Depicting suffering: Vincent van Gogh

An inner drive towards greatness meets utter rejection from society. Let’s have a brief look at Vincent van Gogh’s infamous life, his struggles, and his ultimate victory.

Today’s society regards Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) as one of the greatest painters who ever lived. He worked tirelessly and vigorously, producing over 2100 artworks within a single decade. All of them are now worth a fortune, with recent sales reaching over $66 million for a single painting. He’s still associated with myths about his madness, difficult personality, and the moment when he cut his own ear off.

His style, often classified as post-impressionistic (probably, in part, because he was inspired by and reacted against the impressionists), is known for its vivid use of colour. With beautifully accurate brushstrokes he breathed life into his art. It contains a sense of immediacy and urgency almost unparalleled by other artists.

Despite this, however, he remained unrecognised. Most of his contemporaries even considered him a failure, a lunatic, a nuisance. He was incapable of making enough money from his work to sustain himself, instead relying on his brother Theo. Only through the discovery of his letters with Theo do we know his theories and ideas about art.

The myth lives on

Needless to say, with a stellar ascent to fame after his death in contrast with his disastrous lifestyle before committing suicide – suffering not only from poverty and depression but also from psychotic episodes and delusions – he fed the myth of the romantic tortured artist. The real Van Gogh led a life with less glamour than the media often portrays.

His paintings remain excellent, however, whether romanticised by the media or not. With so many pictures around you are unlikely to run out of gems of his to discover. I’ve selected three to present to you today that you might not have seen previously. And they may even surprise you with the prevalence of darkness in the repertoire of an artist usually known for his ingenious use of colours.

I’ll steer clear of selecting some of his most well-known work – such as his Sunflowers series, The Starry Night, or the Wheatfield with Crows, because you probably already know them. Instead, I’ll draw your attention to some of his lesser-known work. I’m hoping to show you parts of him that are slightly less obvious to the public.

Prisoner’s Round (after Gustave Doré)

A copy of Doré’s Newgate Exercise Yard, Van Gogh painted this at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint Remy, where he admitted himself after a series of breakdowns. The asylum functioned in part as a prison, meaning that he wasn’t allowed to leave the confinements to seek inspiration elsewhere.

The viewer is greeted by a particularly dark palette, with dark and cold tones dominating the picture, giving it a slightly sickly feeling. The expressions on the prisoners walking around are unclear, but the little you can make out demonstrate a sense of isolation and depression – which is further enhanced by the small number of windows and the staleness of the walls surrounding the area. An excellent portrayal of claustrophobia.

Hospital at Saint Remy

Van Gogh also painted this picture at the asylum, this time of the building itself, hidden behind various trees and with some people roaming around. Van Gogh was later allowed to leave the asylum while still staying there since the wardens considered him less dangerous than his fellow inmates, but at first he was forced to paint only what he saw through the bars in his room.

Hospital at Saint Remy is a bit more typical for Van Gogh than Prisoner’s Round, but despite the more vibrant colours, the darker tones and a sense of suppression through the overbearing number of branches in the upper half of the painting still dominate the picture. He painted the asylum itself in a bright yellow: perhaps a sign that he was hoping to find a relief to his mental anguish?

Road with Cypress and Star

Composed roughly a year after his more famous Starry Night, this painting is another beautiful portrayal of a night sky. It contains all the nervous brushstrokes we came to know and love in his other painting. The curving road with travellers seems more full of life and progress than the peaceful depiction in Starry Night.

Van Gogh was preoccupied with cypresses during this time. He mentioned them in letters to Theo, comparing them to Egyptian obelisks. While I don’t know whether Van Gogh knew about it, many artists use cypresses as a strong symbol of death. Through its lurking in the painting, we can say that he felt this dark presence constantly watching over him. This is in contrast with the otherwise rather pleasant looking depiction. I adore the crescent moon and the curvature of the road. While I find the stars less vibrant than in Starry Night, it is still an ingenious depiction of the sky.

Closing Thoughts

That should be enough fanboying for one day! Van Gogh was a brilliant painter to bless us with his genius despite his early death at 37. Oh, by the way: the ear thing might have been an accident during an argument with his housemate Paul Gauguin. But we’ll probably never know for sure.

Sadly, London is generally not the best place to view Van Gogh’s art (comparatively), but the Tate is starting a new exhibition on the 27th March – 11 August 2019, bringing together 40 of his works to demonstrate the inspiration he got from his stay here and how he inspired other artists in London – something incredible to look forward to!

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