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Vincent Van Gogh: Later Work

The bulk of van Gogh's life work, the paintings that poured out during the two years and five months between his arrival in Arles and his suicide in Auvers, must be more familiar to a wider public today than the work of any other single painter. At least this is true in the United States. There are individual paintings such as Whistler's Mother and the Mona Lisa. The Blue Boy and a Corot or two, that are better known, but in Vincent's case it is not a matter of one or two paintings. Half his work must have been reproduced in tens of thousands of color prints, offered in portfolios as inducements to subscribe to newspapers, framed up assembly-line fashion for sale in department stores and drug stores. To a vast audience on the fringe of "appreciation" he is synonymous with modern art -- to which, actually, he is an excellent introduction.

This does not sound like a tragic art. Tragic art does not appeal to tens of thousands of people as living-room decoration. Most of the pictures are genuinely happy ones unless the pathetic associations of the painter's life are grafted onto them.

An extreme flatness as far as modeling in light and shade is concerned, or even as far as the breaking of color is concerned, is characteristic of the Arles pictures in general, but their surfaces are heavily textured. The background of L'Arlesienne is a solid yellow, the brilliant yellow that obsesses Vincent now, broken only by the texture of the broad, thick, application Purple, its complementary, is played against it in the dress, and within the clash of the two colors the figure is transfixed.

Madame Ginoux, a neighbor who posed in regional costume for L'Arlesienne, (left) was one of several friendly people who solved for a while van Gogh's perpetual model problem.


The most obliging of these were the postman Roulin and his wife. He painted five portraits of Roulin, one of them showing his uniform in a strong blue against a pale background, with the beard in short, straight, springing strokes of brownish and yellowish tints flecked with bits of bright blue and red.

Portrait of Joseph Roulin

The figure is more three-dimensionally modeled than that of L'Arlesienne, but in the remarkable portrait of Madame Roulin called La Berceuse the flatness is again extreme.The picture began with a sentimental idea. It was to recall lullabies to lonely men, Vincent said, and he compared its colors to common chromolithographs.

La Berceuse

After the crisis of his first attacks, his break with Gauguin, and finally his transfer to the asylum at Saint-Remy, Vincent's paintings take on the swirling, tempestuous form and the more mystical expression of which The Starry Night is a climatic expression. But they are interspersed with milder expressions, such as The Road Menders, where the warm tones and the everyday subject modify and even for a moment conceal the compulsive writhing of the great trees.

The Road Menders

In the case of van Gogh, the compulsion to paint is inescapable. anyone can accept the idea that painting is an emotional release for a man who fits in nowhere else. Since Vincent's time the idea has even been so abused that art schools are filled with students whose only qualification as potential artists consists of a demonstrated lack of qualification for being anything else. What a shame that this too is part of Vincent's legacy.

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