Van Gogh in Paris: The Radicalising of a Palette and a Brush

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A few weekends ago, I began what is intended as a short series, impelled by the selection of paintings by Vincent van Gogh which have been on show at the Hermitage Amsterdam. The exhibition there, entitled Vincent, comprised a thematic arrangement of seventy-five paintings whilst the Van Gogh Museum was undergoing refurbishment. It came to a close – having run since September – at the end of last week; with the Van Gogh Museum to reopen this Wednesday, 1 May.

The purpose of my series is to consider and draw out some of the aspects and juxtapositions which the thematic display at the Hermitage Amsterdam suggested. I gave the first piece in my series the title Gauguin’s Chair and La Berceuse: Conceptualising Red and Green in the Art of Van Gogh’. This is the second of the series; a third part will be published here over the next week.

Having essentially foregone an early career as an art dealer; then failing on his explicitly religious mission; Van Gogh turned to art around 1880, at the age of twenty-seven. He had drawn frequently while pursuing a religious ministry in the Borinage through 1879; dismissed from his post there by the authorities – due to his unkempt appearance and squalid living conditions, which rendered him indistinguishable from the miners and peasants he was supposed to be ministering to – Van Gogh embarked in earnest on an artistic pathway; and in 1880 was encouraged to travel to Brussels, where he enrolled, in November, at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, to study drawing formally.

He was in Brussels only a few months before moving with his parents to Etten, where he resumed drawing the countryside and the locals. After a string of arguments with his family concerning his lifestyle, his prospects, and his forceful and hasty attempts to begin a relationship with his widowed cousin, Kee Vos-Stricker, Van Gogh departed from his family in late 1881, and moved to The Hague. It was here that Van Gogh began painting. He was instructed in oil and watercolour by his cousin-in-law, the realist painter Anton Mauve. Though he continued to admire Mauve, and held him as a model artist, the pair soon fell out – owing, Van Gogh believed, to Mauve discovering and disapproving of his nascent relationship with Clasina Maria Hoornik, ‘Sien’, a prostitute who was pregnant when she and Van Gogh first met. Van Gogh lived with Sien, her young daughter, and her infant son, from the middle of 1882 until the autumn of 1883 – when he abruptly left, moving to Drenthe, then soon on to Nuenen.

Van Gogh’s first acclaimed artistic compositions were painted in Nuenen. Commencing at the beginning of 1884, the numerous studies Van Gogh made of weavers, of still lifes, of peasants’ heads, culminated in The Potato Eaters, which he completed in April 1885. There are some consistencies in these early paintings with Van Gogh’s later works: shared compositional characteristics, for instance a perspective when painting buildings whereby the top and front of the building comes towards the viewer, appearing both sturdy and dynamic (compare The Cottage (1885) and Old Cemetery Tower at Nuenen (1885) with The Church at Auvers (1890)); and a thick application of paint. Yet these Nuenen scenes were dark, often dimly lit and with brown the predominant colour; there are none of the vivid colour combinations, bold lines and lively brushstrokes for which Van Gogh is most recognised.

Van Gogh’s art changed in stages and owing to key influences. He left Nuenen for Antwerp in November 1885. Immediately enthralled by Antwerp’s bustling docks, and by the Japanese woodcuts on sale there, he conflated the two in a letter to Theo soon after arriving, on 28 November. In this letter, he evocatively describes the mass of contrasting figures and scenes which have caught his eye on walks about the docks; and tellingly for his art explains:

One of De Goncourt’s sayings was ‘Japonaiserie for ever’. Well, these docks are one huge Japonaiserie, fantastic, singular, strange — at least, one can see them like that.

I’d like to walk with you there to find out whether we look at things the same way.

One could do anything there, townscapes — figures of the most diverse character — the ships as the central subject with water and sky in delicate grey — but above all — Japonaiseries.

I mean, the figures there are always in motion, one sees them in the most peculiar settings, everything fantastic, and interesting contrasts keep appearing of their own accord.

The overall effect of the port or of a dock — sometimes it’s more tangled and fantastic than a thorn-hedge, so tangled that one can find no rest for the eye, so that one gets dizzy, is forced by the flickering of colours and lines to look now here and now there, unable to tell one thing from another even after staring at a single spot for a long while.

Whilst in Antwerp, Van Gogh took exams at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. However, he was drinking heavily and became sick, and in March moved to Paris where he stayed, despite his brothers’ reservations, with Theo. The two years Van Gogh spent in Paris before departing for Arles were full of experimentation; he was able to view the Impressionists and Cézanne, but was propelled most by his fervour for ‘Japonaiseries’, his introduction to the works of Monticelli, and his acquaintance with Paul Signac. His palette became progressively brighter and more colourful, and towards the end of 1886, and through the spring of 1887, his brush came to life.

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A number of paintings from this period – the endpoints and focal paintings of this piece – demonstrate this conflux of influences. In late 1886 Van Gogh began a group of portraits which evince looser brushstrokes and highlights, resulting in more nuanced and energetic works of art. These include Self-Portrait with Grey Felt HatPortrait of a Man with a Skull Cap, the first two of three portraits of Père Tanguy (the first a typical portrait, the second highly colourised with Tanguy seated in front of a Japanese screen and Japanese prints – which Van Gogh reworked a year later for the third piece); and Portrait of the Art Dealer Alexander Reid.

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Compared with these portraits, around March 1887, Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin is less posed, Van Gogh capturing Agostina from a short distance, seemingly lost in thought, with a single Japanese print suggested on the wall behind. All of these paintings are radical extensions – in colour and in brushwork – upon the portraits Van Gogh had painted previously. Some of the street scenes and landscapes which Van Gogh produced in the same spring appear more radical departures than extensions in any linear sense.

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Boulevard de Clichy is comprised of short, narrow, but consistent lines, and an almost neon palette with prominent greens and pink-purples. The thin application of paint, with the canvas apparent between brushstrokes, is quite unlike the impasto of Van Gogh’s later career. The colours and the dress and poise of the figures show the effects of the Japanese woodcuts Van Gogh was continuing to collect. View of Paris (or View of Paris from Vincent’s Room in the Rue Lepic) demonstrates a thicker application of paint, and the marked influence of the pointillism practiced by Seurat and Signac; quick lines are joined and overlaid by dots of paint, with juxtapositions of blue and yellow, green and red.

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The Stedelijk Museum recently altered those Van Goghs showing from its collection; La Berceuse has left the wall, and in its place has appeared one of a group of paintings Van Gogh made of vegetable gardens in Montmartre. Completed towards that summer, Vegetable Gardens in Montmartre (also known as Kitchen Gardens in Montmartre) shows the same utilisation of thin lines and vibrant colours, here moving rhythmically in all directions to produce a coherent composition. These paintings, as much as Van Gogh’s emerging qualities as a painter, emphasise his skill as a draughtsman; echoing his drawings, predating his revolutionary use of the reed pen in Arles.

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