Monday 27 May 2019

Van Gogh and Britain

'Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that's the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see'.
Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, London, 1874.

Van Gogh and Britain,

at Tate Britain.

The young Vincent Van Gogh spent nearly three years in England between 1873 and 1876. His love of British culture lasted his whole life and contributed to the style and subject matters of his art. Born in the Netherlands in 1853, Van Gogh tried careers in the art trade and as teacher and then a preacher before becoming an artist in 1880, at the age of 27. He died ten years later.

This exhibition provides an opportunity to view artworks by Van Gogh afresh, to see British culture through his eyes and to see him through the eyes of the British artists he inspired.

Visiting the exhibition was hell on earth. We chose to go on a Tuesday, hoping that the crowds would be manageable. How wrong we were! There were so many people, who like us, were eager to see this exhibition, that it was impossible to get to see the works properly or to linger. But, it was worth it: this was one of the most exhilarating exhibitions I have seen in a long time, and despite everything we thoroughly enjoyed it. Taking photographs was near impossible, all I could do was snap quickly, so the quality is very poor, with reflections from the lights not only on the drawings through the glass, but also on the oil paintings. I still thought it was worth using them.

Gustav Dore, engravings from the London: A Pilgrimage series, 1872

Van Gogh was influenced by Dore's engravings, as seen in Newgate - Exercise Yard, featured here later on. Although he had little formal art training, studying prints helped him find novel compositions and develop his original drawing and painting style.

He also admired Victorian novels for their 'reality more real than reality'. He was devoted to Charles Dickens, and wrote: 'My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes'. He wrote to Theo: 'Reading books is like looking at paintings... one must find beautiful that which is beautiful'.

Autumn Landscape, Nuenen, October 1995, (oil on canvas)

Painted in the last autumn Van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, the contrasting blues and oranges of this daylight scene reflect books Van Gogh had been reading about colour.

The Bois de Boulogne with People Walking, Paris autumn 1886, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886. He was inspired by impressionist painters and adopted their bright colours, brisk brushwork and way of seeing modern life. Here, the low sun shining through the trees reflects his love of autumn scenes set at the end of the day. His working figures are replaced by leisure-seekers and lovers.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum Saint-Remy, November 1889, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France in February 1888, where he painted in a new bright, dynamic style inspired by Japanese prints. At the end of the year he experienced severe mental illness which returned every few months for the final 18 months of his life. He spent his last autumn in the hospital of Saint-Paul where he painted the 'leaf fall' for the final time. He loved the garden, but the empty bench and the small figure of a patient seated away from the path hint at his sense of being separated from the outside world.

The Stone Bench in the Asylum at Saint-Remy, Saint-Remy, Autumn 1889, (oil on canvas)

Alley Bordered by Trees, 1884, (graphite, ink and chalk on paper)

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, Nuenen, October 1884, (oil on canvas on panel)

Van Gogh painted these pictures two months after he told his brother Theo to see Hobbema's The Avenue at Middelharnis in London. The autumnal season and the woman in mourning dress add an air of sadness. 'How perfectly simply death and burial happen', he later wrote, 'cooly as the falling of an autumn leaf'.

Road in Etten, Etten, October 1881, (chalk, graphite, pastel, watercolour and ink on paper)

Autumn Landscape at Dusk, Nuenen, October-November 1888, (oil on canvas on panel)

Starry Night, Arles, August 1888, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh described this painting as 'the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river with the starry sky above'. The rhythmic reflections of the modern street lighting along the embankment recall views of the Thames that had interested him in London. However, the strong mistral wind in Arles blew away fog and pollution and Starry Night contrasts artificial lights with constellations of stars.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge, 1871-72, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh mentioned Whistler many times in his letters. He praised Whistler's etchings of the river, The Thames Set, published in 1871, which were on view in shops and exhibitions when Van Gogh was in London. Whistler's Nocturnes, his foggy night-views of the Thames, caused a stir at the time and Van Gogh followed the controversy around them. The Nocturnes were shown in two exhibitions while Van Gogh was in London and a large Whistler show in Paris after he moved there in 1887.

Miners in the Snow, Cuesmes, September 1880, (graphite, chalk and watercolour on paper)

When Van Gogh first took up art late in 1880, he studied manuals and reproductions of artworks to help him. His first known drawing from this time depicted men and women miners in the Belgian mining region, where he had lived and preached for a year.

Van Gogh mentioned George Boughton in a letter about this drawing and the row of dark figures on the road against a snowy background adapts Boughton's Christmas Scene - it would have been familiar to Van Gogh as an engraving and as a reproduction.

Carpenter's Yard and Laundry, The Hague, late May 1882, (graphite, chalk ink and watercolour on paper)

The Dustman, The Hague, 1883, (graphite on paper)

British prints changed the way Van Gogh saw his surroundings. In the Hague, he wrote:  'Today I paid a visit to the place where the dustmen bring the rubbish etc. By Jove, how splendid that was - for Buckman'.

Dustmen found their way into the literature and illustrations of the 19th century. Van Gogh's English title, written on the drawing, links it to Dicken's novel Our Mutual Friend and to Buckman's print which he had acquired at the time he visited the rubbish dump.

The Public Soup Kitchen, The Hague, March 1883, (graphite, chalk and watercolour on paper)

Although Van Gogh gained moral and practical support from the prints he collected, they were secondary to his first-hand experience. When he lived in The Hague he used the local soup kitchen and asked people he met there to be his models. Sien Hoornik was one of his models. She moved into Van Gogh's lodgings with her young daughter. She was pregnant and gave birth soon after.

Van Gogh collected prints of refuges and soup kitchens, which informed several works. In this painting, Hoornik stands with her daughter and a boy, holding her baby to her cheek.

Van Gogh wanted to find ways the artist could contribute to society. He admired the community of artists at the British social reforming newspaper The Graphic. He called them 'the great portrayers of the people'. Their wood engravings of modern urban life assisted Van Gogh's search for subjects in his surroundings.

In Church, The Hague, late September-early October 1881, (graphite, ink and watercolour on paper)

Entrance to Voyer d'Argenson Park at Asnieres, Paris, spring 1887, (oil on canvas)

Seated Mother with Child, The Hague, autumn 1882, (graphite on paper)

Van Gogh made a number of artworks of Sien Hoornik. Van Gogh appreciated her professional patience with his demands for poses and his passion for work. He told Theo: 'This is my model and me'. 

'I met a pregnant woman … who roamed the streets in winter - who had to earn her bread, you can imagine how. I took that woman as a model and worked with her the whole winter'.

Mourning Woman Seated on a Basket, The Hague, February 1883, (lithographic crayon and watercolour on paper)

Woman Seated, The Hague, April-May 1882, (graphite and ink on paper)

Man Reading at the Fireside, October-November 1881, (black chalk, charcoal, grey wash, opaque watercolour on laid paper)

At the beginning of his career in Etten, Van Gogh painted Cornelis Schuitemaker, a war vetevan dependent on poor relief. The image of a thoughtful figure by a fire, facing the end of the year, and the end of their life, had a long history in British and European art.

Worn Out, Etten, September - October 1881, (watercolour on paper)

In his second version of a figure by a fire, Van Gogh brought in modern sources. The English title was taken from a print of this name by Scottish artist, Thomas Faed, which he had seen in London. The motif was common in literature, and features in Dickens' Hard Times. Van Gogh wrote that he was also thinking of a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Eternity's Gate, The Hague, November 1882, (lithograph on paper)

Van Gogh wrote that this lithograph was 'to express the special mood of Christmas and New Year'.

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate), Saint-Remy, May 1890, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh made this painting with its English title while at the Saint-Paul hospital, based on his lithograph made eight years earlier. When he was not well enough to go out and work from nature he made 'translations' from prints. His doctor observed that when he was unwell 'he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone'.

'You may not always be able to say what it is that confines … and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long, is this for ever, is this for eternity?'

Woman Sewing and Cat, Etten, October - November, 1881, (chalk, wash and watercolour on paper)

Sorrow, The Hague, November 1882, (graphite and ink on paper)

Loom with Weaver, Nuenen, April - May, 1884, (oil on canvas)

The Prison Courtyard, Saint-Remy, February 188=90, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh wrote of a 'prison' of poverty and social prejudice that prevented him from being the artist he wanted to be. Later, in the Saint-Paul hospital he made a 'translation' of Dore's print of Newgate. His description of his life at the hospital echoed his painting 'the prison was crushing me, and pere Peyton [his doctor] didn't pay the slightest attention to it'.

Gustav Dore, Newgate - Exercise Yard

Self-Portrait with Felt Hat, December 1886 - January 1887, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh made 35 self-portraits over his life. They incorporated some of the principles of his British-inspired 'Heads of the People', representing himself as modern, working man with dignity and psychological depth.

Path in the Woods, Paris, May - July 1887, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh saw Pissarro's painting La Maison de la Sourde, Eragny, when it was exhibited at the Salon des Independants annual art exhibition. Path in the Woods was one of a series of paintings Van Gogh made while he was exploring neo-impressionism and painting with Pissarro's circle in the Paris suburb of Asnieres.

Wheatfield, Arles, June 1888

Still Life, Basket of Apples, Paris, autumn 1887, (oil on canvas)

Augustine Roulin (Rocking a Cradle), Arles, March 1889, (oil on canvas)

Even Van Gogh thought the bright colour and bold pattern of his portrait of his friend Augustine Roulin was extreme. He imagined this painting cheering the cabin of a sailor far from home and likened it to a popular print 'from a penny bazaar'. 'It's a woman dressed in green... Her hair is entirely orange and in plaits. The complexion worked up in chrome yellow... This wallpaper is blue-green with pink dahlias and dotted with orange and with ultramarine... Whether I've actually sung a lullaby with colour I leave to the critics'.

This painting was exhibited at Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which introduced Van Gogh's art, 20 years after he died. The title created the term 'post-impressionist' to describe the artists in the exhibition. The paintings shocked people unfamiliar with modern styles, but the exhibition attracted over 25,000 visitors and was a turning point in British culture. Virginia Woolf wrote, 'on or about December 1910, human character changed'. 

Trunk of an Old Yew Tree, Arles, October 1888, (oil on canvas)

Hospital at Saint-Remy, 1889, (oil on canvas)

Sunflowers, Arles, August 1888, (oil on canvas)

Winifred Nicholson, Honeysuckle and Sweetpeas, 1945-46, (oil on board)

Van Gogh's flower paintings made an impact on a younger generation of artists. Nicholson wrote that she admired Van Gogh's understanding of arranging contrasting colours, 'red against green, blue against yellow'.

William Nicholson, Miss Jekyll's Gardening Boots, 1920, (oil on wood)

Nicholson was commissioned to paint a portrait of the garden designer and writer Gertrude Jekyll. When she refused to interrupt her work to sit for him, Nicholson borrowed the idea of Van Gogh's Shoes.

Shoes, Paris, September - November 1886, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait, Paris, autumn 1887, (oil on canvas)

Thatched Roofs, 1884, (ink graphite and gouache on paper)

Pollard Willows at Sunset, Arles, March 1888, (oil on canvas on cardboard)

Vanessa Bell, The Vineyard, 1930, (oil on board)

Farms near Auvers, July 1890, (oil on canvas)

Recent research at the Van Gogh Museum has established that Farms near Auvers was one of two paintings Van Gogh was working on when he died.

The Oise at Auvers, May 1890, (graphite and gouache on paper)

A Corner of the Garden of St Paul's Hospital at Saint-Remy, May 1889, (graphite and ink on paper)

Self-Portrait, Saint-Remy, autumn 1889, (oil on canvas)

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Van Gogh

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI, 1957, (oil on canvas)

Francis Bacon said, 'Van Gogh is one of my great heroes.... [He] speaks of the need to make changes in reality... This is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of the reality'. Bacon felt that this intensity could be found in the application and appearance of paint. His brushwork was influenced by Van Gogh as well as Matthew Smith and his expansive, directional strokes enliven the studies for a portrait of Van Gogh.

Francis Bacon, Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV, 1957, (oil on canvas)

Bacon read Van Gogh's letters and understood the importance to the artist of the figure on the road. He described Painter on the Road to Tarascon as a 'phantom of the road'  and turned Van Gogh's shadow into a sinister presence.