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Vincent Van Gogh: The Early Days

Indeed van Gogh must have been a much easier man to read about than he was to be around. Small, ugly and intense, without charm or wit, intelligent but narrow, socially ackward, ill dressed as a point of honor, tortured by religious confusions, yearning for affection but egotistical and stubborn, eager to please but resentful of criticism, he was one of those people who hold noble ideas too nobly, who offer their love as an embarrassing gift, whom one would like to like but whose presence is a burden. He seemed incapable of enjoying himself or of giving pleasure; in all the letters he wrote -- and he wrote beautifully in them -- there is no indication that he ever took anything casually for a moment.

The men of van Gogh's family were traditionally clergymen, but two uncles had a prosperous gallery in The Hague, which they sold to the international art dealer Goupil. Through this connection young Vincent, at sixteen, obtained a place with Goupil, first in The Hague, then in London, and finally in the main branch of the firm in Paris. But he failed. Never suave, always opinionated, no friend of the rich, who buy pictures, he ended by irritating so many customers that he was dismissed.

Turning to religion, he failed at the theological seminary. When he sought to sacrifice himself in service as a combination evangelist and social worker among miners in a desperately depressed and gloomy area, he failed. He subjected himself to all the hardships of his poverty-stricken parishioners -- their miserable quarters, their abominable diet. He slept on a hard board and a straw mattress when he could have had a comfortable bed. The miners laughed at him, their children hooted at him in the streets. Twice in love, he was twice rejected -- once by his landlady's daughter in London, once by a cousin. Rejected by the women he wanted to love, rejected by the people he wanted to help, van Gogh attempted to fulfill himself on both scores by living with and caring for a prostitute he picked up on the street, ugly, stupid, and pregnant. This idyll, which could have been inspired by Dostoevski, endured for twenty months.

It was not until 1880, when he was twenty-seven years old, that van Gogh decided to be a painter. He entered this new life not as one enters a profession but as one accepts a spiritual calling, in foreknowledge of self-sacrifice.

His will, his compulsion, to paint as a direct expression of self, as a psychological need quite aside from professional ambition or the will to fame, no matter what suffering would be involved, sets van Gogh apart from the impressionists, who had fought stubbornly in the face of every discouragement but had always been professional painters, careerists. Delacroix had established the idea of the painter's right to paint as he pleased, to enter into a pitched battle against entrenched manners of painting; Courbet had continued to fight, more as an individual than as a member of an organized school with a leader and henchmen; the impressionists had further abandoned the pre-nineteenth-century idea of a painter as a craftsman with a product to sell in satisfaction of a demand, and finally were to succeed in creating a demand by bringing public taste into line with their standards. But they were professionals. With van Gogh the balance swings to the other side. Although he yearned for attention, although he exhibited when he could, and finally managed to sell one painting, he was not first of all a man making his way in a profession. He was a man intent on saving his soul, in creating his very being, by painting pictures.

Van Gogh had begun to draw at the time of his failure as an evangelist among the miners, and had attended classes for a while at the academy in Brussels. He began his serious study as an overage beginner in the academic art school at The Hague, but did not stay long. He had a cousin there, Anton Mauve, one of the most popular painters of the day. Mauve was a painter of sentimentalized humanitarian subjects in the degenerating tradition of the Barbizon school. The association did not last long, ending as so many of van Gogh's associations did, in a quarrel. This was also his time of association with the prostitute Sien, which had become intolerable. Van Gogh left to paint on his own in the town of Neunen, where his father was now pastor. He puzzled and frightened the townsfolk; the pastor forbade them to pose for his son.
The work from this period -- from his first efforts in 1880 until the beginning of 1886 -- is a continuation of the obsessive humanitarianism that had lead Vincent into evangelical work, and it has the same excess of gloomy fervor that had lead to his failure in it. His subjects are poor people, squalid streets or farms, miners and peasants broken by poverty and toil, the inmates of almhouses. He draws in crayon or charcoal, and in his paintings his colors are as depressing as his subjects. His first large, ambitious composition, of which there are three versions, was The Potato Eaters, painted in the dismal browns and greenish blacks of the period.

The Potato Eaters

"I have tried to make it clear how these people, eating their potatoes under the lamplight, have dug the earth with these very hands they put in the dish....I am not at all anxious for everyone to like or admire it at once."

His taste in painting generally was also involved more with humanitarian ideas than with aesthetic values. He admired Millet, and another French painter of peasants, l'Hermitte, and the Hollander Josef Israels, although he objected when these men idealized their subjects, as they usually did. He also named Daumier and Rembrandt, again largely for their subject matter. He read such English authors as George Eliot and Dickens, who wrote of the poor and oppressed. The American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe was another favorite; Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its pathetic slaves, stirred him deeply. He read the sociological realistic novels of Zola. But he also read the aesthetic de Goncourts. He hardly knew the impressionistic painters at this time.

Early in 1886 van Gogh suddenly left Holland for Paris. It seems to have been an abrupt decision. It was certainly an important one. He had gone to Antwerp and had studied for a while at the academy there, but found it dull and restricting. Academic training was intolerable to him because it seemed divorced from the earthly and simple values he was interested in. But he was a clumsy draughtsman and he knew it, and he felt the need of stimulation and excitement from other painters. If he could not tolerate the school in Antwerp, neither could he go back to working on his own in the backward rural community. His brother Theo was directing a small gallery in Paris, a branch of Goupil's. Vincent wrote him that he would be in the Louvre at a certain hour, and asked Theo to meet him there.

Later, Theo was to recognize his brother's power as an artist, but at this time Vincent was only the family problem, a maladjusted and difficult man whose drawing was nothing more than an emotional stopgap, who was reaching his middle thirties and could not hold a job, who had shown that he was impractical and unstable and would have to be either supported or abandoned to the most desperate circumstances of life, to vagabondage, starvation, the almshouse. The story of Vincent and Theo from now on is a poignant one. Their letters, up to Vincent's last unfinished one written just before his suicide, read like a fine novel and have furnished the material for several poor ones. In his letters Vincent reveals the gentleness and above all the clarity of thought that were so rare when he spoke and not at all apparent in his actions. His torment is equally revealed, and Theo's patience and love. But in their day-to-day relationships when they were together, Vincent remained a problem -- stubborn, hypersensitive, and eccentric. Theo's heart must have sunk when he read Vincent's letter telling of his decision to come to Paris, but he took his brother into his flat, supported him from his own limited income, and set about helping him to find his way toward a solution of his problems.

Theo's gallery handled work by all of the major impressionists as well as the standard Salon masters who sold much better. Theo himself, like any good dealer, was always hunting new talent and had scouted the impressionists group shows with more sympathy than most dealers risked. Vincent's arrival coincided with the first impressionists exhibition, when only a few of the original group were exhibiting and a special room had been given over to the neo-impressionists, including Seurat with La Grande Jatte.

The impressionists' happy, brightly tinted art did not immediately affect Vincent. He entered the studio of Cormon, a conventional painter who gave his students sound training in the imitation of the model. Here, a grown man among youngsters, Vincent labored industriously, correcting his drawings until he had erased holes in the paper, irritating everyone, the class freak. Just how he managed to get accepted in a class limited to thirty students, with a waiting list, is a question. Theo's position as a dealer probably helped. Lautrec was among the students and Vincent came to his studio from time to time, but he was an odd ball in the effervescent company and after standing hopefully on the sidelines for a while he would disappear. Lautrec did a sketch of him at a cafe table; it shows a thin, bearded man leaning forward intently.

The stimulation and the new ideas Vincent had come to Paris to find, came not from the young men at Cormon's studio but from the patriarch of the impressionists, Pissarro, reappearing yet again in his constant role of saint. As he had done with Cezanne, Pissarro now induced Vincent to abandon his gloomy palette and turgid shadows for the bright, high-keyed colorism of the impressionists. But the transformation was more than a technical one; the spirit of Vincent's art was equally changed. One of his earliest existing drawings, done at about the time of his decision to work seriously at art, shows, as he described it in a letter to Theo, ".........miners, men and women, going to the shaft in the morning through the snow, by a path along a hedge of thorns; shadows that pass, dimly visible in the twilight. In the background the large constructions of the mine, and the heaps of clinkers, stand out vaguely against the sky......do you think the idea good?" Good or bad, the idea was typical of his preoccupation at that time with the hard lot of common people, full of cold, gloom, and miserable hardship.

But Pere Tanguy suddenly lives, as no other of Vincent's images had lived until then, and Vincent himself suddenly lives as a fulfilled painter.

But now when he paints the Factories at Clichy he has stopped seeing and thinking in terms of oppressed workers, blackened chimneys, belching smoke, piles of cinders and slag, and sees instead a blue sky, red roofs, a foreground of slashing yellows and greens, all singing in the open air.

From the broken strokes of impressionism and the uniform dots of pointillism (Vincent had made a brief sally in this latter direction) he developed a way of painting in short, choppy strokes of bright color, like longation's of the pointillist dots, which later were to bend and writhe and to be reflected also in drawings of the greatest expressive economy. Suddenly he is an artist, suddenly he is his own man.

The Factories at Asnières,
Seen from the Quai de Clichy

Julien Tanguy, affectionately called Pere Tanguy, was a color grinder who as a traveling paint salesman had met most of the impressionist during their most difficult days before 1870. When he opened his own small shop of artists' materials in Montmartre he began "buying" their paintings, which usually meant accepting them in exchange for supplies. He also kept their work on hand for chance sales, and thus grew into a collector and art dealer. He was particularly fond of Cezanne; during the years of Cezanne's obscurity as a voluntary exile in Aix, his paintings could be seen only at Pere Tanguy's. There were times when Monet and Sisley would have been without materi als to paint with if it had not been for this fatherly man. Madame Tanguy did not share his confidence or his interest in those painters who, like van Gogh, used a great deal of paint but were totally unsaleable. In February, 1888, Vincent van Gogh left paris for Arles, in the south of France, where his impressionism exploration was to begin in earnest.

The contrast between A Pair of Shoes and the Portrait of Pere Tanguy painted the same year is complete. The old shoes are vigorously painted, but the color and the implied humanitarianism are still on the dull and rather heavyhanded that is so bothersome in The Potato Eaters.

A Pair of Shoes

Portrait of Pere Tanguy

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