Vincent van Gogh

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Our friend and celebrated watercolorist, Spike Ress, commemorates the 164th anniversary of the birth of a very fine artist who is responsible for some of the world’s most iconic paintings. 

Today is the birthday of Vincent van Gogh. He was born March 30, 1853 and lived until July 29, 1890.

Vincent was a major Post-Impressionist painter, a Dutch artist whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art. His output included portraits, self portraits, landscapes and still lifes.

Van Gogh drew as a child but did not paint until his late twenties; he completed many of his best-known works during the last two years of his life. In just over a decade he produced more than 2,100 artworks, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints.

Van Gogh was born to upper middle class parents and spent his early adulthood working for a firm of art dealers. He traveled between The Hague, London and Paris, after which he taught in England at Isleworth and Ramsgate. He was deeply religious as a younger man and aspired to be a pastor. From 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium where he began to sketch people from the local community.

In March 1886 he moved to Paris and discovered the French Impressionists. Later, he moved to the south of France and was influenced by the strong sunlight he found there. His paintings grew brighter in color and he developed the unique and highly recognizable style that became fully realized during his stay in Arles in 1888.

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After years of anxiety and frequent bouts of mental illness, he died at the age of 37 from what was beleived to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Suicide by gun has long been a part of the myth of the tortured artist that cloaks van Gogh. Biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith note that there are issues with that hypothesis — like the angle of the shot, the disappearance of the gun and other evidence, and the long hike that the wounded van Gogh would have had to make to return to his lodgings. As Naifeh and Smith tell it, a rowdy teenager named René Secrétan, who liked to dress up in a cowboy costume he’d bought after seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, was probably the source of the gun which was sold or lent to him.

The extent to which Van Gogh’s mental health affected his painting has been widely debated by art historians. Despite a widespread tendency to romanticize his ill health, his late paintings show an artist at the height of his abilities, completely in control, and according to art critic Robert Hughes, “longing for concision and grace.”

The most comprehensive primary source for the understanding of Van Gogh as an artist and as a man is the collection of letters between him and his younger brother, art dealer Theo van Gogh. They lay the foundation for most of what is known about his thoughts and beliefs.

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