In this episode, I continued my discussion with Chuck Hoff about Vincent van Gogh. We covered the later part of his life and career after he moved to France. The painting we specifically focused our attention on was The Starry Night from 1889. During the episode, we also briefly discussed The Night Cafe and Starry Night Over the Rhone.
1886 Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris and lived with Theo. This is where his work started to become much more colorful. While still continuing his studies in Paris, he is getting to know other artists like Emile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec.
Theo found living with Vincent to be unbearable and in 1887, Vincent moved to a suburb where he got to know the pointilist painter Paul Signac. Vincent adopted some of their technique. One of the things and optical color theory is the use of complimentary colors to create vibrant effects. Vincent once wrote of a painting, that he “tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.”
In 1888 he moved to Arles. His hope was to get a fresh start and eventually form an artist colony. This was one of his most prolific periods. Most people don’t realize in just a decade, van Gogh created about 2100 works of art and a good deal of that collection came in just the last two years of his life.
This is where he had the yellow house that he shared with Gauguin for some time. Many of his famous works such as the sunflowers, his bedroom, the night cafe came from this period. Van Gogh was super excited to have Gauguin come stay with him. He prepped the place and he kind of went over budget buying furniture but wanted to impress his new roommate.
Over time the friendship soured. It was after a fight between the two of them that Vincent cut his ear off. Exactly what happened is unclear. The generally accepted story is that Gauguin was going to leave, van Gogh was distraught and chased after him, they had a heated exchange and van Gogh took a razor to his ear. As odd as this sounds, there was a character in a book who did something similar at this time and Vincent was known to have a history of self-injury. He believed he had chased away his friend and ruined his chance at his dream of an artist colony. There are others who believe that Gauguin cut off Vincent’s ear in the heat of an argument.
After the ear incident, Vincent needed serious medical attention. For a while it was not clear whether he would survive and he claimed to have no memory of the incident indicating it happened during a severe mental breakdown. He stayed in a few hospitals for his physical and psychological problems.
In 1889, he painted Portrait of Dr. Felix Rey. Apparently the doctor didn’t think much of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop before ultimately giving it away. I cannot help but wonder how that conversation went “Here take this portrait of me.” seems odd enough, but then adding “it was made by an unstable man and it was temporarily used to patch a hole in my chicken coop.” and someone else responded “sounds good. I’ll hang that in my home.” The portrait that would have been featured on redneck repairs is now in a museum and valued over $50 million.
Van Gogh entered the asylum at Saint Remy on May 8, 1889. It seems like this was a nice asylum. He had two cells, one of which he could use as a studio. The asylum at Saint Remy was run by progressives who believed that people would benefit from time out with nature and there were gardens around and Vincent was allowed to walk the grounds. In some ways, this was likely the healthiest he was during his artistic career because he was getting regular meals, or distracted by vices like drinking.
While he was free to work and painted quite a bit, he was limited in subject matter. He could walk the grounds a bit and did paint some landscapes but he also relied quite heavily on inspiration from other artists' works as well as re-working some of his older pieces. This is the period where we see all of his swirls and distortions coming through.
When talking about a bundle of his paintings sent to Theo, Vincent referred to Starry Night as nothing special (He said some other things like a wheat field, mountain, orchard were a little good and lumped Starry Night in with “the rest” that meant nothing to him). In a tragic bit of irony, while today it is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces ever painted, Vincent van Gogh considered The Starry Night to be a failure.
As always, you can find images of the work discussed along with other resources on the website www.whoartedpodcast.com. If you have any connections, corrections or suggestions you would like to share, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org
Other works discussed in this episode included The Night Cafe and Starry Night Over the Rhone