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Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands to a preacher and his early life had inauspicious surroundings. He was well into maturity when he realized his true vocation was painting, and though he developed his talent in isolation at first, his later experiences in Paris had a profound affect on his painting. Van Gogh is extremely famous for his insanity and mental difficulties, but these conditions also provided the basis for his genius. Van Gogh's unique vision of the world, a vision that he portrayed in rich but unusual colors and swirling brushstrokes, is extremely idiosyncratic and it is this vision that is most notable to viewers of his works. By viewing paintings from his period in Belgium, his time in Paris, and his time in Arles, we can see how this unique vision of the world pervaded his works even as his technique developed.
Vincent Van Gogh was born in 1853 to Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. He was born in the town of Zundert, which was in the south of the Netherlands, and his father worked as a preacher. In 1869, he began his association with the world of professional art working at an art dealer's firm as well as several other small jobs. After carrying on in this occupation, he began to follow his father's footsteps in studying religious studies in preparation for the vocation of preacher. In 1878, while beginning his study of religion, Van Gogh moved to a mining town in Belgium called Borinage. It is while here that Van Gogh discovered that it was his second vocation that would become his true passion: he found the calling to become an artist. His early work was largely influenced by two artists that he greatly admired, Jean Francois Millet and Honore Daumier, and in following their example his early work tended to use dark colors extensively. He moved around throughout the Netherlands and Brussels before his art career eventually reached a second stage when he moved to Paris.
Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, living with his brother Theo, who was four years his junior. In Paris, Van Gogh encountered a vibrant and exciting art scene.
Paris in the late 1890s was increasingly radical and these ideas were reflected throughout the world of arts and letters. In literature, the French symbolists, such as Baudelaire, Rimabud, Verlaine, and Mallerme, were all exploring new poetic forms, such as vers libre, and were discussing controversial themes throughout their work. Political and social reforms were the hot topic of the day and these reforms permeated everything. Life was increasingly bohemian and radical behavior was fashionable as one day's political cause was quickly replaced with another. Excess was the rule of the day rather than the exception:
In the theatre...it was not uncommon to see bare breasts on the stage...Barney and Vivien were lovers, and two of the leading proponents of the "lesbian chic" that swept across Paris in the 1890's. Drug addiction was considered an artistic trait, and prostitution was romanticized by many male writers. Sewer rats became the trendiest pets to own.
The art world, too, after the initial barriers had been broken down by the impressionists, was embracing artistic innovation, the use of modern subjects instead of classical or religious icons, the use of "vulgar" or even "crude" images, the idea of artistic coteries of painters, and other avant-garde devices. To this largest city of Paris, already brimming with excitement, was added the additional intensity of a legitimate cultural revolution as the new tenets of modernism were ushered into being with an unabashed fury to a public that was simultaneously confused, excited, outraged, thrilled, and inflamed.
Van Gogh found much to be excited about in this environment. He worked briefly at Fernand Cormon's atelier, and it was here that he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Latrec was not the only famous painter of Paris famous fin de siecle period with whom Van Gogh was in contact. At different points he met other painters destined for greatness, including Emile Bernard, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Signac. The Paris scene affected his paintings and here he began employing a brighter pallet and using different subjects, including portraits, still-lifes, and street scenes.
Early in the next year, Van Gogh moved yet again. In this move, he went far away from the excitement of the Paris art scene to a place where he worked almost in complete and total isolation. In Arles, the area to which Van Gogh moved, he was totally alone, and his painting changed again, as he focused on the people and scenes that he saw around him. In the Fall of the next year, Paul Gauguin joined Van Gogh at Arles and the two painters worked together, generating some of the most interesting work of both artists' careers. Unfortunately, despite the increasing complication, delicacy, and quality of Van Gogh's masterworks, he became increasingly mentally unstable and off-balanced. Van Gogh had a terrible nervous breakdown in late 1888 and was forced to enter a hospital in order to recuperate from its debilitating effects. Subsequently, he was struck by terrible seizures and continuing mental difficulties. This was not to be the only time he was interred for his increasing psychological and physical problems, and he was placed in hospitals in Arles, Saint-Remy, and Auvers-sur-Oise. He was in and out of these hospitals until his death. Van Gogh continued to paint throughout his mental difficulties, however, and in 1890 he had a show in which he sold his first painting. That such a great master sold so little of his work during his own lifetime is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the arts. Unfortunately, Van Gogh was not able to triumph over his own psychological problems, and on July 29, 1890, Van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Certainly, Van Gogh's biography makes for an interesting read, and the torturous ups and downs of his life, although painful for him, have not hurt his position in the eyes of his posterity. Indeed, Van Gogh's very madness seems inextricably linked to his deeply idiosyncratic and unique vision, and it is for this vision that he is ultimately is famous. Many have noted that the Van Gogh scholars tend to discuss the link between his genius and his madness when discussion his work:
The artist Van Gogh has become like a site where discourses on Madness and creativity converge. Madness and creative genius, both sadly constructed as extreme, alienated, and aberrant kinds of behavior, are mapped onto Van Gogh, rendering him the 'mad artist' and the subject of a study of creativity as a kind of abnormal psychological phenomenon. Van Gogh himself referred to the "artist's madness' (LTR 574) eliding his illness and professional identity into a cultural construction.
At the risk of merely adding to the discourse on the connection between Van Gogh's and creative vision, it appears that the much discussed connection here is much-discussed for a reason. Van Gogh's uniqueness lays not so much in a purely technical innovation like Seurat's pointillism or Kandinsky's abstraction. Neither is it simply his brushwork, color, or subject matter. While all of these are important elements and are intriguing to discuss in their own right, the pervading sense that a viewer receives of a Van Gogh is that his painting make the world somehow "strange." It is his artistic vision, his ability to "see" colors, textures, and shapes that seem to call into question the validity and reality of the surrounding world that makes his voice so unique and strong. Considering his well-documented mental troubles, his epilepsy, and his possible hallucination, it is difficult not to tie this radical, unique, and strange vision of reality in with his madness. Certainly, the concept of the artists as an almost insane visionary is not a new, nor was it a new one at the time of Van Gogh. Since the romantics the idea that a true and deep artistic vision might have a spiritual otherworldly aura had circulated as a popular myth and as a common literary device. For Van Gogh, however, this sense of an almost ethereal vision seems central to his work, and though it evolved, it remains a constant influence throughout.
Even in Neuen, Van Gogh's unique painterly vision became clear. In this impoverished town, Van Gogh used the landscape and the people as subjects, but beneath them lay a vision that seemed to tell of a reality beyond their physical hardships. Van Gogh's painting from this era The Potato Eaters, displays the ability of his vision to render a scene truly unique. In his description of the painting's history, Louis van Tilborgh discusses the painting essential aim:
His overriding aim was to express the human spirit.... The Potato Eaters was the first painting in which he sought to achieve this... his portrayal of a peasant meal was designed to evoke the same type of emotional response to the human condition. To his…[continue]
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