- Vincent van Gogh
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Vincent van Gogh

"...suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life -- the power to create. And if, deprived of the physical power, one tries to create thoughts instead of children, one is still very much part of humanity. And in my pictures I want to say something consoling, as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring."
- letter to his brother Theo, 3 September 1888

Van Gogh's tragic and tempestuous life and lack of recognition during his own lifetime have now become the stuff of legend. The son of a Dutch pastor, van Gogh was a schoolteacher in England and a missionary to the desperately poor coal miners of Belgium before he taught himself to paint. In many ways, including the fact that he served no apprenticeship, sold no paintings, and laboured in almost total isolation, poverty, and obscurity, van Gogh is the prototype of the popular idea of the modern artist who sees art both as a calling and as a catharsis, and not as a profession, as was still considered by many artists in the second half of the nineteenth-century. It is apparent from van Gogh's letters that for him art was a source of spiritual experience and inspiration. Aside from his Dutch heritage, he was especially influenced by Degas, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gaugin. But although he partially built his style on these artists, he evolved an idiom expressive of his own passionate, open mind and heart. Trusting, innocent, and sometimes naively credulous, van Gogh was also a highly sophisticated artist with great formal skill.

Certainly the greatest period of van Gogh's short but highly productive career came at the end of his life, when he moved to the south of France, where, amidst bouts of serious mental illness, he produced a series of fervid paintings. Using much of what he had learned about form and colour from the Impressionists, but in a more expressive, personal way, van Gogh created summary forms with a heavily loaded brush. It is common to attempt connections between van Gogh's mental breakdowns and his style, but such simple linkages seem quite out of place with paintings like the Night Cafe, a picture of emotional turbulence conceived and executed with care and rationality.

That same intensity is seen again the self-portrait of January 1889, with the artist's head still bandaged from the recent self-mutilation of his ear. In the painting, the forms have been carefully constructed and defined by hundreds of brushstrokes of pure colour, which give the coat, face, and hat a bursting energy, even though there are very few colours in this painting - the blue of the coat, the black of the fur hat, the flesh colours, and the background. Above all, it is the haunting face with its deeply troubled eyes that rivets one's attention and sympathy and serves as the focus.

Not long after this incident, van Gogh was sent to the asylum of Saint-Rémy, where he painted between recurrent spells of insanity, and was treated by Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, an artist himself and early supporter of the derided Impressionist painters. The troubled and prolific van Gogh produced over eight hundred paintings in his twenty-year career before committing suicide in 1890.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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