Vincent Van Gogh must be one of the best-known and most popular painters of them all. Who wouldn’t recognise his painting of sunflowers? Or the self-portrait with the bandaged ear? Or the picture of a bedroom in his house in Arles? Parts of his life story are almost equally well-known: the story behind that bandaged ear, for instance.
And yet in his lifetime, he had little success, and much sadness. This much I knew. But after a recent visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I know so much more. And his paintings – well, seeing them for real was an absolute revelation: reproductions simply don't do them justice. I have never, ever seen colours which sing from the canvas so brilliantly, with such luminosity, with such – ironically, given his suicide – zest for life.
|The interior of the museum
The museum is a big, airy, modern building – so although it’s busy, it doesn’t feel crowded. Do take advantage of the offer of an audio-guide – it really helps to tell the story. And it may not be quite the story you expect: it’s ultimately sad - he was only 37 when he died - but he lived his life with such intensity: and you only have to look at the paintings to see that he experienced a great deal of joy alongside the pain, and to read some of his letters to know that he had friends and family who loved him.
You begin with some of the many self-portraits that he did. He often used himself as his subject because he couldn’t afford to pay a model: he had a small income from his brother Theo, an art-dealer, but in his lifetime, he made very little from his work. The paintings are created from tiny brush strokes. When you look closely, you can hardly believe the colours he uses; his hair, which from a distance is reddish, is made up of individual short strokes of green, red and orange; his (blue) coat consists of two shades of blue, orange and white. He is aptly quoted as saying: “You’ll certainly see that I have my own way of looking.’
You’ll search in vain for a smiling Vincent – but then you don’t generally see a smiling Rembrandt either: if you’re painting yourself, it’s difficult to reapply your best smile every time you glance in the mirror – much easier to stick to a serious face.
As far as I recall, the actual narrative of Van Gogh’s life begins on the first floor. All through, there are examples of other painters’ works which inspired him. He strikes me as being touchingly humble about his work – so eager to learn. As a young man he made a series of false starts, and only began to learn painting (at Theo’s suggestion) when he was 27. He threw himself into it, at first combining his passion for painting with a deep-felt respect for the lives of peasants, which he wanted to capture on canvas. The Potato Eaters is perhaps his best known work from this period; it is an interior, showing five peasants eating their evening meal round a table, their heavy faces lit by a single overhead lamp. Vincent had high hopes for this painting, but it was greeted with criticism and incomprehension. The museum has a large collection of his letters, and they reveal how hurt he was by this response; his reaction was to conclude that he still had a great deal to learn, and he would study until he had learnt it. At the end of 1885 he went to Paris, and his palette quickly changed, becoming lighter, luminous, far more colourful. His world opened up: he saw paintings by Delacroix, Jean-Francois Millet, Manet and Monet: he met Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac and Emil Bernard. And, fatefully, he met Paul Gauguin.
|Montmarte: windmills and allotments
In 1888, Vincent decided to go south, to Arles in Provence. He was hopeful that the warmer climate would improve his health – but also he thought he might find there brighter colours, a more vivid light, and in this he was not disappointed. In the south, he painted some of his most enchanting pictures – the three images of blossoming orchards, the view of his street with lemon and yellow ochre buildings in front of a deep cobalt blue sky, the iconic sunflower paintings, and the picture of a bedroom, again in shades of yellow and blue. This is such a familiar picture it’s almost become a cliché, yet when you see it for real, its impact is breathtaking: I have never seen colours which sing out from the canvas with such brilliance.
|I've included this, but no reproduction remotely does justice to the original painting.
He rented four rooms in what became known as the Yellow House, and hoped to found there an artists’ colony – a ‘Studio of the South’. He thought Gauguin with his dominant, charismatic personality, would be the perfect man to lead it, and he invited him to come and stay.
The two men admired each other’s work, but before long they began to argue. Gauguin wasn’t particularly interested in painting from nature, whereas to Vincent, nature was immensely important as an inspiration. Gauguin expected others to defer to him; Vincent tried his methods but found them alien. My impression is that Vincent, emotional and needy, was eager for Gauguin to like him, hopeful that this partnership might lead to great things. Revealingly, the museum guide tells us that Vincent painted companion pictures of chairs. One, elegantly curved and polished, represented Gauguin: for himself, Vincent chose a simple, sturdily constructed kitchen chair with no airs and graces.
Vincent’s frail mental health could not cope with the disappointment when it all fell apart, and just before Christmas a crisis was reached when he cut off a piece of his left ear. Two days later Gauguin left Arles, and Vincent was admitted to hospital.
In May the following year, Vincent Van Gogh was voluntarily admitted to an asylum in St Rémy, not far from Arles. Even now, he didn’t stop painting: still lives and interpretations of religious works by other painters when he was confined indoors, paintings of the gardens when he was allowed outside. There’s a touching story behind one of the paintings he did at this time. It’s of almond blossom set against a turquoise sky. It’s utterly beautiful, and he painted it as a gift for Theo and his wife Jo on the birth of their baby – whom they had named Vincent. It’s expressive of such joy, such a sense of new life – and yet in a few months, Vincent would be dead by his own hand. Less than a year after that, loyal Theo would also be dead.
But Jo was convinced of the importance of her brother-in-law’s art, and she proved to be an excellent trustee of his work. Her son, the baby for whom Vincent had painted the almond blossom, took over the task, and eventually played a key part in the opening, in 1973, of the museum.
It’s very sad that in his own lifetime, Vincent did not know how widely-known, highly-respected, and well-loved he would one day become. But recently, this was redressed by the magic of television - and story-telling - when Vincent was the subject of an episode of Doctor Who, the iconic British TV sci-fi series. At the end of the episode, the Doctor brings Vincent forward in time, and takes him to a special exhibition of his work. Bill Nighy, doing a brilliant turn as the curator of the exhibition, is asked by the Doctor to assess how Vincent’s reputation stands at the beginning of the 21st century. Watch, but have a handkerchief ready!
I can’t recommend this marvellous museum highly enough. (It has an excellent cafe too!) But do book in advance to avoid the queues. You can book online, or you can buy a voucher when you get there from one of the tourist shops – if you get there reasonably early, as we did, you won’t then have to queue for very long at all.