The van Gogh family had a son on March 30, 1852, whom they named Vincent. Sadly this infant died, but a year to the day later they had another son whom they also named Vincent. This is the man we now know as a great artist.
Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of thirty-seven, unknown, broke and a seeming failure at his career and almost every personal relationship he ever attempted. He had alienated other artists, employers and various women with whom he was infatuated. By all accounts he was often out of control emotionally. Since he had tremendous spurts of productivity, painting many hundreds of pieces in a fairly short time but also slumping into black moods, current psychologists suggest that he was bi-polar, among other theories.
His habit of drinking absinthe and occasional ingestion of certain lead-based art supplies cannot have helped his mental condition. Several of his health conditions can cause seeing haloes around bright objects, such as those depicted in his Starry Night paintings. He was hospitalized repeatedly and records show that he experienced seizures. While hospitalized, he was released during the day to paint.
Recently, my art students asked if we could paint van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” My immediate reaction was, “Ooh-nice, let’s do it.” My task is to make a prototype, analyzing the steps to completing the painting so that when class meets, we can do a “paint-along-with” project. In order to do this, I have to get inside the head of the artist. What is this painting about? What does the artist see? What is the artist trying to communicate to the viewer?
This process was challenging yet inspiring with Picasso and O’Keefe. This process was difficult and somewhat…harrowing with van Gogh. He painted Starry Night Over the Rhone toward the end of his life and if he wanted to reach out to others and make them feel, he succeeded here. Every painting tells tales about its creator and the tale told in this painting is wrenching.
It is night. In a letter, he described the scene as colorful, yet the final painting gives the impression of blues, black and yellow. The stars blaze in the dark sky, little rays shooting out into the emptiness of space and with that characteristic halo. The city, with its “normal” people and street lights is far away from the artist who is separated from them by a vast swirling body of dark water. Yet yellow reflections stretch back toward the distant street lights-a path of light van Gogh could see but could not walk.
The closer you get to the artist-viewer, the more chaotic the image becomes. What are the whitish humps in the foreground? The brush strokes seem to indicate the river bending and rushing toward the artist. Even more disturbing, why is there a man and woman inserted in the lower right, apparently strolling in or on the river, about to be swept away?
What van Gogh said and what he painted did not match up. In a letter, he describes the foreground as the shore, upon which “two colorful figurines of lovers” are strolling.
The man looks suspiciously like van Gogh himself, who was indeed about to be swept away. He painted fast and furiously. “Feel the stars,” he seems to say; not just emotionally-touch them, they have texture. Feel the river current. It is dark and powerful and sweeping toward me.
Art historians do not know the last painting van Gogh made, but one candidate is Wheat Field with Crows, painted the month he died (July 1890.) Once again, the painting tells a very different story from what van Gogh said. “They are vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness…. I’m fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.”
Does “Wheat Field with Crows” express a healthy, invigorating countryside? In fact, there are enough death metaphors in it to warrant putting van Gogh on suicide watch. The black birds flap over the writhing wheat, the sky is dark and threatening and ominously, the path (a metaphor for the life journey) ends abruptly.
Throughout van Gogh’s life, his beloved brother Theo stood by him. When Theo died, his wife gathered up Vincent’s paintings and arranged a showing. The rest, as they say, is (art) history. A man who could not connect emotionally with either himself or with others during his lifetime can ironically connect powerfully with those of us who have come after.
On a lighter note, our art class did a great job with “Starry Night Over the Rhone”