Monday, December 31, 2012

Documentary: "The Forger's Masterclass, Episode 3: Van Gogh"

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "Oh, anyone can paint like him!"  The him referred to being Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890.)  If you think you can paint like Van Gogh, go right ahead and try. All power to you.

Of course, the odds of you being able to do it are slim to none.

This is proven is a half-hour documentary series called The Forger's Masterclass, hosted by convicted art forger John Myatt (who looks a little like Van Gogh).  Myatt did porridge in Brixton Prison -- which is probably still nicer than Alcatraz ever was, but still an awful place.  No, I've never been there, but during my years being homeless in the UK, I met several people who did. 

Anyway, this is the third episode in the series, where Myatt tries to get three art students to balance both passion and control by having them paint their self-portraits in the style of Van Gogh's blue swirly hatless self-portrait from 1889.

Although some of the biography information about Vincent is questionable and the name is constantly mispronounced, it's still an eye-opening program.  It was well worth 28 minutes of my life.  Enjoy.

Painting Focus: White House at Night (1890)

The enigmatic, mysterious Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) painted the masterpiece "The White House at Night" a few weeks before he died of a gunshot wound. It is also known by its French name, "La maison blanche du nuit" because Van Gogh painted it from life in the French village of Auvers-su-Oise, the village where he would die. "The White House at Night" shows Van Gogh at the full flower of his artistic powers.

Considered worthless before the paint even dried, it is now considered priceless. The oil painting's last known location was the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, although it has apparently been in storage since 1995, although the painting can be seen on the museum's webpage. In the chaos of World War II, the Russian military stole the painting from German art collector and factory owner Otto Krebs.

The Painting's Subject Matter

The White House in question is not the infamous home of the American President but a small French cottage with a red roof, green shutters, yellow chimneys and white-washed walls. The house is flanked by cypresses and other trees which stand like soldiers on sentry duty. The front of the house is obscured first by large green shrubs and then by a yellow wall encircling the house. The front door is completely covered up.

Two fashionable ladies in the corpulent dresses of the day walk through the front gate, their backs to the viewer, while another woman dressed in black and carrying a basket walks on the path towards the viewer. High above is the night sky - although the sky is day-blue. At first it seems like a huge yellow sun is there, but since it is night time, the orb is actually a star, most likely Venus. This type of star is seen in many other Van Gogh paintings, including his infamous "The Starry Night" (1889.)

Death Takes a Holiday

At first glance, this painting seems to be a calm summer's day in a picturesque French village, but one has to wonder if Van Gogh was contemplating suicide as he painted it. The Hermitage Museum states that Van Gogh made the white house look like a prison. Certainly there seems no way in to the viewer because of the wall and the foliage. And why is there a sudden splash of red in two of the windows on the upper floor?

All of the women in the painting are wearing black. The woman walking towards the viewer seems elegant and young. On closer inspection, her sickly pale skin and pained expression makes her resemble the traditional figure of Death more than any French belle. Her wavy hair looks more like a hood for her black cloak than hair touching a dress.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Was Van Gogh Colorblind?

Vincent Van Gogh, best known for his innovative used of colors in painting, may have been colorblind.  All snickers from modern art critics aside, there may be some truth to the theory.  It's estimated that 10% of all men cannot see colors normally.

Vision expert (and app designer) Kazunori Asad, Ph.D. viewed many of Van Gogh's works through a special app clled the Chromatic Vision Simulator, which makes people who aren't colorblind see what the world looks like to colorblind people.  There are many types of colorblindness and the app adjusts for all of these types.

Anyway, Asad's theory is that Van Gogh had protanopia, or an inability to see reds.  Green would look like red to someone with protanopia.  This may explain why Van Gogh used blue, green, yellow and black heavily in his best-known works.  In some intances, there seems to be more detail revealed for someone with prontapia than for someone with normal color vision. 

I've seen the comparisons and I don't see that much of a difference.  For example, can you tell which is the real Sunflowers and which is the one seen through the app?  Neither can I, although I can see that the Sunflowers on the right is darker.  (That's the one those with protanopia see.)  Perhaps that mean that I have some trouble distinguishing between colors, too.  Van Gogh did not get on well with any of his art teachers and this may have been one of the reasons. 

This could also explain why Van Gogh's black and white drawings are often far more realistic than his best-known paintings.  He was able to judge the shades and colors better than for painting.  And yet he wrote in his letters that he felt driven to paint.  It could have been part of his nature to attempt the very things others told him that he could (or should) not do.

Van Gogh had red hair.  I wonder if he was able to see it or just took everyone's word that he had red hair. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Painting Focus: Portrait of Dr.Gachet (1890)

“I have a portrait of Dr. Gachet with the heart-broken expression of our times.” - Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Paul Gauguin

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) wanted to be a portrait painter. Because of his poverty, he could not afford to hire models to sit for him. Although best known for his wildly imaginative representations of common scenes from everyday life, Van Gogh needed the subjects before him in order to create. He could not draw or paint from imagination or memory.

One of the people who did sit for Van Gogh was his final doctor, Paul Gachet (1829- 1909.) Dr. Gachet not only was Van Gogh’s doctor, but was also a fan. Gachet admired many artists of the time, including Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro. Van Gogh produced several versions of the good doctor’s portrait. The most famous version, done in oil paints, (pictured at left) fetched a staggering $82.5 million in 1990. Unfortunately, this version has disappeared.

Painting General Description

This portrait is different from most other portraits for several reasons. Instead of sitting up straight, Dr. Gachet is slouched to one side, resting his head against one hand. On the table in front of him is a bunch of foxglove. The table also holds two books by Edmond and Jules Goncourt - Manette Salomon and Germinie Lacerteux. The former book is about four artists who live and die in obscurity. Gachet's coat is almost the same dark color as the wall, making him almost disappear into the background.

The brightest spot on the painting is the good doctor's white collar, bits of shirtsleeves peeking out of his coat sleeves and part of his dull white hat. But the most eye-catching feature is Dr. Gachet's expression. He's tired, resigned and possibly depressed. Modern doctors have speculated whether Gachet suffered from Addison's disease, because Gachet's nails are too pale in comparison to his skin.

Why So Sad?

Van Gogh would shoot himself a few months after completing his Dr. Gachet portrait series. Some art historians have speculated that Van Gogh showed the doctor looking so sad because Van Gogh was already considering suicide. Van Gogh's affectionate portrait reveals a level of intimacy that is not seen in most of his other portraits. Perhaps Van Gogh was trying to apologize for his suicide before he committed the act.

Another interpretation was that Dr. Gachet was an absinthe and foxglove tea addict, so Van Gogh merely portrayed the expression he most saw the doctor give the world. Another interpretation is that Van Gogh himself was tired of life and expressed his feelings in the face of his doctor, benefactor and friend.

Why Van Gogh Signed with Just His First Name

One of Vincent Van Gogh's more endearing traits was to sign his work "Vincent" instead of "Van Gogh" or "Vincent Van Gogh" or his initials.  The use of his first name reminds me of my classmates at school who would sign their art projects with just their first names.  I had such an unusual first name (Rena) that I rarely ever had to use my full name when turning in work for my grade school art projects for everyone to know who did the work.

Van Gogh was not the first artist to just use his first name as his artistic signature.  Matthew Howard, author of Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images (Lorenz Books; 2009) points out that Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) just used his first name.  (His full name was a whopper -- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.)  Van Gogh greatly admired Rembrandt and wanted to be like Rembrandt.

Also, there was the problem of how to pronounce Van Gogh.  The Dutch didn't have a problem with it, but Van Gogh spent a large part of his life in other countries -- countries where the natives had great difficulty trying to pronounce Van Gogh.  Even today in this age of international air travel and the Internet, on both sides of the Pond, you'll find art historians and collectors saying "van GO"  or "van GOCK."  That constant mangling of his name had to have gotten on Vincent's notoriously taunt nerves.

Howard also noted in his impressive book that Vincent didn't want to be a Van Gogh anymore after his traumatic experiences as a minister at the Borinage.  He got into constant heated arguments with his family, especially his father, and so felt that he wasn't a "real" Van Gogh anymore.  Ironically, Vincent became the most famous Van Gogh of them all.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Van Gogh and Absinthe

It's no secret that Van Gogh was addicted to absinthe, a green drink that became so feared it was banned, being castigated as "the Devil in a bottle."  It was thought to cause hallucinations and was blamed for a murder in the early 1900s.  Absinthe is legal in many countries.

The main ingredients were  wormwood, florence fennel and green anise.  (If you wonder what anise taste likes, wonder no more.  It tastes like black liquorice.)  A sugar cube and water was often added to it just before drinking.  The intoxicating ingredient is thujone, found in wormwood.  Thujone is in a class of chemicals called terpenes.  Terpenes are also in turpentine, which Van Gogh reportedly tried to drink and in his paints, which he did eat at times. 

Any "absinthe" drinks available today are much milder than what was available in the late 1800s when Vincent Van Gogh lived.  Back then, one glass of absinthe could have as much as 70% alcohol, giving it a 140 proof sock to the gut. A chemical anaysis of 100 year old bottles by the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe in Germany in 2008 did not find any hallucinatory substances present and as much thujone as in modern absinthe.

However, you're not supposed to drink it neat, but mixed with water and sugar.   Each manufacturer of absinthe used a different amount of wormwood, so it's unsure how much thujone contributed to drunkenness, dreamy sensations or other symptoms.  Just how dangerous and how addictive absinthe actually was is a source of never-ending debate by historians, doctors and the generally curious.

Absinthe was a commonplace drink in Europe.  Other known absinthe drinkers include Henri Toulouse-Latrec, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Rimbaud and the infamous "wickedest man in the world" Aleister Crowley.

Does absinthe cause an upsurge in creativity?  Probably not any more than any other kind of drug or alcoholic beverage.  Some art historians claim that absinthe hallucinations may explain some of Van Gogh's more bizarre paintings and his suicide.  Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle (I.B. Tauris; 2004) points out that absinthe wasn't as addictive as any other alcoholic drink.  Addictions were thought to be moral failures rather than chemical diseases, so the ban on absinthe seems a bit silly today. 

Image is "Still Life with Absinthe" by Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1887.

Did Vincent Van Gogh Have a Cat?

[I feel] like a cat in unfamiliar surroundings. -- Vincent in a letter  to brother Theo, 1878

In 2010, a popular children's book was published by Scholastic called Vincent Van Gogh's Cat.  What made the book so unusual was that it was written and illustrated by second grade kids from East Washington Academy in Munice, Indiana, with help from an adult named Deborah Brown.

This little book has introduced many chidren to art and not just Van Gogh's art.  This has even inspired a new generation of artists, such as Mrs. Maynard's kindergartener art class.

However, there 's no evidence that Van Gogh ever had a cat. After he lost his job at an art dealer's in London, he became impoverished.  He couldn't feed himself, let alone a pet cat. 

It could be argued that Vincent was the pet of his younger brother Theo, who inancially supported Vincent for most of the artist's life.

This sketch, "Hand with Bowl and Cat" was done in black chalk on laid paper while Vincent lived in the village of Nuenen in 1885, five years before his death.  Vincent preferred to draw from models, so chances are high that this sketch was based on a real sleeping cat around Neunen.  The once worthless sketch now resides at the Van Gogh Museum in Amesterdam.  No word as to how much the sketch is worth now.  Neunen is now home to the Van Gogh Village Museum.

Below is a sketch from one of Vincent's letters from Auvers in 1890 (the last year of his life), "Daubingny's Garden with Black Cat."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Where Was Vincent Van Gogh Born?

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 at the parsonage in the Dutch town of Goot-Zundert (which means "Big Zundert"), in the vicarage of Zundert.  There was a nearby town called Klein-Zundert (meaning "Little Zundert").  The parsonage, (pictured at left) built sometime in the 1600s, was directly across the street from the busiest place in town, the Markt ("Market").

Vincent's birth happened exactly one year (to the day) that Anna Van Gogh gave birth to a stillborn son -- named Vincent Willem Van Gogh.  Anna's second son and first living baby both bore the same name.  It was Vincent's father that decided on the names, according to Jp. A. Calosse, author of Van Gogh (Parkstone International; 2011).

Zundert was (and still is) in the provence of North Brabant, located in the south of country, near the border with Belgium.  At the time of Van Gogh's childhood, it was a predominately rural area.  To this day, some of the area is still used for farmland, particularly for growing strawberries.  Back then, the big crops were potatoes and a very fine white sand used for sanding wood smooth.  While Vincent lived in Groot-Zundert, the population was around 1200.

The village itself only consisted of a few buildings while the rest of the population lived on farms miles away from each other.  the village had one main road called the Napoleonsweg, after Napoleon, who had ordered the road's construction around 1810.  The area was mostly devoid of trees, except for the oak and beech trees lining the Napoleonsweg.

Groot-Zundert harbored strongly conventional ideas that were opposed to the more liberal attitudes along the Dutch coasts.  Most of the inhabitants were very poor were exploited by the higher classes.  Back then, citizens had to pay a stiff poll tax in order to vote, ensuring that the poor never could go to the polls.  Van Gogh's family was one of the wealthier families in the town. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Documentary: "In Search Of: Vincent Van Gogh"

Not the best documentary on Van Gogh, but one of the most interesting because it was written and presented by actor, director and fine photographer Leonard Nimoy,  who portrayed both Vincent and his brother Theo on stage.  Nimoy does a very nice monologue near the end.  Sometimes it is unintentionally funny (check out the chick in the 1970s haircut and lingerie) but a nice summation of the Van Gogh legend.  This episode is from Season 4 (Jan 10, 1980), Episode 16.  Enjoy.

Painting Focus: Head of an Angel (After Rembrandt)

When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.” – Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo

The Angel (After Rembrandt) is also known as “Head of an Angel (After Rembrandt)” and Half Figure of an Angel (After Rembrandt). It’s an oil painting that looks more like watercolors than oils completed in September 1899, less than a year before Vincent Van Gogh would die of a gunshot wound.

Although not considered one of Van Gogh’s best works, it is one of his most notorious because the current location of the painting is unknown. Even the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, considered the most knowledgeable source of information on the enigmatic artist, has no idea where the painting is now or whether it has been accidentally destroyed or sitting in a private collection.

Painting Subject Matter

Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) painted many angels in his legendary career as well as other religious scenes. Van Gogh would copy numerous Rembrandts, especially those featuring angels. This particular painting is done mainly in shades of blue with a yellow halo. These shades and streaks of yellow can be seen in Van Gogh's famous painting The Starry Night. The angel's downcast face is in pale skin tones, making the face pop out from the rest of the painting.

The angel is pretty but is not looking at the viewer. One arm is outstretched to the viewer, but the palm is tightly closed. The angel seems at once to be revelatory and yet still retains his secrets, almost teasing the viewer with his closed eyes, seraphic smile and closed hand. The angel mirrors Van Gogh's own dilemma with Christianity.

Van Gogh and Christianity

Van Gogh was a minister in an impoverished mining community in Belgium when he was struck by the desire to create. His superiors removed him from the ministry because he looked and acted more like one of the miners than a minister. He was sent home in disgrace. It also during this time that Van Gogh doubted the same beliefs that he was preaching. Why would a loving God allow such suffering?

Van Gogh wrestled with Christianity the way that Jacob wrestled with the Angel - another Biblical scene Rembrandt painted but Van Gogh declined to copy. The angel in that painting has his eye half-opened and looks on Jacob with pity. Van Gogh's angel looks very much like this angel, but does not show pity.

Other posts in the Painting Focus series include:

What Was Vincent Van Gogh's Middle Name?

Vincent Van Gogh's middle name was NOT Van but Willem.  He was named after three people: 

  • his uncle, Vincent Van Gogh, known often in the family correspondence as "Uncle Cent", but I do not know what his particular middle name 
  •  his brother Vincent Van Gogh, who would have been Vincent's older brother had the baby survived, but alas, the first Vincent Willem was a stillborn.  He was born and pronounced dead on arrival on 30 March 1852, a year to the day before our Vincent Willem was born.  The gravestone is pictured above.
  • his paternal grandfather, Vincent Van Gogh (1780 - 1874) a minister who is thought to have been named after his uncle, a sculptor named (you guessed it ) Vincent Van Gogh (1729 - 1802.) 

The name Willem and the feminine version Willemina pop up frequently in Dutch names, but I have not been able to determine if the Willem part of Van Gogh's name is after any particular relative.

Willem (English equivalent William) is a two-part name. The "Wil" part means "desire" while the "lem" part means "helmet" or other protective  headgear.  So, putting it all together, "Willem" means "desire helmet."  Not a particularly apt name for our lad Vincent.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My 3 Favorite Van Gogh Quotes

Vincent Van Gogh was a better painter than he was a writer, but some gems stand out from the hundeds of letters he wrote to his brother Theo which still survive.  In particular order, my three favorites are:

When I have a terrible need of - shall I say the word - religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.

I have put my mind and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process.

Just these three lines gives us a tantalizing glimpse into Van Gogh the man as opposed to Van Gogh the legend.  Remember, Van Gogh was a failed lay preacher.  His order kicked him out from his assigned area of the Borinage, an impoverished mining town in Belgium.  Why did they kick hi out?  Because he acted like one of the locals instead of being better than the locals.  There was a more official explanation, but that's basically what his superiors meant.  Getting kicked out by his order must've been like getting kicked to the curb by God.

So, God was not to be any source of faith for Van Gogh.  According to these quotes, he turned to dreams, the stars and his art.  The stars appear in several of Van Gogh's most memorable works, including:
The third quote shows that Van Gogh was not as crazy as he is often made out to be.  It is still unknown what mental illnesses or other chronic ilnesses like frontal lobe epilepsy suffered from, but he was prone to wild mood swings.  His behavior became so bad that the entire town of Arles, France booted him out.  He loved to create and yet could not make a living out of it.  He was ridiciuled by contenporary artists and even kicked out of an art course at Antwerp Academy.  Van Gogh got kicked around so much I wonder if he had a permanent boot mark on his butt.

There is also a theory that Van Gogh shot himself because Van Gogh believed he couldn't pain anything better.  He could not live without being caught in the intoxicating vice-grip of creative flow and decided to call it a life.

Although Van Gogh must have been next to impossible to live with, when I read these quotes, I can't help but sympathise.  How many of us willingly toil on and on at something we love, even though we can't afford to?

Image of a letter Vincent sent to Theo of his bedroom in Arles, 17 October, 1888

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Van Gogh Lost Part of His Ear

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) is today best known for cutting his ear off to give to a prostitute. The story of Van Gogh’s ear is so popular that novels and a cafĂ© have been named after it. This story has been perpetuated in popular media such as Irving Stone’s best-selling biographical novel about Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1934).

Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence beyond these stories that Van Gogh ever cut off his own ear. Van Gogh did injure his ear in December 23, 1888 but did not slice off the entire ear. But just how the ear was injured is still shrouded in mystery. One of Van Gogh's most famous paintings is his "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" painted around one month after the injury.

The Paul Gauguin Theory

Many art historians believe that Van Gogh sliced off part of his own ear after a furious argument with fellow impoverished artist, Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh had hoped to start an artist colony in the yellow house in Arles he rented. The only artist who warmed up to this idea was Gauguin and only because he needed a roof over his head.

Gauguin was notorious for his infuriating and intensely selfish behavior. He must have been like a bucket of ice-cold water on Van Gogh's dreams. But despite their differences, Van Gogh still felt some loyalty to Gauguin. Historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans argue that Gauguin accidentally sliced off part of Van Gogh's ear with his fencing sword during one of their numerous arguments. Van Gogh then told the police that he cut his own ear in order to protect Gauguin. He may also have been protecting himself, since he may have physically attacked Gauguin, which caused him to reach for his sword in the first place.

The Vincent Van Gogh Theory

Other art historians claim that Van Gogh cut off part of his own ear with a razor not hoping to impress his favorite prostitute but in a strange revenge on Gauguin. Historians tend to agree that the two did argue violently on December 23, 1888. Gauguin decided to leave Van Gogh but a dejected and possibly jealous Van Gogh wanted him to stay.

Van Gogh may have cut off part of his ear so he could blackmail Gauguin into staying. Van Gogh could blame the injury on Gauguin in order to get him arrested. Van Gogh apparently had second thoughts and told everyone he'd injured himself. Whatever the reason, Van Gogh had just over a year to live before dying of a gunshot wound.

How to Pronounce "Van Gogh"

There's one thing I've learned since my first childhood infatuation with Vincent Van Gogh -- no one in America knows how to pronounce the name.  I wasn't until I lived in the UK that I discovered that the name is not "van go" or even "van gock" but... well... it's best explained here in a memorable episode of QI:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Myths and Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

Did Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) sell only one painting in his lifetime? Did he really cut off his own ear as a cheap Christmas present for his girlfriend? And did this tortured genius really commit suicide? Ever since his death in 1890 at the age of 37, his legend has eclipsed his actual life. Here we sort through the myths and the facts about Van Gogh ....

Read my full article at Please. I need the pennies. Thanks!

"Self Portrait with Straw Hat" (1887) image from Wikimedia Commons