Vincent Van Gogh’s Paintings
Throughout Vincent William van Gogh’s artistic career, he was mocked and
rejected by intellectuals. An intellectual is defined as “a person who is well
informed and intelligent, and interested in activities involving the intellect” (World 1,096). By this definition, we can therefore assume that critics of art, would be intellectuals. The viewpoint critics had of his work then as opposed to the viewpoint they have now is rather ironic. Over the last century, Van Gogh’s paintings have increasingly become accepted and appreciated by intellectuals.
During Vincent Van Gogh’s lifetime, the general public did not accept or understand him. To illustrate this lack of acceptance by the general public, it is documented that Van Gogh received no recognition and sold only one painting during his lifetime (World 298). Pascal Bonafoux states that during Van Gogh’s eight years of painting, he was scorned or, at best, ignored (1). Critical reviews upon his death, were not accepting or understanding of his talent. In Van Gogh A Retrospective, a monthly literary and artistic review of the time, La Wallonie, was cited and showed the lack of understanding or acceptance of Van Gogh’s work, at the time of his death:
We do not share the enthusiasm that the art of Mr. Vincent van Gogh evokes in some profound and sincere artists. The Sunflowers, very powerful in color and very beautiful in design, are above all decorative and agreeable to look at: In the Red Vineyard the use of lively tones, specially arranged, produces certain interesting, very curious, metallic effects of light. The value of his other canvases absolutely escapes us (207-208)
A majority of Van Gogh’s fellow artists did not accept him. Van Gogh spent two years in Paris, 1886 and 1887. There were several different movements in art, that were just starting. There were the Divisionists, “trying to create the effects of volume and space through the use of small dots that would merge when seen from a distance” (Great 181). There were also the Synthesists, who used large amounts of color and “loaded their work with symbolic and literary meanings” (Great 181). Van Gogh did not fit in either group because of the strictness of their rules. However, he did adapt some new ideas from each group. There were always disagreements among the different movements and artists, and this exhausted Van Gogh. He finally left Paris, for this reason, and settled in Arles to escape all the criticism. Van Gogh was thought of as a very difficult, obstinate and even frightening man. He was an intense person with strong ideas, which did not always meet with his fellow artists’ approval.
No one, in general, accepted the Impressionistic Movement in art. “Such pictures were no more than quick impressions to the conservative critics of the time” (Janson 305). Impressionistic painting was considered half-finished sketches that were unworthy of any serious attention. The first major exhibition of Impressionistic painting was in 1874 in a studio on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. It was an unusual showing, in that, it was independent of the usual salons that exhibited and reviewed the art of the time. Diane Kelder, Professor of Art History at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York quoted Louis Leroy, a known critic during the Impressionistic Exhibition of 1874: Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in it’s embryonic state is more finished than that seascape (122).
Leroy poked fun at all most all the exhibitors at the showing. The above was his review of a sunrise by Monet.
The reasons for the rejection of Van Gogh’s work stemmed from several different areas. The Impressionistic Movement was totally new to everyone. It was definitely a change from the realism of Courbet, that was the known and accepted idea of art in the mid 1800’s. The Impressionists began to appear around 1870, to much criticism. The darker more somber colors of Courbet, Rousseau and Millet showed, to the tiniest detail, the reason this period prior to Impressionism was known as the Realism Movement. In contrast, Impressionism was full of brilliant color, light and even what might be called “lightheartedness” (World 77). Impressionism is defined as “a style of painting that gives the impression made by the subject on the artist without much attention to details” (World 1,062). Whereas, details were the main emphasis of the realistic painter, it was of much less importance to the Impressionists. This was the origin of the controversy when impressionism first appeared.
Van Gogh had a new and different style. He began with the somber colors of the Realism Movement, but adapted his style to the brillant colors that are evident in his later paintings. His strokes were heavy and full of paint, not like the exacting lines of prior artists. Janson states that Van Gogh’s style “transformed the color patches of Impressionism into swirling ribbons of pure color” (318). Some referred to Van Gogh as an Expressionist, because it appeared he was trying to show his own turbulent feelings in his paintings. Instead of mixing the paints on his palette first, he did something unheard of, up to this time. He mixed his colors right on the canvas and was still able to get clear, brilliant colors, without the drabness you
would expect when mixing them. He simplified the form and composition of painting. He accomplished this by intensifying his color and brushstrokes. He was so intense that he scared other artists he came into contact with. Kelder states that his key elements of the style he was creating were “saturated, evocative color and a vigorously calligraphic style of drawing” (339).
Critics view of Van Gogh’s paintings today are much different, than in his lifetime. The public, in general, has shown a tremendous acceptance of his paintings. The number of books recounting his life and works are many, and any writing dealing with Impressionism or Post-Impressiomism, always has a large section set aside for Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s life was even
portrayed in two major movies.
The first dealt with Gauguin and Van Gogh, entitled, “The Moon and Sixpence”. More important was the movie “Lust for Life , which starred Kirk Douglas. The public acceptance was tremendous and it still can be seen today on movie channels. The movie was taken from Irving Stone’s book by the same name. “Major museums, galleries and art shops throughout the world sell more copies of Van Gogh’s work than any other artists” (Bonafoux 162).
The amount of money paid for his works has set the record for the most
money paid for a work of art. On March 30, 1987 Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” was sold for $36,292,500 at Christies Auction House ‘in London, England.
This began the trend towards investing in art as a means of low-risk investment. Buying art works, up to this time had been mainly done by the, “European aristocracy, the upper middle class and their American counterparts, based mainly ‘in the Northeast part of the United States” (Bonafoux 156). On September 21, 1995 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, purchased Van Gogh’s 1889 “Wheat Fields with Cypresses” for the amount of $57,000,000. The painting was purchased from Walter H. Annenberg, a publisher and art collector. The painting serves as a certerpiece for the Musetun’s new Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture Galleries. The annex that houses this exhibit cost only $13,000,000, less than a fourth the cost of the one Van Gogh! Phillippee de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, puts prime importance on the addition of this piece of art:This can truly be said to be the most significant installation of Nineteenth-Century European art in America. This work – one of the most important paintings of the period – will forever be accessible in a noble setting to the whole public (ProQuest).
The limited availability of Van Gogh’s paintings is evidence of his popularity and acceptance by the art world today. However, only a few of his paintings are shown at the major art museums throughout the world. Before Van Gogh’s death, he gave many of his paintings to his friends Bernard, Gauguin, Signac and Pissarro. The bulk of his paintings and pencil and ink drawings were sent, upon completion, to his brother, Theo. These were exhibited for sale. After Vincent’s death, Theo died one year later from grief Johanna Van Gogh, Theo’s widow took most of Vincent’s paintings to the Netherlands in 1891, where a majority remain today.
As the years go by, Vincent Van Gogh’s art will become a scarce commodity, just as time has already proven. It is sad that not many people were able to appreciate his work when he was alive.
Even though more people know about and appreciate his work today it is even sadder that not everyone is able to internalize the feelings that this great artist put into his paintings.
Barnhart, Clarence L.. The World Book Dictionary, 1988 ed.
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Benicka, Corinne, ed. Great Modern Masters Bookthrift: New York, 1980
Bonafoux, Pascal. Van Gogh The Passionate Eye New York: Abrams, 1992
“Gogh, Vincent (William) Van,” Encyclopedia, Britannica. 1988 ed.
Hainer, Cathy. ” Wheat Field stands out in new Met galleries. ” USA
TODDAY I Sep. 1993
Janson, H. W. History of Art for Young People New York: Henry, 1971
Kelder, Diane. The Great Book of impressionism New York: Abbeville,
Muhlberger,Richard. What Makes a Van Gogh a Van Gogh? NewYork:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993
Stein, Susan A., ed. Van Gogh A Retrospective Parklane: New York, 1986