin and cut off part of his ear. He was admitted to a hospital, but his illness worsened.
Soon after, he admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It is impossible to know for certain what the artist suffered from—he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy. Despite his prolonged suffering, he was a remarkably productive artist.
Van Gogh painted several reapers—a lone harvesters. Death is often personified as a reaper and Van Gogh was aware of this association. The colors of his clothing match the violet hills and pale lime-green sky, he appears as part of nature.
Van Gogh admired artists who used color in a revolutionary way, and he read numerous books on color theory. Here the blues against yellow and orange express his ambition to be a “...colorist such as there hasn’t been before.”
Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise
We’re in the Van Gogh Museum, in a gallery containing paintings from the end of Van Gogh’s life (he was just 37 when he died).
He spent the last period of his life in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, about 20 miles northwest of Paris and a place well-known to other nineteenth century artists, who lived and worked there. Van Gogh died of a gunshot wound to his chest (most likely suicide).
The painting in the center, and the one to the right, represent wheatfields. There are no human figures and no trees. The countryside—nature—was restorative, Van Gogh called it “healthy and fortifying” but it was also isolating.
Wheatfield with crows (July 1890 - 1890) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
In this painting of a wheatfield, the sky darkens and crows fly across the horizon. Pathways diverge but lead nowhere. This is one of the artist’s last paintings (his final canvas, Tree Roots, is to the right).
We are staring directly down into a tangle of tree roots. Passionate about art, and suffering from illness, Van Gogh left an amazing body of work, rooted in the late 19th century concern for depicting nature and our personal response to it.