The Starry Testament to Vincent Van Gogh

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Starry Testament to Vincent Van Gogh

Stern, Fred, The World and I

How things change! Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), in his angst-stricken life, managed to sell only one painting.

Now the sale of a van Gogh painting becomes an international event, as selling prices soar into the multi-millions of dollar. A museum named for him in Amsterdam shows his work exclusively. In 2005 more than 1,417,000 visitors came to this Van Gogh Museum. A bare 45 miles away, another museum, the KroellerMoeller in Otterloo, proudly shows more of his masterpieces, as do some 250 museums across the globe.

What brought this transformation about? To answer the question, let's backtrack a little and look at van Gogh's life, because knowing his background is essential to appreciating van Gogh's unique appeal.

Fortunately much is known about the life and thought of Vincent van Gogh. Our most intimate knowledge comes from letters he wrote throughout much of his life to his brother, Theo, a successful art dealer in Paris, who supported van Gogh throughout his tempestuous life. He also wrote revealing letters to other family members and to his fellow artists. Public fascination with Vincent van Gogh was piqued when details of his life were recorded in the book "Lust for Life," written by Irving Stone and made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) and Anthony Quinn (as the artist Paul Gaugin).

The Rural Influence

Vincent van Gogh's father was a minister in the Brabant region of Belgium, a poor rural province peopled by stolid peasants. Because three of his uncles were involved in the art trade it seemed a given for the young van Gogh to enter that field, as well. But his often erratic manner alienated people, and his employment in the art business came to an end. The ministry had always attracted him, but his foray in that direction proved equally unsuccessful.

In 1880 at the age of 27, Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist. By doing so he helped change the face of modern art. He had enjoyed drawing since childhood, and now he decided to begin serious art studies in Brussels concentrating on anatomy and perspective. Five years later we find him in Antwerp where he worked extensively with chalk, switching later to pen and ink. These drawings and prints foresaw the kind of swirls, dots and dashes that would characterize his later paintings.

However, it was during this period that he did a painting in oil that was to become one of his best loved works: "The Potato Eaters." Van Gogh's connection to and respect for peasant life are evident in the painting, and we clearly sense the close relationship of the peasants to the countryside and the fruit of their labors. Van Gogh spent a number of evenings with the family pictured, in order to arrive at every nuance of presentation. In a letter to Theo he strongly defends the way in which the picture is painted. "He who prefers to see the peasants in their Sunday best may do as he likes. I personally am convinced I get better results by painting them in their roughness than by giving them conventional charm."

"The Potato Eaters' is currently on view in a new exhibition Van Gogh and the Colors of Night (until January 2009) at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A sketch of the "Potato Eaters" appears in the text of his letter to Theo. The theme of MoMA's exhibit is van Gogh's handling of night scenes, his fascination with atmosphere, color and the emotional effect of light. In "The Potato Eaters," an early work from 1885, we already see this fascination -- the brilliance of the overhead light reading the scene in all its intensity with sympathy and awe. This painting had not been shown in New York for more than 50 years, but it is still delivering its emotional punch.

New Directions

Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, moving in with his brother Theo. A new phase of his education began. Now he worked frequently with oil paint. He met and made friends with the early impressionists: Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and George Seurat. …

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