Vincent Van Gogh | A Legacy of Light After Sadness
The short life of artist Vincent Willem van Gogh spun across the Netherlands, England, Belgium, and France in just 37 years. Sensitive, struggling with mental illness, rebellious, and declared dangerous to the public, he bounced from job to job, at last deciding to become an artist without any formal training when he reached 27.
Ten years later, he was dead. It’s a tale of a tragic life, with gritty details, and the ironic epilogue of his fame arriving after his death. Today, he’s associated with his brightly colored images of sunflowers, irises, and vibrating landscapes. There was sweetness at the heart of Van Gogh’s work, a desire to bring joy and comfort to the viewer that perhaps carried through from an early stint as a minister of the Church of Belgium. As we move into the season of sunflowers, let’s focus on the piercing beauty of his work, and how it still adds to the lives of those who enjoy it in everything from multi-media experiences to mosaic wall art.
The subject of a special exhibition this year at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Vincent’s relationship with the plant that became one of his iconic subjects has been well documented. Although his most famous paintings of the flower were done when he lived in southern France, this little scene shows a small garden in the Montmartre area of Paris. Although the sunflower is the main image, one can also see a bit of the cityscape and the figure of the gardener.
Also painted in Paris, the image here is much more impressionistic in style. The colors are dark and a far cry away from the brilliant yellows that showed up in his bouquets a few years from this time. As floral subjects were popular for art buyers, he hoped to make some sales by getting in on the decorating trend of the day. It was a difficult time to balance artistic vision versus the need for income. Van Gogh veered more into the ethereal realm of artistic expression. Although fellow artists like Paul Gaugin loved his direction, the public wasn’t impressed.
Furthermore, the art buyers of the late 1880s weren’t crazy about sunflowers. They were considered coarse and primitive. Realistic floral art was much more well-mannered than the single flower heads and lack of context that Van Gogh offered in these pieces. He followed his own vision, much to his financial misfortune. Part of his existence was subsidized by his brother Theo, an art dealer who also lived in Paris.
When Vincent did paint the more traditional flowers, they were presented in a style that seemingly reflected his enthusiasm for depicting them in what was the commercially viable way. Compared to the joy of his later pieces, this is a rather melancholy look at roses.
So what led Van Gogh to the glorious sunflower fields of Southern France? Oddly, it was his newly discovered interest in Japanese art. He studied the prints, the works of Hokusai, and their botanical studies, and related in a letter to his brother:
“And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”
He admired the ability to capture so much in a few strokes of a paintbrush, and when his fellow artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec told him that the light in the Southern French city of Arles was like that in Japan, he decided to make the move there. His time in Paris was fraught with tension and breakdowns, as he argued with other artists he painted with. He hoped for a calmer pace of life, and the inspiration of the countryside he so missed.
In this portrait, Paul Gauguin depicts Van Gogh working on a painting of sunflowers in Arles. There’s a lot of history in this piece. Vincent did not escape his issues with mental illness in his new home, and his worried brother had offered Gauguin money to go look after him. At the time, Van Gogh was malnourished, drinking absinthe, and engaging in worrying behaviors like drinking turpentine and eating paint.
Despite good intentions, the intervention from Gauguin didn’t pull Van Gogh out of his downward spiral. They argued constantly, and within a month, one of these confrontations led to Van Gogh pulling out a razor. After Gauguin left, Vincent visited a prostitute and offered her the gift of his bloody ear.
They were fighting at the time of this portrait. Later, Van Gogh wrote that: “My face has lit up a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.”
The self-harming incident led to a stay in the hospital. Although he was first released, he struggled and eventually would spend his days painting at his home, returning to the hospital at night. His time in Arles only lasted two months. During this period, his paintings of sunflowers exploded with yellow hues and are still revered.
Scholars still speculate on how this shift of image and color occurred. These new paintings were completely different from his previous depictions of his favorite flowers. His beloved brother Theo declared them to be “Utterly Vincent,” and the artist painted them over and over, each with small changes. The brilliant yellows of the oil paints he used were new to painters, and he was one of the first to embrace them. Today, historians suggest that Van Gogh’s recreational use of absinthe and medical use of digitalis for his epilepsy may have tinted his vision with yellow hues that were reflected in the works.
Whatever the combination of influences, Van Gogh knew that these pieces were important, and he loved them. There were frequent mentions of his plans for decorating a room with them in his letters to Theo, and he was proud of his innovations.
“If Jeannin has the peony, Quost the hollyhock, I indeed, before others, have taken the sunflower,” he wrote.
After the citizens of Arles had him declared a public danger, Van Gogh moved to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence – also in the south of France, He was there for a year. Although he was not well enough to see the exhibition of his “Sunflowers” painting in Brussels, he probably would have enjoyed the scene it created. When one painter complained about having his work displayed in the same show as a painting by a “charlatan”, he was overheard by Vincent’s friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Henri challenged the artist to a duel on the spot, although nothing resulted from the disagreement.
A keen observer
Of course, Van Gogh didn’t paint only sunflowers. His character studies and landscapes are equally as famous. Throughout the ups and downs of his illness, he sketched and painted prolifically, covering an array of subjects. In his depiction of fishermen’s boats, he used the elements of the Japanese prints he revered and recreated the scenes from sketches and memory. His memory for detail and atmosphere was a key part of his paintings, evoking mood strongly.
Van Gogh’s later works continued to evolve, even as he struggled with maintaining his mental health. Once residing at the asylum, he didn’t slow his output. He worked inside the walled garden at first and was allowed to eventually go outside the hospital. His moods fluctuated, but he remained hopeful. Writing to Theo, he told his brother: “As for me, my health is good, and as for the head it will, let’s hope, be a matter of time and patience.”
He produced over 150 paintings during his stay at the hospital. When his brother and new wife gave birth to a son they named Vincent, he responded to the news with this piece: “Almond Blossoms”.
One can trace the ups and downs of Van Gogh’s mental state in the paintings from that year. The asylum offered him a room to paint in, and his confidence fluctuated as he feared the return of his “attacks” and his active battles with his depression. At times, he didn’t paint at all, only to return with periods of high output where he worked on studies of other paintings, like this one of Millet’s. As he had only black and white prints that had been provided to him by his brother for inspiration, he devised his own color schemes, with radiant results.
His time at the asylum produced some of this most famous works. Even with the periods of inactivity, he continued to observe, study, and gather his faculties for his next intense burst of creativity. His isolation was sometimes extreme, and he depended on his memory and the views from his iron-barred windows for inspiration. It was during one of his productive periods that The Starry Night was created. Although one is drawn to look at the stars that seem to spin in the depth of the cerulean night sky, the composition is anchored in the line of the city of Saint-Remy below. Van Gogh felt that he was tapping into the true appearance of nature, as a cypress tree twists and reaches upward, and the sky practically sings and hums with movement.
In early 1890, Van Gogh left the asylum and moved to Auvers, north of Paris, where he lived under the care of a doctor. He continued to paint, completing a work almost every day. His works from this time showed renewed interest in expanding his craft. Featured prominently were the wheat fields and gardens around the quiet town. He felt that the large images of fields conveyed what he felt was “healthful and fortifying about the countryside”.
Vincent visited his brother, sister-in-law and his nephew frequently, but was still ill. The news that his brother was possibly facing precarious finances due to a new business venture sent him into a worried depression. Despite the assurances of Theo and his wife Jo, he chose to die by suicide in July 1890. After launching a memorial exhibition of his work, his brother passed away 6 months later.
A lasting legacy
Surprisingly, Theo’s widow became Vincent’s biggest champion after his death. She cataloged his art, arranged exhibitions, and made loans of his work to museums worldwide. In 1973, after his nephew transferred the whole of the art collection to the state, the Van Gogh Museum opened in Amsterdam.
As an artist, Van Gogh is venerated. The museum sees more than two million annual visitors, his works are valued pieces of wall art around the world and have been translated into every type of medium imaginable, including immersive media installations, like this one in Paris, France.
His legacy as a Post-Impressionist painter will always link him with artists like Picasso and Monet, who also experimented with color and form throughout their careers. Be sure to browse our online catalog for more examples of how beautifully mosaic wall art can translate the best of fine art!