Vincent Van Gogh
Seeds of Profit
By CHRISTINE WREN
On 30 March 1987, Vincent Van Gogh’s painting the Sunflowers sold for 3 times the price ever paid for an auctioned painting. The enormous price for which his paintings now sell contrasts starkly with the life of grim poverty, hunger, alcoholism and insanity he endured.
Van Gogh was born in 1853. At 16 he worked for an art dealer in The Hague. He then transferred to London where he became infatuated with his land-lady’s daughter. She made fun of him and laughed at his proposals of marriage. The resulting unhappiness affected his work and he lost his job. He next became an unpaid assistant at a boy’s school, where he was required to collect fees in the London Slums. The poverty he witnessed greatly distressed him and convinced he had a vocation for Christian preaching. During his preaching he shared the lives of the miners in the poorest area of Belgium, giving them his clothes and money. He also sketched the scenes of their lives. However preaching increased his overall melancholy and realised he had no talent for it.
At age 27 he resolved to become an artist. He moved to The Hague where for a year he shared a room with a prostitute and her child. His paintings were of peasant life in dark sombre colours. From then on he was supported by an allowance from his brother Theo with whom he corresponded weekly. When his father died he left Holland permanently and moved to Paris.
He had the barest of formal art training. His style was influenced by the pure bright colours of the
impressionists he met. This included the artist Pissaro who thought van Gogh “would either go
mad or leave the impressionist behind.” Both of these statements proved to be true. However Van Gogh alienated other artists with his tendency to be argumentative and his quick temper. He frequented notorious bars and drank too much.
The other influence on his work was the bright colours and simple designs of the Japanese
woodcuts. He perceived Arles as the French equivalent of Japan and moved there to set up an artists colony. Yellow is the colour of friendship to the Japanese and this predominates in his paintings, particularly the Sunflowers. At first he was happy. But he was painting 16 hours a day and eating little. He worked long hours in the blazing summer heat and sometimes rigged up candles on his hat so he could work all night. While he had a few friends, he was derided by the locals for his strange appearance and behaviour. One night after a quarrel he cut off his ear lobe and put it in an envelope and gave it to a prostitute. He was put in hospital suffering from hallucinations and blood loss. The townpeople persecuted him when he returned. He committed himself
to an asylum at St. Remy. He had convulsions and hallucinations in 3 monthly cycles, his only treatment being twice weekly cold baths.
During this time he completed 200 canvases including Starry Nights. They were characterized by swirling lines reflecting the torment of his mind.
Of his paintings he said: “I have a terrible lucidity at moments – when nature is so beautiful. I am not conscious of myself anymore, and the pictures come to me as in a dream”. “It is no more easy to make a good picture then it is to find a diamond or a pearl. It means trouble, and you risk your life for it.”
From the asylum he went to an artists colony. By now Theo was married with a young son and was worried about money. Van Gogh painted steadily and kept regular hours. On Sunday 27 July 1890 he shot himself and died in his brother’s arms. Theo died 6 months later of a heart attack.
In the space of 10 years Vincent had completed 800 canvases. But in his entire life he sold only 1 painting for 400 francs. He said: “I cannot help it if my paintings do not sell. The time will come when they are worth more than the price of paint.”
He has been proved right. The Sunflowers sold for $70.53 million. Of this $38.47 million went to
the British Government, $6.41 million to Christies and $25.65 million to the seller. It is surely absurd and tragic that so great an artistic genius should have been so neglected in his lifetime. If today his masterpieces are overvalued, in the scale of history this is only redressing the misery and penury which afflicted his whole life.
Van Gogh’s Watercolours
By SUE WILD
At the age of 28 Vincent wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, “I came away … with some painted
studies and a few watercolours. They are not masterpieces, of course, yet I really believe that there is some soundness and truth in them, more at any rate than what I’ve done up to now. And so I reckon that I am now at the beginning of the beginning of doing something serious. ….. I wish
you could see the two watercolours I have brought back with me, for you would realise that they are watercolours just like any other watercolours. They may still be full of imperfections, que soit, I am the first to say that I am still very dissatisfied with them, and yet they are quite different from what I have done before and look fresher and brighter. That doesn’t alter the fact, however, that they must get fresher and brighter still, but one can’t do everything one wants just like that. It will come little by little.”
The enthusiasm in this letter reflects the inspiration Van Gogh took from the Impressionists, who painted real landscapes out in the open. Sketching and watercolour were an obvious choice for an artist en plein air. A new generation of pigments, enabled him to paint in vibrant, sometimes unreal colours, which transmit emotions and create atmosphere. Initially he used watercolour to add colour to his pencil drawings, but as his technique developed he created watercolours that stand strong. Some show his distinctive textural brush strokes and the bold, vibrant colours for which his work is known. Van Gogh produced nearly 150 watercolours
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