Vincent Van Gogh – His Life in Art

Vincent van Gogh –

His Life in Art

Edited by David Bomford

Yale University Press – £35.00

Theo van Gogh was grief stricken by the death of his elder brother and kindred spirit. Theo, an art dealer, had the majority of his brother’s paintings and drawings in his possession. It stands to reason, therefore, that he immediately wished to generate interest in Vincent’s work by organizing an exhibition, so that everyone would know ‘’that he was a great artist… Time will bring the honour due him, and many a one will grieve to think he died so young… I have decided to organize an exhibition of his works in Paris within the next few months. I wish you could see a collection of his pictures. One has to see them together to understand them truly […].

(‘Family Matters’)

This is a truly majestic collection of works by surely one of the finest painters in the world. But what makes Vincent van Gogh – His Life in Art particularly appealing, is the light that is shed on the artist himself, as well as some of his profoundly inventive and unique working techniques.

This is made clear at the very outset by Nienke Bakker who writes: ‘’[…] his art was developing in spectacular fashion in response to all these fresh impulses. Van Gogh no longer painted dark landscapes and figural works, but used brighter colour and above all lighter shades, and he experimented with different techniques and brush strokes […]. He also aimed for more colour in the landscapes he painted at Montmartre, in which he continued to work at first in a traditional style reminiscent of the Barbizon and Hague Schools, with lighter but not yet pronounced colours.’’

Suffice to say, such considered bearing continues to reflect on the artist’s ever growing maturity into his own style and approach; something which, however this may continue to be perceived today, remains highly, if not idiosyncratically informative to say the least: ‘’A marked change occurred in his work in the winter of 1886-87, when he began to apply the innovations of the Impressionists in earnest: his palette now became even brighter, and his brushwork considerably looser. Like Toulouse Lautrec, he experimented with peinture a l’essence – a technique using highly diluted oil paint to obtain a refined, flowing brushstroke that was the complete opposite of the thick, heavily loaded strokes he had been using up to then and to which he would later return.’’

Continued reading both alerts and reminds the reader of Van Gogh’s acknowledgement of his fellow countryman, Rembrandt: ‘’Vincent van Gogh was very much aware of the achievements in the field of self-portraiture by his Dutch seventeenth-century predecessor Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt produced more than sixty self-portraits over the span of his long career, and these works have been celebrated as both psychological studies and masterpieces of painting. Inevitably, Van Gogh would have compared his efforts to those of the master; to paint his own image must have been a somewhat daunting undertaking. Although Van Gogh made numerous portraits in the very early part of his career, he did not attemptany self-portraits before his time in Paris. However, once he embarked on this genre, he proceeded in an almost frenzied manner, painting twenty-seven self-portraits between the fall of 1886 and 1888’’ (‘Self-Portrait’ page 96).

That each painting is thoroughly discussed within the 159 pages of Vincent van Gogh – His Life in Art (excluding Chronology, Selected References, Index, Copyright and Photography Credits) is of particular merit – something that in and of itself, occasionally bequeaths a whole different approach and appreciation.

Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters’ on page 88 being a perfect demonstration: ‘’Painted just a few months later than Roses and Peonies, this still life represents a major step forward for Van Gogh. The darker tonality, still dominant in the earlier painting despite his efforts to ‘’make his works fresher in colours,’’ is now replaced with an overall light palette, both in the background and in the flowers. For the background, Van Gogh used his favourite cobalt blue already found in the background of Portrait of a Prostitute. In comparison, the brushstrokes here are less agitated, giving the impression of a monochrome, flecked wallpaper. This background serves as a foil to the exuberant whites, pinks, reds, and yellow of the flowers […].’’

As his brother Theo van Gogh substantiates in the above opening quote, it is quite something to see and appreciate Vincent’s work within the parameters of a thematic collection.

All that essentially remains to be said is that this book is of superb paper quality. As such, it may well be the next best thing to an actual exhibition itself. The only obvious, prime difference being, that it continues to effervescently resonate upon one’s own bookshelf.

Even if it is nevertheless, just a (great) book.

David Marx

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