Van Gogh was a Dutch painter. His parents were very disapproving of his becoming an artist and he survived by the financial support given him by his brother Theo. He studied art, firstly in Netherlands and later in Belgium, before he finally headed to France. He met many of the Impressionist painters in France, and eventually his work formed part of the Post-Impressionist school. He is one of my favourite painters, and his work, though he painted life, seems to be filtered through a prism of his imagination, making for unusual and striking works.
“Starry Night” is one of Van Gogh’s most famous works. Depicting the night sky over a town, the massive glowing orbs of the stars and moon, and the swirls across the sky, have a dream-like, mysterious intensity. A cypress tree reaches up to the sky to the left of the picture, with the town’s church immediately next to it. The sky dances while the world sleeps. It reminds me of time-delay photos of stars, where you have star trails that outline their movement. Van Gogh would have known nothing of this, and yet his mind and his art show something very similar. I love the colours in this picture, the cool night time blue with the yellow vibrance of the heavenly bodies bursting through, leaving white pathways through the sky. It’s a beautiful picture, somehow serene in spite of its movement, and I think shows the artist was very in touch with the natural world.
“The Night Café” has been described as an ugly picture. I do not have that impression of it, at all. It is a sad picture, with an air of hopelessness. The light is uncompromising, garish, giving the room a sickly shade, and leaving nowhere to hide. The pool table in the centre is unused, and the people sit in ones or twos, slumped and unhappy looking, distanced from each other and from themselves. One man stands looking out, but he is at a distance and we get no clear idea of what he may be feeling or thinking. The red and green paint on the walls, together with the lights, is what gives the room its garish, unhealthy look. This is a picture of isolation, alienation, despair. Van Gogh understood this place and he had lived this hopelessness. So, I do not find it ugly because it is too tragic.
“The Siesta” depicts a very different scene and mood. In a field during harvest time, in the shadow of a haystack, a man and woman lie asleep. Shoes sit beside the man, as well as two sickles, indicating they have been hard at work in the field. The blue sky indicates a beautiful day. The woman’s head is pillowed on her arms and her body is turned towards the man. He lies on his back with his hat over his face. Both the people are cushioned on the hay they have been working to cut and bundle. I think this is a lovely picture. The couple, farmers or farm labourers, are taking a break in the middle of their working day, before returning to the harvest. In the distance a cart and horse wait for work to resume. The relaxed postures of the couple make for a very peaceful ambience, a union of people with land.
(Note: this painting is a copy of one of a series of works by Jean-Francois Millet, entitled ‘Four Times of the day’. Van Gogh was a great admirer of Millet, and copied several of his works. On each occasion he added to them, made small alterations to the layout, and interpreted them with his own choice of colour.)
“Red Vineyard at Arles” is a picture that, as its name suggested, is full of autumn colour. The workers, mostly women, are spread out across the vineyard that is alive with red and orange. The ground is curiously coloured blue as well as green, and a late afternoon sun hangs in the sky. Light reflects from the lane by the vines, indicating there has been water there (from watering of the vines or rain, I’m not sure). Why do I like this picture? Well, mostly because it’s beautiful. The stunning autumn foliage, the juxtaposition of the vineyard and the workers with the framing of trees and distant houses across the horizon and curving down the left of the picture, and the golden, glowing sky, all serve to create a picturesque, rural scene. At the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that hard work is going on here – all those bent backs over the vines, makes my own back twinge in sympathy. The natural beauty juxtaposes with the hard work people do to make a living from the land.
(Note: this has the distinction of being the only painting Vincent Van Gogh sold in his lifetime, for which he was paid 400 francs by a woman called Anna Boch. Also of interest is that he didn’t paint this picture exactly from life – he walked through the vineyard and observed, then painted the picture the following day at his home, allowing his brilliant imagination to aid his memory, thus creating a stunning piece).
“Road with Cypress and Star” is one of Van Gogh’s last works, having been completed only a few months before his death. The Cypress tree (a frequent subject of his, as was seen in “Starry Night”) is dead centre in this picture, almost cutting it in half as it snakes up through the sky and out of sight. The tree’s foliage and shape are fluid and waving, simulating motion of wind through its branches. It stands in a yellow field beside a lane, along which two figures can be seen in the bottom right of the painting, workmen perhaps, as one appears to be carrying tools of some sort. Further back on the lane, a small cart is drawn by a single horse, and two people sit side by side on it. A house is beside the lane, and almost directly behind the cart, with smaller cypress trees surrounding it. The picture takes place at night, as can be seen from the sky, so we assume these people are travelling home at the end of their day. To the left of the tree is the star of the title. It is huge and glowing, though without the frantic swirls of “Starry Night”. To the right of the tree a crescent moon glimmers, though the star seems to be shedding more light than the moon. The cypress tree has symbolic meaning among some cultures, and some people do claim that Van Gogh meant to use the cypress in this painting as a symbol for his coming death. The Biblical meaning of the cypress symbolizes eternal life, however. If Van Gogh meant it as anything other than a personal preference, could he have meant it as both death and rebirth? Something to ponder. It’s a wonderful picture regardless, another that seems mystical and magical. People in this picture are almost inconsequential next to the majesty of the tree and the star.
Vincent Van Gogh had a unique and magical vision that has inspired many of us since his lifetime. He had many troubles, and in the end took his own life. It has often been said that genius goes with madness. I cannot help but wonder, if it takes madness to create such beauty, then bring on the madness. If we were all like Vincent, maybe it would be a more beautiful world.