The starry testament to Vincent van Gogh

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

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

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

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


The Rural Influence

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

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

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

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

New Directions

Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, moving in with his brother Theo. A new phase of his education began. Now he worked frequently with oil paint. He met and made friends with the early impressionists: Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and George Seurat. He spent two years in Paris where his spiritualism faded under the influence of a freer lifestyle. During this period he was deeply inspired by Japanese prints which had recently become available in France and had become the rage of the French capital. The intricacy of colors, fully experienced for the first time, intoxicated him. “Instead of trying to reproduce what I have in front of my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcefully,” he wrote.

In all his dealings with people his personality proved a big hindrance. He was aware of this failing. In a letter to his brother as early as 1880 he had admitted, “I am a passionate man, capable and likely to do more or less foolish things which I regret. It happens that I speak a little too quickly.” Although Theo understood this and had welcomed his brother to live with him, eventually Theo felt that it was better for them to live their separate lives.


The Arles Period

Van Gogh left Paris for the warmth and color of Provence and settled in Arles where he lived out the remainder of his life from 1888 on, and where he produced as many as 200 canvases in just 15 months.

Partly because of his rural childhood, and in part because of his ministerial calling, his subjects had up until then been the humble peasants of the Belgian countryside and the poor citizens of Parisian hovels. Now under the brighter sky of Northern France he turned to portraits and still-life just as his fellow impressionists were doing.

Psychologists have often examined van Gogh’s masterpieces in order to understand his passion for certain colors especially for ochre which glows eerily in many of the Arles paintings. Van Gogh also thought that the colors red and green “expressed the passions of the soul.”

In Arles, yet another transformation was to take place in the direction of van Gogh’s work. This was hinted at in a letter he wrote to his brother in August 1888: “I have seen a magnificent and strange effect this afternoon. A very large boat laden with coal on the Rhone, tied up to the wharf. Seen from high above, it was all shining and damp from the squall; the water was yellowish white and cloudy pearl grey; the sky lilac with an orangey band in the west; the city violet, offloading the cargo. It was pure Hokusai.” (Hokusai was an influential Japanese printmaker.) In another note he explains to his brother, “The view changes, one sees with a more Japanese eye … the colors in a different light.”

Van Gogh’s rendition of this scene is entitled “Stevedores at Arles” and is now permanently installed at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This painting, on loan, is featured prominently at the current MoMA exhibit, a small show of only 23 paintings and 10 works on paper covering the artist’s entire career.

Another of the show’s treasures is the painting “The Dance Hall in Arles.” The scene was painted during the time Paul Gauguin was staying with van Gogh and reflects Gauguin’s influence in the vibrancy of the brush strokes, the brashness of the design. We are also reminded of the dance hall pictures of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and the apparent Japanese influence in the treatment of the dancer’s hair. The diagonal direction of the picture plane presented here is repeated in a number of the Arles canvases.

In another letter van Gogh forecasts a new painting to Theo. “Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the cafe where I have a room … It is what they call here a ‘cafe de nuit’ … they stay open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” In September 1888 van Gogh stayed up three nights to paint his “The Night Cafe” a haunting, glaring, disturbing painting. Vincent categorized it as “one of the ugliest I have ever done.” Yet such is its appeal that anyone interested in the paintings of the last 150 years would recognize it instantly. Repelled or attracted, the viewer can sympathize with the forlorn characters that inhabit the room with its enormous billiard table. The painting is one of the treasures of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.

But perhaps the diamonds in the tiara of the MoMA show are two paintings created a year apart, in which Vincent van Gogh reaches the pinnacle of his craft. The earlier one is entitled “Starry Night over the Rhone” (1888). It is on loan from Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The later one is “The Starry Night” which resides permanently at MoMA. “But when shall I paint my starry sky,” Vincent wrote to Emile Bernard, a friend and fellow painter, “that picture that occupies me continuously? The most beautiful pictures are those one dreams about … but which one will never paint. One must attack them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel before the unspeakable perfection, the glorious splendor of nature.”

According to astronomers the Rhone painting shows the stars in their more or less exact positions. There is a romantic emphasis here as the stars are mirrored in the river mingling with the lights of the houses along the shore. An elderly couple is pictured clearly. They seem immersed in their own world oblivious to what is taking place. But the viewer can attest to the ‘wholeness of the scene’ its brilliant coloration and the calm almost festive feeling the picture represents. We know that van Gogh painted this scene outdoors. His colors have a firm alert feeling: ochre, deep green and blue.

The “Starry Night” of the following year was painted in the asylum at St. Remy and is more reflective of van Gogh’s psychic makeup. The rolling, roiling quality of the sky is a clear indication of the turmoil in his thinking, his struggle with perception and his analysis of reality. Nevertheless he is able to picture the village of Saint-Remy. The cypress along the edge of the painting reminds us clearly of the burning bush in the Old Testament. Cypress trees were also typically planted in cemeteries in that region, and their riveting appearance on the canvas might have been van Gogh’s prediction of his own impending tragic demise.

What could Vincent van Gogh have accomplished had he lived a full life span? We cannot know, of course, we can only be grateful for van Gogh’s contributions during his all-too-brief 37 years.

Fred Stern is an art writer and poet based in New Jersey. His recent collection of poetry, Corridors of Light is available from and on the web.