A Tale of Love, Art, and Anarchy
Van Gogh in Paris
In a year filled with significant events, hardly anyone noticed the arrival of a ragtag, unknown artist in Paris with an unpronounceable name. Today, hardly anyone remembers the twelve hurricanes, a volcanic eruption that destroyed the ‘eighth’ wonder of the modern world, or the murderous Haymarket riots in Chicago whilst almost everyone knows and appreciates the art of Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent’s story survives mostly as myth, generated from a few events that occurred during the last year and a half of his life. This is surprising because an excellent record of almost twenty years worth of letters survive, written to his family, friends, and acquaintances. Not only are they an unprecedented cataloguing of the artist’s work, they show his hopes, his dreams, his disappointments, his failures. We know where he was, what he did, when he did what, his sense of humour, his affection for his family, and his monumentally bad love life. From the visit of his brother in 1872 to the last, unfinished letter in his pocket when he died in 1890, we have an uninterrupted, personal accounting of one of the world’s most famous artists, with one spectacular exception.
To explain, it must be understood that most of Vincent’s letters were sent to his younger brother Theo. Theo supported Vincent in every way, most notably, with cash. As such, Vincent considered himself employed by Theo and diligently reported to him all his expenses and described, in detail, all the works he produced except for a two year period when they lived together in the Montmartre suburb of Paris. Obviously, as they were living together, there was no need to communicate with letters. This is most unfortunate for two reasons. We are denied Vincent’s self-description of discovering his sense of colour, of making the leap from moderately talented craftsman to artistic genius, and he would have provided us with a fascinating record of the day-to-day activities of Montmartre, one of the most exotic and entertaining places that ever existed.
Before Paris, Vincent’s paintings are best described as lackluster. His most famous work from that period portrays a peasant family as caricatures, the colours of bituminous darkness and tarnished metal. Afterwards, his bright complementary colours virtually leap from the canvas with an expressiveness seldom matched.
When Vincent arrived, the artistic community was still abuzz over a new, scientific colour theory that had been presented by Georges Seurat. He would be unveiling his wall-sized masterpiece, ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’, at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition in a little over two months. The painting was so controversial among the original Impressionists, some of them removed their works in protest.
The neighborhood of Montmartre, unlike most of the industrialised world at this time, was exceptionally diverse, inhabited by artists and laborers, prostitutes and clergy, as well as princes, paupers, and everyone betwixt and between. These people not only inspired Vincent, many would become the only group of like-minded friends he would ever have. To understand why this area was unique, to understand the underlying social issues of the time, one only needs to be told about the birth of communism, the bombings by anarchists, and the rapid rise of labor unions. All were the direct result of brutal treatment of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Wealthy individuals owned the factories, employed their own police, and made sure politicians did whatever it took to keep the status quo. The population required to operate the huge sweatshops created vast slums of unprecedented squalor in most industrialised nations. In 1886, there were hundreds of strikes in the United States protesting working conditions. In the Borinage region of Belgium, Vincent describes going down six hundred metres in a mine and seeing young children, both boys and girls, loading coal into carts for the trip to the surface.
Just as society was in tremendous upheaval, so was the artistic world. Nowhere was this more evident than in the area of fine art painting. Throughout history people paid to have their portrait painted. The artist who could create the most pleasing, life-like rendition of their patron earned the most money. The same applied to landscapes, religious icons, battle scenes, flowers, and baskets of fruit. Realism ruled. Or so it was thought.
In the mid 1800s, a new technology was beginning to mature that put all artists to shame. That technology was photography, and an image produced by a good camera was incomparable. For the first time, everyone had the opportunity to see an exact replica of whatever the camera was pointed at, rather than a somewhat flattering version of the artist's quasi-reality. Even more threatening, as new uses for photography were continually being found, it was constantly in the news. For example, in the previous year, Louis-Jean Delton became one of the first to photograph the end of a horse race at the Longchamp, Grande Prix de Paris, one of the early attempts to obtain a ‘photo finish’.
The answer to this onslaught of technology was conceived by a group of artists who met weekly at the Café Guerbois in Paris. The painters were Manet, Bazille, Sisley, Morisot, Degas, Guillaumin, Pissarro, Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir. What they tried to do was create their own, unique version of reality.
Using style, composition, colour, choice of subject material, in whatever combination, in each his or her own way, they were able to create a more full and emotional viewing experience than could ever be achieved with a photograph, let alone the old, rigidly structured paintings of the past. As logical as it seems today, at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary and extremely threatening to the existing artistic community. Traditional artists spent years learning skills to become good enough to produce paintings on par with those hanging in the museums and galleries of the day. Art dealers had the benefit of hundreds of years of history to explain what good art was and why one painting was worth five francs and another, fifty thousand.
Opposition to the new work was dramatic. Not only was the new style of painting not accepted for exhibition at the annual Salon nor any of the established galleries, it was ridiculed unmercifully. One cartoon shows a pregnant woman being rushed out of a gallery for fear of harming the unborn baby. This was particularly vexing for Theo van Gogh. As a gallery manager for one of the most respected art purveyors in the world, he was expected to keep pushing the company's product even though he saw the beauty and huge potential of the new works, not to mention his brother, Vincent, would go on to become one of the most successful in applying the new philosophy of painting.
Lastly, some common misconceptions about Vincent need to be corrected as soon as possible. He did not go mad in the sense that he gradually lost his mind unable to comprehend reality. In truth, he had epileptic-type seizures, sporadically, the last year and a half of his life. Many reasons have been postulated for his condition. In the end, it is not important what caused his malady, only that he did not remember anything that happened during the episodes, and he was a brilliant artist in spite of his illness, not because of it.
The famous incident in which part of his ear was cut off remains a mystery. We do not know if it was self-inflected, or not. In a letter to Theo about five months after the incident, Vincent said the doctor who first treated him mentioned another case where someone had injured his ear during an epileptic seizure. Some think Gauguin was involved as they were living together, and Gauguin, being an avid fencer, had all his equipment with him at the time. The fact that Vincent was shaving his beard during this period only adds more uncertainty. The one thing we know for certain is the ear incident coincided with the first episode of whatever malady afflicted him.
Another misconception concerns Vincent’s affairs of the heart. It is true he never had a traditional, long-term relationship with anyone. But he did live with a woman and her children in a family situation for a year, had ‘affairs’ with at least four different women at different times, and is implicated in fathering three children, all before arriving in Paris in 1886.
The last problem to be cleared concerns Vincent’s reputation for being serious and difficult. While his best friend, Emile Bernard, described him as being interminable in explaining and developing ideas, he also said he was not very ready to argue with dreams of gigantic exhibitions and philanthropic communities of artists. Vincent inspired such loyalty that Toulouse-Lautrec challenged someone to a duel because they made disparaging remarks about Vincent’s work.
Yes, when provoked, Vincent could raise his voice and argue in four different languages, yet he was so thoughtful of those who viewed his paintings, knowing the problems they would have trying to pronounce his last name correctly, he signed his works, simply, ‘Vincent’. Many times when asked to explain his work he would say, ‘My main goal is to leave the canvas more valuable after I’m through with it than it was before I started.’ Such was the politeness and self-effacing humour of Vincent van Gogh.