Analyzing Vincent van Gogh

Part I in a two-part exclusive interview with the Curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

By Robin Jay

“I dream of painting, I paint my dreams.”…
“One can speak poetry just by arranging colors well,
just as one can say comforting things in music.” …
“I long so much to make beautiful things.
But beautiful things require effort —
and disappointment and perseverance.”
– Vincent van Gogh in letters

The eloquent words of  beloved impressionist Vincent van Gogh, documented in the more than 800 letters he wrote during his lifetime (mostly to his brother Theo), tell the bittersweet tale of his tragic, yet legendary, life.

Self-portrait with straw hat (March 1887 - June 1887), Oil on canvas Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Self-portrait with straw hat
(March 1887 – June 1887),
Oil on canvas Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Few would guess the brilliant literary correspondence was penned by a man who dropped out of school at the age of 15; of a man whose first aspiration was to help others as a clergyman but struggled a lifetime with low self-worth; of a man who painted some 900 works (now priceless), yet sold only one during his lifetime; of a man whose social circle included masters like Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Lucien Pissarro and Emile Bernard, but became famous only after death; of a man whose beloved masterpiece Starry Night was painted from behind the window bars of an asylum (he struggled with epilepsy and mental illness); of a man whose personal despair led him to cut off a piece of his own earlobe and to self-inflict a bullet wound that would claim his own life.

Starry Night, 1889, Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm,  Museum of Modern Art, New York

Starry Night, 1889, Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm,
Museum of Modern Art, New York

“To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture,”  Van Gogh said in a letter in 1880 when he first decided that it was possible to serve God and become an artist.

If only Van Gogh could have known the tremendous impact his labor of love would have on the art world more than a century after his passing – that historians, students, collectors and conservationists – and editors – alike would still voraciously seek to learn from and emulate his contributions.
Ultimately, Van Gogh’s nephew and namesake, Vincent Willem van Gogh, inherited the priceless collection of artworks. He transferred them in 1962 to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was opened by the Dutch state in 1973 and is home to the largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh, on loan from the Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

It is with great pleasure that South Florida Opulence shares with you three exclusive interviews – in a two-part series. Here in Part I, we chat with the Vincent van Gogh Curator of Exhibitions Nienke Bakker about the museum’s intensive research on Van Gogh at Work. In Part II,  we’ll talk with curator Bakker about Mr. Van Gogh’s Letters and with Ella Hendriks, the museum’s Art Conservationist, who
recently finished the painstaking, but intriguingly revealing, restoration of Van Gogh’s world-famous painting The Bedroom. Don’t miss “Secrets of The Bedroom”!

Dr. Paul Gachet , 1890, Oil on canvas, 67 x 56 cm,  Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Dr. Paul Gachet , 1890, Oil on canvas, 67 x 56 cm,
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

South Florida Opulence: What are the key themes of study that experts at your museum researched regarding how Van Gogh worked?
Nienke Bakker: The Van Gogh Museum, with its collection of over 200 paintings and more than 500 drawings by Van Gogh, as well as 800 letters written by him, has a long tradition of scientific research into the life and work of the artist. Nowhere else in the world is it possible to study so many works by Van Gogh in such a cohesive context. Recently an innovative and multidisciplinary research programme, ‘Van Gogh’s Studio Practice’ was carried out by the museum together with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Shell Nederland. The objective was to compare Van Gogh’s techniques, use of materials and acquired artistic know-how with those of his contemporaries and artists of earlier generations who had influenced him. This eight-year long, wide-ranging and ambitious project resulted in, among other things, a scholarly publication, a symposium and the large exhibition entitled “Van Gogh at Work,”  clarifying the working methods of the artist for the first time for a wide audience.

Before an artist starts to work, he needs to make choices that will determine the end result: He needs to decide what type of canvas or paint he is going to use. Like other painters, Van Gogh examined the characteristics of different materials with great care and experimented with various types of canvas, grounds and pigments. He often bought standard-size pre-primed canvases, which allowed him to start painting right away, and which fitted most frames.

When drawing or painting, Van Gogh had a number of devices at hand to help him reproduce a composition in the right proportions. One of these was a perspective device – a wooden or cardboard frame with a pattern of horizontal, vertical and sometimes diagonal threads. He copied the frame and the threads on his sheet of paper or canvas and then viewed his subject through the frame. On many of his works, from the Holland drawings to the Paris paintings, the lines of these grids are still visible in the underdrawing.  Van Gogh had perspective frames in different sizes. In the Netherlands, he had had them made by a carpenter; in Paris he bought standard-sized frames and added the threads himself. Usually he chose the perspective frame of the appropriate size for a particular sheet of paper or canvas. Gradually he made less and less use of the perspective frame. The resultant more spontaneous approach gave his
personal, energetic drawing style a significant impulse.

SFO: Why did Van Gogh recycle his canvases, and what can be learned about Van Gogh by studying his various layers?
Bakker: Van Gogh seems to have made both creative and efficient use of his materials. He often reused his canvases, out of financial necessity or because the study he had painted on it was no longer of use to him. Sometimes he painted over an existing work; in other cases he scraped off the paint and applied a new ground. In the summer of 1887, he was forced to turn to this method of recycling canvases, as he did not have the means to buy new ones. During this period he also created works on the backs of existing paintings. Research has shown that some canvases were used several times. The underlying representations can be identified with X-rays and MA-XRF (X-ray fluorescence), a technique used to analyze the chemical composition of paint.

SFO: What can you tell us about the colours Van Gogh chose for his paintings?
Bakker: Colour is an essential and constant element in Van Gogh’s entire oeuvre. Many of his experiments with colour are based on the theory of complementary colours: The colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel (red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange) create contrast and accentuate each other. Van Gogh learned the basic principles of this theory from art books, and in his still lifes he experimented with different combinations and mixtures of colours.

Newly discovered – Sunset at Montmajour (1888). Painted during his period in Arles in the south of France.

Newly discovered – Sunset at Montmajour (1888). Painted during his period in Arles in the south of France.

It was only when Van Gogh saw paintings with intense colour  effects in Paris, where he lived from 1886 to 1888, that he realized the full potential of colour combinations. He would apply the theory of complementary contrasts for the rest of his painting career. He applied bright contrasting colours next to and on top of each other, while some colours were applied straight from the tube. His became an expressive painting style with colour at its centre. In addition to contemporary French art – notably the daring stylistic experiments of his good friend Emile Bernard – Japanese woodblock prints were an important source of inspiration for Van Gogh’s new use of colour. Especially in the paintings from his first year in Provence, we encounter the strong colours, solid simple compositions and lack of depth so reminiscent of Japanese prints.

Along with his particular use of colour, it is Van Gogh’s distinct brushwork that lends his work its specific impact and aura. During the 10 years of his career, he continued to experiment with different ways of applying paint. Van Gogh’s creative exploration of the use of colour and impasto and of new styles and techniques,  especially during the second year of his stay in Paris, enabled him to establish a very  personal, modern style characterized by strong colours and  a distinctive swirling brushstroke.

SFO: What was his studio like? Was he organized? Do you know why he sometimes chose to work outside?
Bakker: Van Gogh preferred to work outdoors whenever possible. By the second half of the 19th century, artists no longer had to mix their own paint. Instead, they could buy it ready-made in tubes. That made it much more convenient to paint in the open air. Dealers in art supplies responded to this trend with equipment designed for outdoor use, such as field easels and portable painters’ boxes. Van Gogh had a folding field easel and a painter’s box with tubes of paint that he could easily bring along when he worked outdoors.

He also worked in his studio, which he always furnished with great care wherever he lived. From his letters we have a few descriptions, such as this one about his studio in The Hague in 1882: ‘The studio looks so authentic, it seems to me: plain, grey-brown wallpaper, scrubbed floorboards, muslin fixed to laths in front of the windows, everything bright. And of course the studies on the wall, an easel on each side, and a big pine-wood work-table. Adjoining the studio is a sort of alcove where the drawing boards, portfolios, boxes, sticks, etc. are, and also where all the prints lie. And in the corner a cupboard with all the little pots and bottles, and also all my books’.

SFO: Is it known what Van Gogh’s personality was like when he was deep in work compared to his social personality when he wasn’t painting? Do you know what his hobbies were outside of art?
Bakker: Van Gogh was always working extremely hard. He was enthusiastic to the point of fanaticism, set excruciatingly high hurdles for himself, and struggled long and hard to overcome them. His personal life became completely subordinate to art. When he wasn’t painting or drawing, he was writing letters or reading books, with the same zeal.

Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky, 1890, Oil on canvas 50 × 100.5 cm (19.7 × 39.6 in), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky, 1890, Oil on canvas
50 × 100.5 cm (19.7 × 39.6 in), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

SFO: Is it known what works Van Gogh got the most pleasure out of painting and, if so, why?
Bakker: There are many examples, such as this letter written in June 1888 when he was busy painting Wheatfields in Provence: ‘I even work in the wheatfields at midday, in the full heat of the sun,
without any shade whatever, and there you are, I revel in it like a cicada. My God, if only I’d known this country at 25, instead of coming here at 35.’

SFO: When guests attend your exhibits about Van Gogh at Work, what do they find most interesting or surprising?
Bakker: Most visitors know relatively little about the artist and his oeuvre, so they are amazed by the enormous amount of works he created and the evolution he went through as a painter and a draughtsman in only 10 years’ time. Van Gogh, in stark contrast to
the myth of the impulsive genius, was in fact a very disciplined artist who worked hard at improving his technical skills and consciously experimented with a wide range of materials. He drew inspiration from fellow artists, such as Anton Mauve, Paul Gauguin, Emile
Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and avidly explored the new ideas of his time.

Look  for Part II of our series on Analyzing Vincent van Gogh in the summer issue of South Florida Opulence in June.

Analyzing Vincent van Gogh