Magazine article The Spectator

Under the Stars

Magazine article The Spectator

Under the Stars

Article excerpt

Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam until 7 June

Remembering his former teacher Vincent van Gogh, the painter Anton Kerssemakers described a walk one evening in 1884 from Nuenen to Eindhoven when Vincent suddenly stopped before the sunset, framed it in his hands and, half closing his eyes, cried out, 'My God, how does such a fellow - whether God, or whatever you want to call him - how does he do that? We must be able to do that too!'

The hours of sunset, dusk and darkness - outdoors and in - always fascinated van Gogh. Perhaps it was the sense of sacredness that the pastor's son could never separate from them, or perhaps it was the challenge to the modern painter posed by their colours - more likely, it was a mixture of the two. For whatever reason, the artist's oeuvre includes a disproportionate number of after-hours subjects, 30 of which are now under the spotlight qin the Van Gogh Museum's latest exhibition.

The Van Gogh Museum is good at reminding us that the artist we often think of as honorary Mediterranean was actually Northern European to his boots. The museum's 2006 exhibition Vincent Van Gogh and Expressionism revealed his importance to the German Expressionists; this one demonstrates his debt to the Dutch masters, comparing 'The Potato Eaters' (1885) with 'The Holy Family at Night' from the studio of Rembrandt. It also suggests that the French models for his nocturnes were not his Impressionist contemporaries but the earlier school of Barbizon painters, whose poetic feelings about the night chimed with his own, and whose use of colour came as a revelation. In Camille Corot's 'Moonlight' (c.1855), Jean-Francois Millet's 'Starry Night' (c.1851) and Jules Dupre's 'Evening' (1875-80) - all hanging in the show - van Gogh discovered the ability to paint 'DARKNESS that is still COLOUR' that he missed in the grey tonal palette of his native Hague School.

The first daubs of genius are always fascinating, and this exhibition springs a few surprises. In the watercolour 'Landscape with a Stack of Peat and Farmhouses', painted in Drenthe - where Vincent went in 1883 for rural inspiration, only to find it 'as irritatingly tedious and fatiguing as the desert' - he somehow conveys the loneliness of twilight despite handling his colours with all the subtlety of poster paints.

In an oil of the same year, 'Twilight, Old Farmhouses in Loosduinen', we feel his technical frustration with that medium also in the broad flat smears of over-oily colour, scored impatiently with the back of the brush. He was inspired by Dupre's 'Evening' but unable to emulate his technique. …

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