Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) is one of the most famous names in the western art world. Everyone knows of the mentally unstable man who chopped his ear off before eventually committing suicide in 1890. His bright-coloured, swirly-lined paintings can be recognised by the majority of people and his Sunflowers are famous throughout the world. Yet, do we really know who Van Gogh was? Do we know his hopes and dreams, his likes and dislikes, or the inspiration for his artwork? Did you know, Van Gogh was only a painter for the last ten years of his life? What, therefore, was he doing before then? Did you know he spent three years living in Britain? Tate Britain comes to the rescue with their latest EY exhibition Van Gogh and Britain in which they explore his love of British culture and the impact it had on the style and subject matter of his art.
“How I love London.”
– Vincent van Gogh, 1875
The exhibition is curated in two parts; the first examines Van Gogh’s experience in London, his love of art and literature, and his journey to becoming an artist. The latter half focuses on the impact Van Gogh has had on British artists, particularly in the period between his death (1890) and the 1950s. Those who think they know Van Gogh have the veil lifted from their eyes as they view drawings and paintings that are rarely shown to the public.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Groot-Zundert in the southern Netherlands. He was the eldest surviving son of Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. Their first child, also named Vincent, was stillborn, however, the couple soon found themselves with a large family: Vincent, Theo (1857-91), Cor, Elisabeth, Anna and Willemina “Wil” (1862-1941).
Initially homeschooled, Van Gogh’s interest in art was encouraged by his mother from a young age. During his time at middle school, he was taught by the Dutch artist Constant Cornelis Huijsmans (1810-86), however, Van Gogh was deeply unhappy at the school and learnt little from his teacher. He later described his childhood as “austere and cold, and sterile.”
In July 1869, Van Gogh’s uncle got him a position with the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After a few years of training, he was transferred to Goupil’s London branch at Southampton Street, which is where the exhibition’s story begins. Theo van Gogh believed this first year in London was Vincent’s happiest; that is until he fell in love with the unavailable Eugénie Loyer, the daughter of his landlady.
The exhibition opens with Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne (1890), a portrait of his friend Marie Ginoux who ran the train station café in Arles, France. Situated on a tabletop in front of her are two books: Contes de Noël (Christmas Books) by Charles Dickens (1812-70) and La Case de L’Oncle Tom (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96). These books were not in situ when Van Gogh painted the portrait but added purely because they were two of his favourite books.
In the same room as L’Arlésienne are a number of books by British authors that Van Gogh enjoyed. Amongst them are the works of Dickens, George Eliot (1819-80), Christina Rossetti (1830-94) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Unbeknownst to many, Van Gogh could speak in four languages, including English, and thus enjoyed reading English literature during his stay in London. Many of these books, particularly those by Dickens were an inspiration to him for the rest of his life.
“Reading books is like looking at paintings … one must find beautiful that which is beautiful.”
– Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Theo
From the age of twenty until twenty-two, Van Gogh worked in the Goupil offices near Covent Garden. He spent his days travelling to and from work via boat, underground and on foot. During this time, he witnessed the hardship of the working class and became concerned about their welfare. He also developed an interest in popular religion and, after he was dismissed from his job, tried out careers as a teacher and preacher in Kent and west London.
During his time as an art dealer, Van Gogh came across a number of works that stuck with him for the rest of his life. One of the most impactful was the book London: A Pilgrimage by William Blanchard Jerrold (1826-84), which contained 180 engravings by Gustave Doré. During his lifetime, Van Gogh collected seventeen prints of these engravings, which are on display in the exhibition.
Whilst in London, Van Gogh took the opportunity to visit museums, galleries and art dealer’s rooms where he discovered and was inspired by a number of paintings. Van Gogh became a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and treasured the memory of bumping into John Everett Millais (1829-96) on the street. Van Gogh particularly admired Millais’ painting Chill October (1870).
I keep thinking about some English paintings.
– Vincent van Gogh, 1884
After both Van Gogh’s career attempts at teaching and preaching failed, his brother Theo suggested that he take up art. Turning to the paintings he saw in London for inspiration, Van Gogh began producing his own works. Some of these replicated the nature scenes he witnessed in Britain, for example, Autumn Landscape (1885), which he painted while living in the Netherlands. The following year, he moved to Paris where he painted The Bois de Boulogne with People Walking (1886), whose style was influenced by the French impressionist painters. The thickness of the paint is also an indication of the route that would lead to Van Gogh’s mature style of art.
“When I was in London, how often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southampton Street in the evening.”
– Vincent van Gogh, 1883
Of course, an exhibition about Van Gogh cannot exist without at least a handful of his well-known works. The first visitors come across is one of Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night canvases, which he painted after he moved to Provence in 1888. Whilst this shows the view of Arles across the River Rhône, Van Gogh was inspired by the River Thames in London, which was also lit up with a combination of artificial and natural light (moon and stars).
Van Gogh was also inspired by the black and white prints he encountered during his brief career in London. Doré’s work was one source of inspiration but Van Gogh also admired the illustrations in Charles Dickens’ books, which he felt complemented the stories. During his lifetime, Van Gogh collected over 2000 prints and it is from these that he taught himself to draw.
In 1882, Van Gogh’s uncle commissioned him to produce twelve views of The Hague. Whilst Van Gogh completed the request, his uncle was unimpressed with his nephew’s ‘resolute honesty’ of Doré’s style and was probably expecting something more picturesque. One of these paintings, Carpenter’s Yard and Laundry (1882) is on display and, if it were not for the accompanying label, could easily be dismissed as someone else’s work.
As well as illustrations in Victorian novels, Van Gogh admired the wood engravings of urban life in the social reforming newspaper The Graphic. Although he did not create many prints himself, it is evident that his graphite drawings are an attempt to replicate the line work in engravings. Van Gogh studied these black and white works and often produced portraits of people in a similar style, which he occasionally developed into full coloured paintings at a later date. One example is the etching of his doctor Paul Ferdinand Gachet. This was produced in 1890 not long before Van Gogh shot himself in the chest, which goes to show that these types of illustrations stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Whilst living in The Hague in 1882, Van Gogh aimed to draw full-figure portraits of the working class members he met in the street. His pictures of older men, for instance, Old Man Drinking Coffee (1882), were posed for by war veterans.
“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.”
– Vincent Van Gogh, 1882
The woman Van Gogh met was Sien Hoornik (1850-1904) and appears in a number of his sketches: Mourning Woman Seated on a Basket (1883) and Woman Seated (1882). Hoornik and her children lived with Van Gogh for a few months whilst he used her as a model. His relationship with Hoornik was platonic but it gave Van Gogh the experience of a domestic family home, however, he was soon urged by his brother Theo to move to another city to concentrate on other artwork.
Van Gogh’s favourite novels continued to play a role in his artwork. Although the title cannot be seen, Van Gogh drew war veteran Cornelis Schuitemaker with a book in Man Reading at the Fireside (1881). Other drawings of war veterans, such as Adrianus Zuyderland in At Eternity’s Gate, were influenced by illustrations in books such as Dickens’ Hard Times. This particular drawing was reworked as a painting in Van Gogh’s mature style in the final year of his life. In Sorrowing Old Man, the man represents Van Gogh who often sat with his head in his hands when he was unwell.
Van Gogh’s love of Doré also lasted until his final days. In 1890, Van Gogh painted The Prison Courtyard as a “translation” of Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Prison (1872) originally published in London: A Pilgrimage. Although the scene is almost exactly the same in Van Gogh’s painted version, he painted it as a response to the way he felt when residing at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, where he had admitted himself due to his declining mental health. When writing about his life in hospital, Van Gogh said, “The prison was crushing me, and père Peyron [his doctor] didn’t pay the slightest attention to it.” He felt trapped, just like the prisoners in Newgate Prison.
It is largely thanks to his brother Theo that Van Gogh developed into the painter he is remembered for today. At the age of 32, Van Gogh left the Netherlands for good and joined his brother in Paris. Theo was an art dealer, a more successful one than Vincent had been, and was able to introduce his brother to a number of artists. Some of these came from Britain and are included in the exhibition.
One particular artist became a close friend of Van Gogh during his time in Paris. Described as a neo-impressionist artist, Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), the eldest son of Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), was experimenting with dots and dabs of contrasting colour in his paintings. Van Gogh came across a painting by Pissarro at the Salon des Indépendants annual art exhibition and was inspired by the technique.
Rather than replicate Pissarro’s technique, Van Gogh adopted the idea and made it his own. Whereas Pissarro’s dots and dabs were small and indistinct, Van Gogh went for bolder, more rapid strokes with a more noticeable contrast of colour. This was the beginning of the style of Van Gogh’s art that is famous today, yet, he only began working in this method during the final years of his life.
In the same way that he was inspired by Pissarro, other artists were in turn influenced by Van Gogh. Upcoming artists admired the use of colour and directional strokes of paint. Those who had never met Van Gogh in person began experimenting with his colourful technique. Even Pissarro was inspired by Van Gogh, despite having directed his artistic path in the first place.
Van Gogh and Pissarro found they had a lot in common, for instance, they had both spent time working in Britain. They shared similar opinions about social ideals and were enthusiastic about the development of modern painting. During one of their meetings, Pissarro produced a sketch of Van Gogh in conversation with his brother Theo. This is the only known image of the brothers together.
As is the way with many famous names, Van Gogh only became well-known after his death. It was not until after twenty years had passed that Van Gogh was introduced to the British public. In 1910, organised by the critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) at London’s Grafton Galleries, the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists displayed examples of Van Gogh’s work. It was also the first time the term “post-impressionist” had been used to describe artists of this nature. Others included Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-91) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), all of whom were dead by then.
The artworks initially shocked people who were unfamiliar with the development of modern styles. Nonetheless, the exhibition attracted over 25,000 visitors and was a turning point in British culture. Many were influenced by the works they saw, including the sisters Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Vanessa Bell (1879-1961).
“A toi, Van Gogh!” – Harold Gilman
The exhibition includes a number of British artists who were influenced by Van Gogh’s work. One, in particular, was Harold Gilman (1876-1919) who was a founder-member of the Camden Town Group. He adapted Van Gogh’s colours, angles and distinct brushstrokes in his own work. Reportedly, Gilman kept a print of a Van Gogh self-portrait next to his easel and, before painting, would salute the portrait and declare, “A toi, Van Gogh!” (Cheers, Van Gogh)
Another member of the Camden Town Group, Spencer Gore (1878-1914), was equally impressed with Van Gogh’s work. He was particularly inspired by Van Gogh’s Yellow House (not shown in the exhibition). When staying with Gilman in 1912, Gore painted his friend’s house in a similar manner.
Of course, the paintings that Van Gogh is remembered for most are his Sunflowers of which he produced several versions. Van Gogh initially painted these flowers to decorate the walls of his house in Arles, South France. They first came to London in 1910 for Roger Fry’s major exhibition followed by another in 1923.
After Van Gogh’s death and his brother’s six months later, his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862-25) inherited all of Van Gogh’s paintings. So easily could Vincent’s paintings have been discarded at this point, however, knowing how much Vincent meant to Theo, Johanna was determined to promote his reputation. In 1924, she sold Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) to the National Gallery, Millbank (now Tate), stating, “… he himself, le ‘Peintre des Tournesoles’ [the ‘Painter of Sunflowers’], would have liked it to be there … It is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory.” The painting was subsequently transferred to the National Gallery in 1961 where it has remained until now – this is the first time it has returned to Tate Britain.
“Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until Van Gogh saw … the arrogant spirit that inhabits the sunflower.
– Art critic Roger Fry, 1910
Whilst some artists were inspired by Van Gogh’s style, his Sunflowers sparked a revival of flower painting. Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), for example, produced his own Sunflowers after seeing Van Gogh’s work exhibited in Paris in 1895. Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), who was primarily a sculptor, took up flower painting later in life, trying to replicate the energy of Van Gogh’s brushwork and colour.
William Nicholson (1872-1949) was another British artist who produced Sunflowers in response to seeing Van Gogh’s version at the Tate Gallery. His style, however, differs slightly to the Dutch artist. Christopher Wood (1901-30), however, whilst inspired by Van Gogh’s work, chose to paint Yellow Chrysantheums (1925) instead. “I mean to paint my things in compositions of not more than three, often only two colours. I still admire Van Gogh tremendously.”
Between the two World Wars, Van Gogh’s reputation in Britain continued to rise after the publication of two biographies and a book of his letters. Artists continued to follow in his footsteps, experimenting with style and composition in the same manner as their hero.
“The drama of the man was predicted in his pictures… We race along with him, breathless – whither? No matter, for we follow a man, a hero, perhaps the last!”
– Julius Meier-Graefe in Vincent van Gogh, 1922
During the 1920s, Van Gogh’s work became collectors’ items and many galleries began to acquire them. Some were bought by other artists and remained in private collections until the owners’ deaths. One of these artists, Matthew Smith (1879-1959) not only purchased a painting by Van Gogh but also visited the areas Van Gogh had lived and worked, producing his own paintings of the landscapes.
After the second world war, Van Gogh continued to be celebrated in Britain with books, films and exhibitions, including the last Van Gogh exhibition to take place at Tate, in 1947. Viewed as a tragic and alienated artist, citizens were able to relate to Van Gogh as they came to terms with the aftermath of war.
Today, as this exhibition proves, Van Gogh is celebrated for far more than his tragic story. By the 1950s, Vincent van Gogh was a household name and was continuing to inspire artists. The final paintings in the exhibition are by Francis Bacon (1902-92) who considered Van Gogh to be one of his greatest heroes. His brushwork was influenced by Van Gogh’s heavy use of paint during his mature years.
After reading some of Van Gogh’s letters, which had been published sometime after World War One, Bacon began to think of the artist as someone who was always on the road, travelling from place to place. In response to this, Bacon produced a series of artworks containing the figure of Van Gogh walking to an unknown destination.
Before visiting the exhibition, it is difficult to predict what Van Gogh and Britain will entail. Most people’s experience of Van Gogh is the handful of paintings in the National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Whilst these galleries allow people to view the famous paintings or, in the case of the latter, tell his story from birth to death, they fail to examine the artist’s thoughts, inspiration and outcomes in the way Tate Britain has done. Rather than concentrating on Van Gogh’s mental health and tragic death, the exhibition takes a look at three years of his life in Britain and the impact it had on his consequent art career.
People often lament “If only Van Gogh had known how famous he would be …” but it is not just his worldwide fame that is important, it is the influence he had on so many artists during the first half of the twentieth century. Van Gogh did not belong to a particular group of artists with rules and beliefs, he was a private painter, often hidden away from the public eye, and yet he touched so many people’s hearts and minds.
Van Gogh and Britain brings together 50 works by Vincent van Gogh and a large number of paintings by those whose lives he touched, the majority from beyond the grave. This is the opportunity to see some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings but also to discover some of his lesser-known underappreciated artworks. Although everyone has now heard of Van Gogh, this exhibition is guaranteed to increase people’s respect for the “tragic artist”.
The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain is open until 11th August 2019. Ticket prices are £22 for adults and £5 for 12-18-year-olds. Tate Members, as always, can visit for free.