Saturday, December 28, 2013

Rarely Seen Van Gogh Painting on Display in Washington

Can you get to Washington, D.C.?  If you can, give yourself a big treat and check out the National Gallery.  In particular, you want to look for a painting that hasn't been seen in public since 1966 -- Vincent Van Gogh's “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” (1890.)  The Gallery also has eight other Van Goghs and lots of other visual goodies as well.

Although a calmer, less "busy" work than Van Gogh's best known paintings, this is still a subtly complex and pleasingly bright work.  Although some critics say that it reflected Van Gogh's more calmer state of mind, I have to disagree.  Although the fields of young wheat are happy and lively, the clouds above are not.  They are in the same swirling, turbulent patterns as seen in works like "The Starry Night."

So, where was this painting from 1966? In the home of superrich snob Paul Mellon.  Mellon died in 1980 and his wife in 1999, but his family clung onto the painting since then.  Hung over the fireplace.  The Mellons owned it since 1955 and loaned it to a museum once in 1966.  Before that, it was last shown in 1912 in Cologne, Germany.  The painting will now have a permanent new home where it belongs -- for the public to appreciate.  The chances of the painting being loaned to other museums around the world is possible, but no plans have been announced.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Van Gogh: Artistic Brilliancs Vs Insanity

How many times have you heard of someone being described as having an artistic personality or an artistic temperament? This is often spoken as a backhanded compliment, implying that although a person may be gifted, they are also somehow insane. The artist that most personifies the artistic personality is Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890.)

But what just is the artistic personality? Psychologists describe it as having certain elements of having a contrary nature often at war with itself. For example, they are both introverted and extroverted; intelligent and yet naïve about practical manners like handling money; is both humble and yet extremely proud – even boastful – about their art.  Van Gogh had all of these qualities.

Van Gogh's Mental Illness

There have been many papers, books and magazine articles debating what mental illness Van Gogh had. Today's diagnostic tools and awareness of the different types of mental illness was not available in Van Gogh's time. Back then, mental illness was viewed as character flaws or offshoots from other illnesses such as syphilis. Van Gogh did suffer from syphilis, according to Van Gogh: The Life (Random House; 2011.) He also drank excessively.

Sadly, we do not know exactly what kind of mental illness Van Gogh suffered from. He was definitely mentally ill. His hundreds of surviving letters exhibit unfounded paranoia and grandiose schemes not based on reality. Surviving letters from Van Gogh's family members and acquaintances often complain about how difficult and bizarre he was.

Studies on the Creative Brain

Recent studies have shown that many creative people are mentally ill. One 2010 study showed that dopamine is processed differently in the brains of creative people than non-creative people. This is because the brains of creative people have fewer dopamine receptors, which helps loosen up or eliminate social filters or that inner voice that says "you can't do that."

Although this lack of filtering is great for new and radical thinking, it doesn't make you popular with the neighbors. Van Gogh tried getting art instructions at least twice in his life, but within a month or two had so incensed his teachers that he was kicked out. He also had furious arguments with fellow art students or customers who frequented the art supply shops that Van Gogh used.

In Conclusion

Even if modern medicine and therapy had been available in Van Gogh's day, he still would have been creative. Whether he would have produced the vast number of brilliantly intense works is a matter of debate. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make Van Gogh's work so admirable made him a social outcast, a pauper dependent on his brother's charity and in the eyes of many and absolute failure.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween From Why Van Gogh Matters

Halloween was not celebrated during Vincent Van Gogh's lifetime.  It's more of a modern phenomenon.  However, if it was, I think that he'd really have gotten into it.  His Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1886) displays the macabre side of his sense of humor.

Van Gogh might also be amazed by the Halloween costume sported by Damon Lucas (I think that's who this is.  If I'm wrong, feel free to connect me.) Huffington Post proclaimed this costume of Van Gogh with Starry Night-like swirls as "officially wins Halloween."

I almost wish I was a redhead (and a hell of a lot thinner) in order to pull of a somewhat convincing Van Gogh costume.  Check out this one praised by MSN Now for Halloween 2012.

I'd like to put a bandage over one ear, though, to really get into the Van Gogh vibe.  I suppose I could suck on a candy cigarette, too or sip a green liquid out of a bottle labeled ABSINTHE.  Let's see if anyone figures that out.

No matter what you do for Halloween, have a good one!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Painting Focus: Portrait of Patience Escalier (1888)

One of Vincent Van Gogh's best-loved portraits is that of an old gardener named Patience Escalier.  There are at least three versions (one drawing and two paintings) but the image on the left is the best known version.

In the summer of 1888, struggling artist Vincent Van Gogh dreamt of starting an artist’s colony where he lived in Arles, France. He’d managed to persuade one artist, Paul Gauguin, to join him. However, Gauguin had yet to arrive. In order to help entice artists to the area, Van Gogh painted many portraits of the inspiring local people he came across. Because of his poverty and strange ways, it was very difficult for him to get a hold of models...

Please read the rest of my article at Helium.  Thanks!
(Link has now been fixed.)

Other paintings in my Painting Focus series include:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Van Gogh Painting Discovered (Sorta)

Earlier this month, art experts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced that a painting stored in an attic for 80 years is a genuine Van Gogh.  80 years ago, a Norwegian collector bought it thinking that it was genuine and was bitterly disappointed when it was declared a fake.  When it was bought a few years ago by an anonymous family, they had the painting reassessed.  They waited two years for a final report.

Why is it now considered genuine?  Because researchers unearthed two newspaper articles that article mentioned this painting, "Sunset at Montmajour"   The first article was a review of an Amsterdam art exhibit from 1892.  The second was a review from an art exhibit in the Netherlands in 1901.  It was then that the painting disappeared.

Another reason is that we can do something that we couldn't do 80 years ago -- we can chemically analyze pigments from one painting to see if it matches another.  Pigments from "Sunset at Montmajour" were a match to many other known Van Gogh paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  Experts can also X-ray the canvas to see if it matched other Van Gogh canvases.

The painting is not a masterpiece by a long stretch.  When I first saw it, I promptly forgot what it looked like ten minutes later.  That may be more of a criticism of my memory than this particular Van Gogh painting, but even the art critic of the Guardian was not impressed, who wrote that "even great artists have bad days." (Owie.)

Some Doctor Who fans love it because the buildings in the top left corner look remarkably like the good Doctor's TARDIS.

There are numerous artworks by Van Gogh that are missing.  There are also artworks mentioned in his letters that do not seem to match the works known to exist or has existed.  "Sunset at Montmajour" was such a painting.  According to a letter from Van Gogh to his long-suffering brother Theo, he painted this on July 4, 1888.

Monday, September 16, 2013

YouTube Video: Vincent's Final Moments

The most famous mentally ill artist in history was arguably Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890.) At the age of 37, Vincent staggered into the hotel he was staying over a café with a bullet wound in his abdomen. He was examined by a doctor.  The bullet could not  be removed without killing Vincent.  He lingered for two days and died. He claimed he harmed himself and urged no one other than himself to be blamed for his death.  It is possible that he was shot by a teenaged boy, but Vincent apparently wanted to die anyway.

Although the historical details in this very short independent film are debatable, I'm not highlighting it here for it's accuracy.  It is a very good portrayal of someone who has decided to die.  If you or someone you know has trouble understanding why anyone would want to kill themselves or want to die while relatively young, watch this.  It gives a good view of why suicide can seem like a perfect solution and why preventing suicide can be so difficult.

(Because of a technical problem in Blogger, I cannot place the YouTube video directly into this blog post. Sorry!)

Some more videos on YouTube about Vincent Van Gogh include:

New Van Gogh Movie in the Works

As Sherlock Holmes once said in A Study in Scarlet, "There's nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before." 

Another bio-pic of Vincent Van Gogh is currently in the works, according to The Hollywood Reporter.  Filming is set to begin in 2014 with a tentative release date of 2015.  Rutger Hauer (best known for playing a homicidal replicant in Blade Runner) has reportedly signed on as executive producer.  The tentative title is Vincent.  It is planned to be an English-language film.  It's planned to be shot in several European locations including France, the Netherlands and England.

Despite a proliferation of stage shows, documentaries (like the one pictured) and telemovies, there have been few English language films to hit the screen.  The last I can think of is Vincent and Theo (1990) directed by Robert Altman.  That movie focused on the last five years or so of his life, while this movie is apparently going to cover Vincent's entire life.

The movie is to tie in with the 125th anniversary of Vincent's tragic death in 1890.  So far, an estimated five years has gone into researching the movie.

Now that we've read the plans for the movie, let's see what the final result turns out to be.

Our Vincent would have loved that his life generated so many movies.  He was so constantly viewed as a failure that anyone highlighting his life would have boggled his mind (but in a good way.)  Then again, motion pictures as we know them -- even silent films -- first appeared after Vincent's death.  The only "films" were on phenakistoscope discs that Vincent probably never got to see because that would have cost money.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What Color Were Vincent Van Gogh's Eyes?

Looking at some of Vincent Van Gogh's self portraits, it can be difficult to impossible to tell what actual color his eyes were.  Just look at this self portrait from 1887 and your eyes will soon water from the strain. Some of his self-portraits hint that he had two different colored eyes.

It is also possible that Vincent himself did not know what color his eyes were.  He is thought to have experienced some color blindness.  He also had a habit of ignoring reality whenever it suited him.

My mother has blue eyes.  They are very apparently blue to me or just about anyone else that looks at her face.  However, she tells me that they look green.  My favorite singer Peter Gabriel, known for his soulful blue eyes, has sometimes told people that his eyes are actually green.

This got me thinking that Vincent may have seen his eyes in a way that no one else did. 

What is defiantly known is that he had ginger hair.  Men with ginger hair tend to have eyes that are blue. Artist A.S. Hartrick described Van Gogh's eyes as light blue.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Did Drinking Absinthe Cause Van Gogh to Lose His Mind?

One of the allures to the story of Vincent Van Gogh is that this brilliant artist went crazy.  He didn't just go crazy -- he went bug-fucking nuts. Things he did included:

eating his paints
following women into their homes when he was clearly uninvited
pissing off anyone who could have helped his career
that cutting off his ear lobe thing

So Let's Try the Question Again

Why did Vincent Van Gogh become bug-fucking nuts? Because he died in 1890 (even before Sigmund Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams for crying out loud) we really have no idea what spicy stew of mental and physical disorders that Vincent actually suffered from.  It was known that around the time of his death he suffered from:

  • syphilis
  • impotence
  • rotting teeth
  • hallucinations, which may have been caused by temporal lobe epilepsy
  • starvation due to extreme poverty
  • paranoia
  • alcoholism
Clearly, drinking absinthe was the least of Vincent's problems.

What About the Hallucinations?

One theory is that he hallucinated because he was addicted to absinthe.  The real absinthe was banned in France in 1915 but returned in 2012.  America's ban on real absinthe was lifted about 2007.  Until then, all anyone had to drink was weak substitutes.  Why was the stuff banned?  It was 110 to 144 proof.  I'm surprised Vincent lived as long as he did while quaffing this brew.  Rumor is that he drank it straight but absinthe was an expensive drink and so a bottle may have always been out of Vincent's price range.  It was usually drunk with lots of water and a melted sugar cube.

Absinthe has never been proven to cause hallucinations more than any other alcoholic beverage.  It could be that Vincent was especially sensitive to absinthe that it could have tipped him over the edge of sanity but Vincent was already teetering there.  Epilepsy and mental illness appeared frequently in Vincent's family.  Most of his siblings committed suicide.  His beloved brother Theo died insane and incontinent because of advanced syphilis. 

It wasn't just one factor that caused Vincent to go mad.  It was a large combination of factors.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

YouTube Video: "The Yellow House" (2007) Channel 4 TV Movie

I lived just over five years in England and miss many things about it -- the great radio, the tea, the cheese and the telly.  Channel 4 is the edgier channel and often showed controversial documentaries.  I was living back in America when this one came out.  The Yellow House (2007) is a dramatization of a book by the same name.  It's not the most historically accurate film (according to the books about Vincent I've studied) but that's not the point.  The point was to highlight and contrast the conflicting personalities of Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.

The film is about one hour and 13 minutes long and has incredibly good background music.  Pour a glass of your favorite wine (or tea, if you don't drink alcohol) and savor.  John Simm plays an excellent Vincent with John Lynch as the obnoxious and thoroughly self-absorbed Paul Gauguin.

YouTube Video: "Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portraits"

I was planning on doing a long post featuring all of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits.  At the time, I only thought he'd done about 20 which still survived (at least one was destroyed during World War II.)  And then I found out that DOZENS of Vincent's self-portraits have survived and realized that blog post was going to be the War and Peace of blog posts.

So I left it to the Studio of the South to put together a short YouTube video featuring some of the most famous of Vincent's self-portraits.  One note -- "Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat" (1887 -- he's wearing a pinkish suit against a greyish background) has some questions around it.  Some art historians think that this is actually a portrait of Vincent's long-suffering brother Theo.  Personally, I don't care who it's supposed to be of.  I like it.)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Is Van Gogh Considered Such a Great Artist?

Very few people are indifferent to the art of Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890.) Usually they either love it or hate it.  Even during Vincent's brief lifetime, the critics were at work.  One Spanish artist, visiting the inn where Vincent happened to live, looked at one of Vincent's canvasses and exclaimed, "Who is the pig that did that?"  Modern critics, art lovers and casual observers have been tearing Van Gogh's work apart ever since.

What Does Life Have to do With It?

One argument critics use is the "his life was better than his art" theory.  Vincent's life story was so dramatic and so tragic that it acts as a rosy-tinted filter for people looking at his work.  Personally, I think that argument doesn't hold water.  There have been many MANY artists that have lead tragic lives or committed suicide and none of them are as popular as Van Gogh.  When you get right down to it, great art communicates more powerfully than great biographies.

Not From Just One School

Art was at a big crossroads during Vincent's life.  It was moving from realism to Impressionism and then to modern art.  In between were short-lived art movements like Pointillism (painting in a series of dots) and Symbolism, where the subject matter was strictly from the artist's imagination (think Paul Gauguin at his most freaky.)  Vincent managed to blend the best elements of these schools without degenerating into total chaos.

Original Interpretations

What is art?  One definition is "to hold a mirror up to the universe."  The artist is the mirror.  Van Gogh painted in a way that only he could do.  He wanted to paint feelings as well as what was actually in front of him.  Even when he copied other painter's works, he injected different color schemes and other subtle differences so that they are unmistakably from Van Gogh's hand.  Before Van Gogh, it was very unusual for an artist to put any of his inner world into a work.  If an artist wanted to put himself in the painting, he would just paint his face in there somewhere.

Ahead of His Time

There was nobody painting quite like Van Gogh in the last five years of his life.  Although Van Gogh tried many styles in the ten years he spent as an artist, by 1888 he had developed his own colorfully intense style.  This intensity and radical reinterpretations of the visible world greatly inspired the generations of artists that lived long after Van Gogh. 

You Try and Paint Like Him, Sunshine

Think Van Gogh ain't so great?  You try to paint like him.  Don't copy the paintings exactly -- just paint something like him.  You'll find it's an incredibly hard exercise.  This is when it will finally hit home what a great artist Van Gogh was.

Van Gogh -- the Drink

Van Gogh did a lot of drinking in his day.  That was just about all anyone had to do in Vincent's time and financial situation.  It is with no sense of surprise that I've discovered many alcoholic beverages named after Vincent.  He probably would have liked them. 

For a fancy drink, you can do no worse than a Van Gogh's Rocket, created by Los Angeles bistro Church & State. It's made up with the modern wimpy version of Vincent's favorite drink, absinthe, vodka, Lillet Blanc aperitif wine, lemon juice, honey syrup, a pinch or arugula and a lemon peel curled on top.  The peel is resemble Vincent's ear.  How appetizing.

If that doesn't make you see stars, then you could sip from a bottle of Van Gogh Vodka.  This is a complete line of vodka with a Van Gogh reproduction on the bottle.  I can't stand vodka but I do admit I'm tempted by the Van Gogh Rich Dark Chocolate flavor.  There's also a peanut butter and jelly flavor.  I'm not sure I want to know how they came up with that flavor.  Perhaps it's for alcoholics who can't be bothered to actually eat a PB & J sandwich?

There's also Vino Van Gogh, but it's not what it sounds like.  It's actually the name of a painting class where wine is served.  I guess that's keeping up with the great tradition of well-lubricated artists.  The real attractive thing about the class is that you do not have to bring any supplies.  They are provided for you.  You do get instruction for your 2 to 3 hour class.  At the end of it, you have a painting done all by your little lonesome.

Image: "The Drinkers (After Daumier)" By Vincent Van Gogh; 1890.

Interesting Facts and Information About Vincent Van Gogh

Not many artists inspire more awe and mystery than the legendary Vincent Willem Van Gogh (1853 – 1890.) Most people know him as a social outcast who cut off part of his own ear, painted some masterpieces and then died from a mysterious gunshot wound that (or may not) have been self-inflicted. But many facts surrounding Vincent’s life are even stranger than that whole ear thing.

Why He Signed his Paintings "Vincent"
Van Gogh signed most of his major paintings with his first name. Usually, an artist signed with initials or the last name. He was a Dutchman with a name easy for non-Dutch to spell but difficult to pronounce. "Van Gogh" is not pronounced "van go" or "van goff" but a sound difficult to reproduce in English spelling. The best approximation is "van hawkgh" to sound similarly (but not exactly) to "cough."

He was perhaps tired of hearing foreigners mangle his last name and so preferred to be called by the more easily pronounced Vincent. He also had a considerable talent for ticking off his family members, so he may have started signing "Vincent" in order to distance himself from the whole Van Gogh clan.

He Wasn't the Biggest Failure in the Family

Vincent was definitely the black sheep of his family, but he was nothing compared to his first cousin Hendrik Jacob Eerligh Van Gogh, the son of Vincent's uncle, Rear Admiral Johannes (Jan) Van Gogh (1817 - 1885). Uncle Jan made a fortune in his career and watched it all wash away when his son (Vincent's cousin) stole it all and escaped to America, where he would die just one year after his father. He is buried in Portland, Oregon.

Not much is known about Hendrik except that he was diagnosed with epilepsy and apparently drank a great deal. The only treatment for epilepsy back then was to stick the person in an insane asylum. No wonder he ran off to another continent entirely.

His Parents had Another Vincent Willem Van Gogh

Exactly one year before Vincent was born, a son was born to his parents and named Vincent Willem Van Gogh. Unfortunately, he was stillborn. The tiny body was buried at the church where Vincent's father worked. Every time Vincent went to church, he saw a grave with his name and birth date on it.

Although this would seem to be a significant detail in a man's life, it was basically ignored by Vincent and his family. The 1850s did have high death rates for babies and so reusing a good name perhaps made sense at the time.

More of my posts about Vincent's life:

Did Van Gogh Have Syphilis?
Did Van Gogh Like People?
Van Gogh's First Drawings

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Van Gogh -- the Horse

For many years, especially when I was deeply into the model horse hobby, I discovered that Van Gogh is a common name bestowed upon real horses (as well as model horses.)  I admit to once naming a model horse Van Gogh (because one of the ears broke off.)  I've never had a real horse or pony and so I never had the chance to think up a name for a real (as opposed to model) equine.

When I lived in England, there were many thoroughbred race horses named after classical composers or painters.  One horse I actually won some money on was named George Stubbs (an exceedingly appropriate name for that elegant thoroughbred.)  I also remember a racehorse named Van Gogh but I cannot seem to find any information on him.  I did find information on a Miss Van Gogh (2005 bay filly by Vindication and out of Heartwood) and a photo of another horse named Van Gogh on a blog about off-the-track thoroughbreds.

But I did discover a non-thoroughbred named Van Gogh (pictured).  He's a big bay warmblood stud, son of Numero Uno.  Both of his ears are intact, although he needs to wear earmuffs when performing before a crowd.  He's approved as a registered stallion in four breeds (KWPN, Oldenburg, Hanoverian, Italian U.N.I.R.E.).  He lives in Europe but does not need to actually visit the mares he inseminates.  Non-Europeans can buy his frozen semen from Bellingham, Washington for $275 and $375 if you live in Canada.

I can't help but think Vincent would have got a kick over this.  He also seemed to like horses and wrote about his sympathy for cab horses.  In one letter (catalogued as letter #582) to brother Theo, Vincent wrote, "In Paris, one is always suffering, like a cab horse ..."

Vincent also included horses in his art, but rarely.  Since he was so annoyed at Anton Mauve (well known for his horse and livestock paintings) Vincent may have purposefully excluded horses just because Mauve would include them in his works.  If Vincent had horse ears, they'd spend most of the time pinned to the sides of his head.

Often the close-up horses seem somehow bedraggled while ones in the distance pulling carts tend to seem jaunty with their heads, ears and tails up.  For more about the horses in Vincent's art, check out Equinest's The Horses of Van Gogh.  Eventually, I'll get around to writing a more detailed article on Vincent's horses.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"The Essential Vincent van Gogh"; By Ingrid Schaffer: My Review

The back cover claims that you can be a Van Gogh expert in 5 minutes with The Essential Vincent Van Gogh" by Ingrid Schaffer (Harry N. Abrams; 1998.)  You won't. It also takes longer than 5 minutes to read this small hardback -- unless you decide to just look at the pictures.  You may be able to finish it while waiting in line for a new Van Gogh exhibition.

However, some of the facts in this little book are wrong.  For example, it claims that Van Gogh didn't start drawing until he was 27.  He actually started as a child.  Some of the interpretations of Vincent's major works are spot on.  It also talks a little about the debate over what painting was Van Gogh's last -- something usually passed over in other books.

This little book is aimed for tweens, teens and adults with really short attention spans.  It's littered with white space, summaries, bullet points, "sound bytes" (short quotes in large print), modern slang and exclamation marks.  It does have some great reproductions on Van Gogh's best known works, including The Starry Night, The Yellow House and Irises.

This book is one in a series on famous artists.  Other artists in the series include Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollok, Man Ray, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Vincent Van Gogh: A Book of Postcards"; By Pomegranate: A Review

This little book is just what it says on the cover: 30 oversize postcards of color reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh paintings.  Published by Pomegranate in 1999 to cash in on the massive 1999 Van Gogh exhibition that brought out huge crowds that would put most rock stars to shame, this is about the cheapest Van Gogh art book you can get. Personally, I recommend skipping this book and saving your money for a better Van Gogh book -- even those aimed for kids.

I got my copy from my Mom, who went to the 1999 exhibition when it hit the East Coast.  Idiot me decided I didn't have enough money to go along with her.

Anyway, I've no idea why anyone would actually use the postcards in Vincent Van Gogh: A Book of Postcards.  Even if you were desperate for a postcard, there is no easy way to actually remove a postcard from the binding.  Not without an X-acto knife, anyway.

Images include the well-known (like Portrait of Dr. Gachet but mostly lesser-known works (like Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (Le berceuse)) and a couple of completely forgettable works (like The Drinkers.)  I guess you're supposed to keep the more popular images for yourself and send the lesser known works as postcards.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Painting Focus: Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin

Yup -- here's another article I wrote for about a famous Van Gogh painting.  Helium comes up with it's own titles that (unfortunately) we mere writers cannot change -- even if the title contains a misspelling or factual error.  This time around, Helium states that the portraits of the postman Joseph Roulin were done in 1889.  They were actually done in 1888.  Any other errors in the text body (like the misspelling of Daumier's name) are my fault.

Please read my article at Helium about Vincent's portraits of Joseph Roulin.  Thanks!

5 More Van Gogh Parodies

'Cause Van Gogh paradies are so much fun!  If you can't afford a real Van Gogh, you can afford to download a Van Gogh parody. Enjoy.

(Yes I know about this is a mispronunciation, but it's Grumpy Cat.)

YouTube Video: 1990 South Bank "Vincent and Theo"

It's a shame that a series like South Bank Show in America. This is a great 1990 documentary about making of Robert Altman's film Vincent and Theo (1990), of which bits and pieces of it pop up on YouTube.  This seems to be the entire episode (which, for some reason, YouTube will not allow me to place the clip on this blog.)

It focuses on director Altman and his problems making a fictional movie about a beloved historical figure nd his long-suffering brother.  Tim Roth (pictured) puts on a killer performance as Vincent.

YouTube Video: "Van Gogh Adventure: Vincent's Ghost and Me"

Here's a quirky little film made by American water colorist and filmmaker Phil Savenick.  Although he struggles with at least three different pronunciations of "Van Gogh" and incorrectly states that Vincent shot himself in the heart, it's still a film worth seeing by art fans and frustrated artists like me.  Savenick only goes to France (minus Paris) to where Vincent spent his final years.  He also takes sunflower seeds back to his home.  He believes the seeds are related to Van Gogh's sunflowers, but that seems about as accurate as the "shot through the heart" quip.  The film also makes you wonder how Vincent managed to paint in the rain.

"Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images"; By Michael Howard: A Review

If you only get  one book about Vincent Van Gogh, make it Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images by Michael Howard (Anness; 2010.) It's the most succinct look at Van Gogh's life, body of works and influences that I've ever come across.  It also makes a great gift for any Van Gogh fan that wants a good collection of works.

Yes, there have been more detailed biographies on Van Gogh, but this isn't as exhausting, sensationalistic or skimpy as presented in other biographies.  Since this is a heavy book, it's good that the pages keep on turning rather than having to wrestle with teeny-tiny print on huge pages (like Steven Naifeh's monster Van Gogh: The Life.)

The 500 images are not all Van Gogh works.  They also include images of paintings and illustrators that inspired and influenced Van Gogh.  It also includes works of Van Gogh's contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin. 

This hardback coffee-table book is part of Anness' series on major artists which include a brief biography and an in-depth veiw of many of that artist's works.  Other artists in the series include Cezzane, Renoir, Degas, Turner and Monet.  There is also a book devoted to one of Van Gogh's biggest influences, Rembrandt.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Funny Van Gogh-Related Item on eBay

I'm actually tempted to buy this Van Gogh reproduction drawing, even though I'm no longer a member of eBay.  It's currently at $6.50 ($11.50 with shipping.)  Here's the description:

bought this off of an Italian dude here on ebay... he failed to mention that on the back of the drawing someone had written REPRO... oh well. fooled me.
so to be clear... looks real, BUT IT AIN'T.
this is being sold as 'in the manner of' which is a nice way of saying FAKE.
it's a actual drawing, not a print. looks like pencil and charcoal.
get it out of my life. NOW.
size is 8" by 12".

I hate to think what the seller had to pay for this.  Apparently the seller doesn't want to be reminded ("get it out of my life. NOW.")

Just a vivid reminder that original Van Gogh's usually are not found for sale on eBay.  Although if you want erotic turtle sculptures, false limbs or the occasional soul, eBay's for you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

YouTube Video: "Art Eyes: The Eyes of Vincent Van Gogh"

This is a very short video (1 minute 14 seconds) put up by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC of one of Vincent's many self-portraits.  It focuses on seeing Vincent's brushstrokes and glops of paint in places which tell just as much about what type of person Vincent was as does his physical features.

The thing that touches me the most about Vincent's art is that you can see his brushstrokes.  Those brushstrokes are the way Vincent achieves immortality.  I don not believe in God or heaven, but I do believe in brushstrokes.  Usually these are hidden or blended in so that the canvass looks like a photo -- even before the invention of cameras.  By letting us see his brushstrokes, Vincent was letting us peek into the creative fires of an artist.

Painting Focus: Cornfield with Cypresses, 1889

"I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.” - Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 to 1890) went through several styles before settling on his trademark thick applications of vibrant colors. By July of 1889, he had less than one year to live. He also produced some of his best-known works, including one his most distinctive landscapes, “Cornfield with Cypresses.” Once considered worthless, this priceless work can be seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art ....

Please read the rest of my article at Helium.  Thanks! (Link has now been fixed. )

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh"; Edited by Iriving Stone: My Review

One of the most popular books about Vincent written is this edited collection of Vincent's letters to his long-suffering brother Theo.  Dear Theo: An Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (1937) begins when Vincent is full of missionary zeal and is off to the Borinage.  It goes on through his disillusion with the Church, with other artists and with life in general.  The collection was edited by Irving Stone, author of the popular fictional biography about Vincent, Lust for Life (1934.)

I'm not lucky enough to have a first edition, so this review is based on the far more available 1995 reprint with the cover shown at left.

This book is very hard going.  There are no footnotes explaining current politics, fads or nicknames.  There are also no pictures, so you need to read this in tandem with a book of Vincent's art or you could constantly Google names and painting titles.  This greatly interrupts the book's narrative flow. 

Vincent also would fall out with people he would glowingly write to his brother about in one letter and then never mention them again.  Vincent also suffered from paranoia and would describe in great detail conspiracies being plotted against him.  Since there is no mention in the book that these are just delusions, the reader does get the picture that Vincent was a long-suffering heroic target of the status quo.  He wasn't.  He was mostly ignored and survived only through the generosity of his brother and some other temporary patrons, but he was not the target of a sophisticated plot.

There are times when I wish I could've smacked Vincent upside the head.  Artistic genius or not, he was remarkably stupid.  He also would not shut up about money.  Granted, when I was homeless, I got a little obsessed over every penny I could get a hold of, but even I didn't grouse about it in every letter I sent my parents.

In conclusion, I don't recommend this book unless you are seriously nuts about Vincent and are familiar with the times Vincent lived in.

3 Best Starry Night Parodies

Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night."  It's one of the most recognized and beloved paintings in the world.  It also is the basis for some killer parodies.

These are my three favorites and hopefully yours, too.  I have some more parodies of Vincent's works (not just "The Starry Night") up on my Pinboard appropriately named Van Gogh Parody Gallery.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

This Blog Made It's First Cent!

Just a quick post to celebrate (sarcasm) that this Vincent blog has made it's first cent with GoogleAds.  So soon after Vincent's birthday, too.  I keep this up and someday I can purchase a stamp so I can mail a congratulatory card to myself.  Perhaps I could buy one of the many stamps issued featuring Vincent, such as this 2008 sheet from the Union of Cormoros. 

I wonder if Vincent Van Gogh (the prodigious letter writer) ever wrote letters to himself and mailed them.  He argued with everybody else in his life -- why not himself?  Although other people kept his letters, he tended not to keep letters written to him.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Painting Focus: Irises (1889)

"How well he understood the exquisite nature of flowers!” – Octave Mirbeau, first owner of “Irises”

It’s one of the most recognizable – and expensive – paintings in the world. It was one of the very few works that received critical praise during Vincent Van Gogh’s brief but tortured life. It’s known simply as “Irises.” It was painted in 1889 while Van Gogh was recuperating at an asylum at Saint-Remy in Southern France.  The flowers grew in the asylum's garden.

Such an iconic image seems almost commonplace today, but back in 1889 it was a whole new way of looking at the world. What were Van Gogh's inspirations? There were many, which he somehow distilled the essence of each and brought it to this particular canvass. Here is a look at some of them.

Japanese Woodcuts

Japanese art and fashion became faddishly popular in mid-1800s France and Belgium. It was still popular during Van Gogh's ten-year career as an artist. He also collected Japanese woodcut prints and even tried his hand at copying a few. Prints made from Japanese woodcuts have clear, bright colors and flowing, curving forms making people, animals, buildings, boats and nature as essentially the same stuff.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Although many art history books claim Japanese woodcuts were Van Gogh's major inspiration, there also seems to have been some influence by Van Gogh's contemporary, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 - 1901.) He was also influenced by Japanese art. Among his best-known works were vibrant posters that used a limited palette of bright colors and curving, sensuous lines. Both artists briefly knew each other when both lived in Paris in 1886. Van Gogh was very familiar with Toulouse-Lautrec's work.

The Irises Themselves

The point of view of "Irises" is much different than flower studies done in the past - even flower studies done by Vincent. Usually they were of a garden or selected flowers arranged in a vase. But this time the viewpoint is right down at the level of the irises. Each flower and leaf bends and if carrying a heavy burden and yet springs up resiliently. By this time, Van Gogh had abandoned religion and used nature and art to fill the gap. The power of nature is certainly apparent in the lush green leaves.

His Inner Life

There's nothing in the painting to indicate that these flowers are growing in an asylum. That may have been intentional. Van Gogh, who once so desperately wanted to be a portrait painter, found out that he was gifted at painting common objects like flowers. He personalized the flowers. He may have thought of himself and the other asylum inmates as the irises, growing out of the dirt.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

If Van Gogh Was So Great, Why Didn't He Sell More in His Lifetime?

This is a loaded question that Van Gogh fans often hear.  The insinuation, of course, is that the art world only likes its artists dead.  Another insinuation is that people buy art only if it has been declared "great" by a certain amount of critics.

Now, if you really do not like the art of Vincent Van Gogh, there is nothing anyone can write that is going to change your mind.  Van Gogh's art is polarizing; you either love it or hate it. 

Van Gogh was getting some critical praise in 1890, the year he would commit suicide.  He had paintings in two major exhibitions in 1889 and 1890 and a large positive write-up in the French magazine Mecure de France by respected art critic Albert Aurier.  A translated version of the article, "The Isolated Ones" is up on the Vincent van Gogh Gallery website.  It seemed that Van Gogh was poised for stardom -- or, at least, poised to earn enough money for paints and smokes. 

The main problem with why Van Gogh didn't sell during his lifetime was due to Van Gogh's abrasive personality.  He went out of his way to offend people -- including the very people he needed to ask favors from, such as restaurant owners (which often displayed art) and art dealers.  He argued so much with all of his art teachers that they kicked him out of their studios after a few weeks.

Van Gogh's early work (1885 in particular) was very dark, with depressing subjects and people painted in a grotesque fashion, such as the portrait above.  His art dealer brother, Theo, would constantly beg Vincent to stop doing black and white drawings and concentrate on bright paintings like those of the leading Impressionists of the day, Monet and Degas.

Although Vincent eventually took his brother's advice, he spent most of his time drawing or painting exactly what others advised him NOT to paint or draw.  Not surprisingly, these works did not sell until after Van Gogh died.  Even now, his later works from 1887 to 1890 are best known than his darker early works.

The point is that had Van Gogh lived longer -- even to the end of 1890, he would have sold a lot more paintings in his lifetime.  Tastes not only had changed to admire Van Gogh's wildly vivid work, but Van Gogh had changed his art in part to accommodate current tastes.

Why he chose to shoot himself when on the verge of attaining his dream of supporting himself with his art is cause for much debate.  It could be that Vincent's mental illness had progressed so far that he thought that only death was appropriate.  It could also be that Vincent enjoyed the climb up rather than the view from the top.

Image: "Head of a Peasent Woman with a White Cap" (1885)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Painting Focus: Autumn Landscape (1885)

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) is best known for paintings full of his feverishly swirling layers of color. But Van Gogh was capable of surprising realism when it came to plants, still lifes and landscapes. One of his most realistic paintings is sadly one of his least known. “Autumn Landscape” is a large oil on canvass completed just five years before the painter’s legendary death.

In this painting, two long rows of trees descend in a sharp line away from the viewer. Four birds, possibly crows, fly above the trees and against the cloudy light blue sky. The trees seem to line a path but we cannot see where that path leads to. Van Gogh did a series of tree-based landscape paintings during this time but this painting looks slightly different from the others.

Beginning Style

In 1885, Van Gogh was still trying to find his unique style through the expensive medium of paint. 1885 was the year of his first major work, The Potato Eaters (1885.)Van Gogh had only been drawing for a few years. He was far behind his fellow artists, who, for the most part, had begun training when they were children. He was often criticized for his painting by his contemporaries.

However, because he started painting so late in his life, he was able to develop a unique style. In Autumn Landscape, he seems to try imitating the smoothness of contemporary Dutch painters. In the tree trunks and long dried grasses, especially, the viewer can see the thick swaths of paint laid down by Van Gogh. Van Gogh's style is starting to emerge, but he is still trying to control it to meet current tastes in art.

The Path Without A Destination

Van Gogh's failure as a minister to an impoverished mining community left him wanting to be an artist. He lived with this father at this time at the village of Nuenen. Van Gogh's father was the village minister. There is now a museum in Nuenen, including an "outdoor museum" marking the spots where Van Gogh is thought to have parked his easel while producing paintings like Autumn Landscape.

Van Gogh seems unsure of where his life will lead, as the path through the trees suggests. The path is clearly seen but the destination is unknown. Although an autumn painting, green is still seen in the leaves, intermingling with yellows and oranges. Life is still visible among the pretty dead leaves.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life"; By Nancy Mowll Mattews: A Review

No other artist impacted Vincent Van Gogh than Paul Gauguin -- literally.  Gauguin is thought to have been responsible for cutting off part of Vincent's ear.  Vincent, not wanting to lose a man he so admired, told others he cut it off himself. 

Gauguin was magnetic, intelligent and an utter bastard.  He wanted to be seen as living the erotic life that was the envy of all other men, which is why Professor Nancy Mowll Matthews titled her extensive biography Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life (Yale University Press; 2001.)

This is a large, heavy book with very small print and lots of endnotes.  I hate endnotes.  I realize that footnotes are essential for establishing and embellishing facts presented in the text, but this gets out of hand.  Some people may like flipping back and forth from the text to the notes, but in this case it got to be ridiculous.  Why not just add the endnote information in the damn text?  Because that's not the way biographies are properly done, apparently.

I have to admit, I do not like most of Gauguin's work.  Yes, I realize he was pushing boundaries, breaking new ground and championed working from imagination rather than just from life, but his stuff creeps me out more than H. R. Geiger's stuff (and he designed the Alien for Alien (1979.)

Despite the title, the book does not have much about Gauguin's sex life or imaginary sex life but does talk to great length about how much he hated women.  It also describes the cruelties Gauguin would casually inflict on anyone he encountered.  He also left his wife and five children high and dry while he went and lived the high life as one of the most famous artists of his day.

The book also hints that Gauguin was somehow responsible for Vincent's final breakdown which lead to his suicide but does not follow up on these hints.  I have to admit, I couldn't wait for Gauguin to die because he was such scum.  Yes, many of his works are considered masterpieces, but Now I know why most of his subjects have such evil expressions on their faces.

What is the Artistic Temperament?

Vincent Van Gogh has often been described as having an artistic personality, creative personality or artistic temperament.  Sometimes Van Gogh is described as the definition of the artistic temperament.  What is an artistic temperament?  Let's put it this way -- it's not exactly a compliment.

Books like Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (Gower Publishing; 2011) describes the double-edged sword of having an artistic temperament -- you may produce works later labelled as "genius" but you also have mental illness and may wind up so lonely and miserable that you will kill yourself. 

Although not all people with artistic temperaments are alike, some generalities can be made.  Most people blessed/cursed with an artistic temperament display these ten qualities:

  1. Pursues a creative avenue, sometimes described as "having artistic inclinations"
  2. Prefers to work alone
  3. Shows or professes a love of nature
  4. Mood swings at unpredictable times
  5. Relationships with people have a low priority behind their work, their art and their own problems
  6. Although intelligent, they often aren't very wise in the practical ways of the world
  7. Swings between periods of tremendous energy and long periods of rest
  8. Is both introverted and extroverted, which basically means that they don't get on well with others
  9. Tries to be androgynous or blends characteristics of both genders without necessarily being gay
  10. Tries to be humble but deep down inside is really proud of their artwork.
Van Gogh certainly fits these qualities.  Others complained often about his mood swings and his intensity but to Van Gogh he was completely justified for feeling the way he did.  He loved meeting people and yet was so easily offended that he lived a mostly solitary life.  He wanted to be accepted and admired by other artists but balked at any suggestions, instructions or advice.  He certainly was intelligent (he spoke four languages) but he could not stick to a budget and never could figure out how to sell his work.  If he had a less abrasive personality, he may have at least broke even with his artwork.  But then he wouldn't have been Van Gogh.

The portrait of Vincent here is by John Peter Russell when Van Gogh lived in Paris in 1886.  Van Gogh didn't like it, but this a great portrait of how the world saw Van Gogh -- as looking at them from the shadows with a sideways stare.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Did Van Gogh Give "Sorrow" an English Title?

Sorrow is one of Vincent Van Gogh's best drawings and also one of the best drawings of the human condition.  He drew it when he lived in The Hague in 1883.  At least two versions exist.  The one pictured here is a chalk drawing which now resides in London -- which is a tad ironic since that's exactly the city where Vincent intended it to go.  That it didn't go there until long after the artist's tragic death makes the drawing the title even more piognant.

Vincent didn't often write the titles of his works directly onto the work, but made a big exception here.   The model, his lover at the time, Clasina Maria Hoornik (nicknamed "Sien") is sitting on a seat  prominatly labelled "Sorrow."  Vincent chose the Engish word, even though he was Dutch and came into contact with French and German-speaking peoples more than English speakers.

Vincent had a very good command of English.  He could read it better than he could speak it.  He even worked in England for a while.  Vincent also knew French, German, a smattering of Latin and his native Dutch.  Why did he pick an English word for this drawing?

Vincent had been greatly moved and inspired by the illustrations in English periodicals such as The Illustrated London News.  He admired artists like Honore Daumier. In the late 1800s, adding photographs to magazines and newspapers were still too expensive, so periodicals used a stable of artists to bring the news to life.

Vincent had hoped that he could illustrate for those magazines and newspapers.  Sorrow was most likely drawn to showcase his talents to publishers.  However, Vincent never had a chance.  He was crushed when he discovered that such periodicals were reluctant to employ artists outside of their own officies.  His brother Theo would urge him to less drawing and do more painting, but Vincent kept on drawing for another two years before he dove into painting whole-heartedly.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Latrec"; By Lawrence & Elizabeth Hanson: My Review

Why am I talking about a book on Henri Toulouse-Latrec on a Van Gogh blog?  Well, the two knew each other, albeit briefly.  I think Vincent's work was influenced by Toulouse-Latrec's work, although I'm not sure many art historians and critics would agree with me.  Reading  about Vincent's contemporaries helps not only flesh out the times that Vincent lived in, but also helps you appreciate what Vincent was comparing himself to.

Which brings us to The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Latrec (Random House; 1956) by the husband and wife team of Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson.  The couple also wrote biographies of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.  I haven't read those and think I may skip them.  This book was enough.

This is not a particularly detailed biography and suffers from some of the biographers' criticism of his private life.  However, this is one of the shortest biographies out there.  If you do not have a lot of time and know elementary French, then this book will be okay.

Although Vincent was considered freakish by the French because of his intensity, his penchant for pissing people off and his problems speaking French, Toulouse-Latrec drew horrified stares or quickly averted eyes.  His parents were first cousins and boy, did it show in Toulouse-Latrec's dwarfish and incredibly fragile body.  He wasn't a dwarf in that he did not suffer from dwarfism, but his legs broke when he was a child and he basically stopped growing then.

Sadly, this book has very few illustrations -- all of  which are in black and white.  Read it and Google the works described. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Did Van Gogh Have Syphilis?

It's generally assumed that Vincent Van Gogh had syphilis because (quite frankly) 10% of all European men had it in the late 1800s.  He was diagnosed with another sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhea, in 1882.  Both STDs have similar symptoms so Van Gogh could have been misdiagnosed.

Van Gogh is thought to have had syphilis for 2 reasons:

  1. He frequented brothels
  2. He was kinda loopy
According to Van Gogh:The Life (Random House; 2012) Van Gogh did have syphilis about 1885.  During this time he had terrible mouth sores and lost a lot of weight because he was unable to eat. (See p. 447)
Unlike gonorrhea, syphilis caused insanity (or seeming insanity) in it's last stages, called neurosyphilis.  In teriary syphilis, the face become deformed, as seen in the bust of such a patient (pictured.)

According to The Lobotomist John Wiley & Sons; 2005), one fifth of all patients in American psychiatric wards had syphilis in the 1920s and 1930s.  The book, a biography of lobotomist Walter Freeman, includes some really vivid passages describing neurosyphilis patients, such as this little gem from page 59:

Though largely forgotten today, neurosyphilis was a terrible disease, a near epidemic that left its targets -- mainly men thirty and over -- in a wasted, twisted condition, riddled with bedsores and unable to speak coherently...They frequently grew demented, demented, incontinent and unable to control their muscles.
The problem is that Van Gogh was not really old enough to begin showing symptoms of neurosyphilis.  Men usually begin showing them 10 to 20 years after they get infected. 

My theory (and I think I'm alone on this one) that Van Gogh thought he had syphilis.  Since he had spent time in asylums, he saw what happened to men suffering in the final stages of neurosyphilis.  Perhaps one of the deciding factors in his suicide was that he feared developing those horrible final symptoms.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

YouTube Documentary: "Vincent Van Gogh at the Borinage"

OK, this will be the weirdest Van Gogh documentary you will ever see, but if you get stoned on flu medication or have insomnia for a few days due to illness, then this is really trippy.  This film centers on Vincent's time as a missionary to impoverished minors at the Borinage in Belgium.  He was dismissed by his order for becoming as dirty and course as the local population.

As you will see, funding got cut off and production problems abounded, but the director was determined to finish the documentary.  That explains why Van Gogh is in period dress walking around modern London as cars go whizzing by.  This documentary did air on some European television channels.  I found it at (where else?) YouTube.  It's 53 minutes long and has a really good narrator.  Enjoy!

From the YouTube description:

Long lost documentary which I found back some days ago. I made this in 2000 and due to an argument with the production company it never made (reached) any festivals. It is about Van Gogh's time he spend in Belgium desperately longing to step in his father's footsteps to become a vicar, knowing he was born to be an artist.

The film was shown on Spanish, Italian, Maltese and Cypriotic television but has never been viewed in Belgium.

Director: klaus verscheure. Writer: Rene de Bok Editor: Jan Weynants Music: Frank Deruytter & Tony O'Malley

"Lust for Life"; By Iriving Stone: Fictional Van Gogh Autobiography Review

Lust for Life (1934) is Irving Stone's best-known novel. Early on in Stone's career, he decided that biographies of famous people should be just as gripping as dime-store novels. There are few people that have had a more interesting (if tragic) life than the highly influential Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890).

Although this is a biography, it's usually found under "fiction" in bookstores and libraries. This is because Stone had to take some poetic license in order to make a coherent and interesting novel. After the book ends, Stone has a section called "Notes", where he admits to the reader that a couple of the scenes (such as Van Gogh's meeting with Paul Cezanne) were clearly a product of his imagination.

Reading Recommendations for Van Gogh Fans

Van Gogh left a substantial body of personal papers behind him, kept by his loving younger brother Theo. But Van Gogh was not a person to let truth get in the way of a good story. Modern art historians (and psychiatrists) think that Van Gogh suffered not only from epilepsy, but several kinds of mental illness. Perhaps Van Gogh was not the best person to figure out what was going on around him.

Read Lust for Life with a large grain of salt and a book of Van Gogh's artworks within reach. This will help illustrate many of the great works of art described in the book. Although Stone does a good job describing them, words can't accurately portray Van Gogh's art. The very last paragraph is particularly haunting, describing Van Gogh's grave.

If you really want to read a more factual biography of Van Gogh that's still in print, try Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images (Lorenz Books; 2009) by Matthew Howard.

Contrasts with the Historical Van Gogh

The Van Gogh portrayed in Lust for Life is an interesting character the reader can sympathize with and root for. Lust for Life (and the 1956 film adaptation starring Kirk Douglas) helped to create and solidify the Van Gogh mystique. Here was a man who felt so passionately for his favorite prostitute that he cut off his own ear as a gift. The official Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam still claims that Van Gogh cut off his own ear in order to express his love.

However, modern art historians doubt that Van Gogh was merely a misunderstood and tortured genius. He was an alcoholic and probably beat up more than one woman in his life. The town of Arles, France, demanded that Van Gogh leave. Lust for Life claims it was because of the ear incident, but some art historians think it was because he was a dangerous drunk.

They also doubt that Van Gogh cut off his own ear. Many think that fellow artist Paul Gauguin cut it off while both artists were in a drunken rage. British art historian Martin Bailey claims that Van Gogh did cut it off in order to gain attention and sympathy from his brother Theo, who had just announced his engagement.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Did Van Gogh Like People?

Vincent Van Gogh is often hailed as an artist that truly captured the human experience.  He wanted to paint portraits because he (at one time, anyway) thought it was the hardest form of art.

But did Van Gogh actually like people?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he didn't.  However, he felt guilty about it.

He never got on well with anyone for long stretches of time. Even his saintly younger brother Theo couldn't stand living with him.  Paul Gauguin got so sick of Vincent that he cut off part of his ear with a sword (according to some art historians anyway.)

Vincent, always lonely, preferred to stay alone.  Even in childhood, he could not get along with people.  In a photo from his schoolboy days, he crosses his arms and legs tightly as if daring anyone to get close.  The photo shown here shows Vincent with the same expression.

Being Dutch, Vincent was drilled on duty to family and to other people since practically the womb.  His letters to brother Theo seemed full of hope to help others when he was sent to the Borinage as a minister.

But people always disappointed him.  In this I (and I think others) can readily identify.  He never got over being sent to boarding school when he was 11, writing into adulthood about watching his parents drive off in a carriage while he was on the school steps.  All his romances were failures.  Even God rejected him when he was kicked out of the Borinage ministry because he was too unkempt and too much like a Borinage native than a proper Dutch clergyman.

People in his paintings and drawings are often very far away.  This could be due in part to his inability to hire models (making a silhouette was cheaper than a model) but done so often that he must have thought it looked right.  He was far away from other people.  Some paintings show his point of view, such as being far back in a row of dinner tables in Interior of a Restaurant in  Arles (1888).  The tables closest to him are empty.  The tables go back and forth like prison bars.

So no, I don't think he liked people, unless they were abstract.  He had a much more successful relationship with Theo through letter writing than whenever they met in person.  By the end of his short life, he felt more comfortable in solitude than with others.  His last trip to Paris in July of 1890 included a dinner with Theo, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and 2 others who liked his work.  Before the last guest arrived, Vincent had slipped off, left the city and went back to Auvers.  He'd commit suicide three weeks later.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Did Van Gogh Have a Sense of Humor?

I was reading one of my local library's biographies of Henri Toulouse-Latrec called The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Latrec (Random House; 1956) by the husband and wife team of Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson.  My eyes widened as I read that Vincent Van Gogh "was without a sense of humor" which made him an unlikely companion for the witty Toulouse-Latrec.

Really?  Without a sense of humor?  Granted, his letters to brother Theo that have survived do not offer a lot of yucks.  But we are still talking about a man who did this oil painting, "Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette" (or, in his native Dutch Kop van een skelet met brandende sigaret).  This was done in Antwerp in 1885 or 1886.  The latter was the year Vincent moved from Antwerp to Paris.

Vincent apparently read French and understood French being spoken to him much better than he spoke it.  This may have caused him to appear humorless and a bit stupid to the Parisians.  Lawrence and Elizabeth Hanson state that Vincent stuttered when speaking French, but I haven't seen this mentioned in any other biography ... other than the one written by the Hansons, Passionate Pilgrim: The Life of Vincent Van Gogh (Random House; 1955.)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Van Gogh's First Drawings

Although Vincent Van Gogh didn't decide to become an artist until he was 27, he had drawn as a hobby.  Sometimes the legend of Van Gogh claims that he didn't draw anything until he was 27, but Van Gogh biographers (such as Michael Howard, author of Van Gogh: His Life and Works in 500 Images note that he drew often to amuse his brother Theo when the pair were children.  Some were done with a stick on dirt s the medium and some were pencil and paper.

Whatever the subject was of Vincent's very first drawing is unknown.  He probably did what many babies or toddlers do and drew a tightly bunched series of circles or other scribbles.  Most toddlers make their first scribbles when they are 18 months old, according to Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.  What age Vincent was when he first put a marking implement to a surface is unknown. 

Van Gogh got used to writing letters when he was very young.  Even in those letters, he'd fire off a sketch.  Decades after Vincent's death, these oldest of sketches and drawings were called the "Juvenilia" done when Vincent was still a youth.

It is unknown with 100% which drawing is Van Gogh's oldest surviving work.  The excellent website estimates that a drawing known simply as "The Goat Herd" (pictured above) earns this distinction.  It has been dated 9 August 1862, when Vincent was nine years old.  The drawing now resides in a private collection.

I'm assuming this drawing is a fragment of a larger drawing, because I am unaware that one goat constitutes a "herd."  Even at such a young age, Vincent's human figures are bent with the world's worries.