Following the Stars

Stars, very large balls of bright glowing light that appear tiny when viewed from earth, have fascinated humans for millenniums. An online exhibition provided by the National Gallery takes a look at the ways stars are portrayed in art. Star Trail traces the stars from one painting to another in the National Gallery Collection, pointing out the stars illuminating the night sky but also revealing them in less obvious places.

As well as being natural phenomena, stars hold meanings for different cultures, religions, mythologies and individuals. For some, a star is a sign from God, for example, the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. In Judaism, the six-pointed Star of David is an important symbol and a similar star is found in Hinduism.

A star’s meaning can alter depending on whether it is static or moving. Shooting stars are often symbolic, the most common being the opportunity to make a wish. Once again, different cultures have various ways of interpreting these so-called miracles (meteors to the scientifically minded). For some, a shooting star is a sign that you are close to your destiny but in Asia, they are considered a bad omen. For the Greeks, these stars symbolise the raising or lowering of human spirits, whereas, in some branches of Christianity and Judaism, they are believed to be falling angels.

Typically, stars carry positive meanings. They often represent hope, faith and new beginnings and artists throughout time have depicted them as objects of wonder. Just as there are hundreds of meanings, there are several ways of drawing and painting stars to signify their importance.

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319), the Tuscan painter, chose to use real gold to represent stars and heaven in the altarpiece The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea. This portable altarpiece may have been commissioned by Cardinal Niccolò da Prato (d.1321), who was both a Dominican Friar and the Cardinal of Ostia. This would explain the saints on the wings of the triptych: Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea of Ostia.

In the tympanum above the central panel are seven figures who have been identified as Old Testament prophets: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. They stand above a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, which is where Duccio has placed two stars; one on Mary’s shoulder and the other on the hood of her shawl. Duccio mixed gold leaf into his paint to draw these stars on top of the rich, blue egg tempera. The background of the entire wooden altarpiece was also painted in gold to represent the importance of heaven.

The famous English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) took a completely different approach to depict stars. The evening star is barely visible in Turner’s painting of the same name. It is the merest speck of yellow paint towards the top of the canvas. If it were not for the reflection of the star’s light in the sea, the star would go unnoticed.

The evening star is an incorrect term because, whilst it may take on the appearance of a star, it is actually sunlight reflecting off another planet, usually Venus, although Mercury, Mars and Jupiter can also cause this phenomenon. Turner was particularly interested in transitional moments such as the evening and morning star, which are the same “star” but appear at different times depending on Earth’s proximity to the sun.

The Evening Star was painted at dusk rather than night because, once the moon had risen, the star would no longer be the brightest thing in the sky. As can be inferred from Turner’s painting, the star is barely discernible in the early evening, therefore, it would be almost impossible to see in the competing glow of the moon.

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

Studying the night sky, or stargazing has been a popular pastime for centuries. Long before humans understood what they were seeing, astronomers, astrologers and scientists were producing maps of the night sky, pinpointing the individual stars they spotted, first with the naked eye and later with a telescope. It was through these studies that the Earth was eventually proved to be round rather than flat plus not the centre of the universe as previously thought.

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As well as maps, astronomers produced globes showing the stars that could be seen from Earth at different times of the day. One of these celestial globes can be seen in Hans Holbein the Younger‘s (1497-1543) painting The Ambassadors. Similar to Duccio’s painting, the stars appear to be painted in gold paint, making them stand out from the blue background of the globe.

The painting, produced during the same year that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born is a double portrait of two men. The identity of the men has been under debate for centuries but the most accepted identification of the man on the left is Jean de Dinteville (1504-55), a French diplomat. He may also be the person who commissioned the painting, particularly as he appears to be the grander of the two men. De Dinteville’s motto was Memento mori, meaning “Remember thou shalt die,” and there are several references to death in the painting. One is the anomorphistic skull at the bottom of the painting, which must be viewed from the side to be seen properly. Another is the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner.

The man on the right is believed to be Georges de Selve (1508-41). He would have been 25 when he sat for the painting and had just been appointed Bishop of Lavau in France. This explains his clergyman vestments and the other religious symbols in the painting, including the crucifix and Lutheran hymnal.

There is no written evidence that De Dinteville and De Selve were interested in the stars, however, the objects in the painting suggest they were involved with science. As well as a celestial globe there is a terrestrial globe, a sundial, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant for measuring angles, and a medieval astronomical instrument known as a torquetum. It is possible De Dinteville and De Selve, or their associates, were among some of the earliest people to discover scientific truths about the universe.

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

Before humans understood the science behind the stars, they often featured in myths and legends. In Greek and Roman mythology, constellations were often linked to particular gods or goddesses, as were the planets.

The constellation Corona Borealis features in the top left-hand corner of an oil painting by Titian (1488-1576). Bacchus and Ariadne was produced for Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1476-1534) and is considered to be one of Titian’s greatest works.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. The Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) discovered Ariadne on the island whilst leading a procession of partygoers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. In the painting, Bacchus is either in mid-leap from the chariot to save Ariadne, or Bacchus has just thrown Ariadne’s crown into the sky where it transforms into the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown.

There is more than one story that explains the Northern Crown constellation. The first, which is presumably being shown in Titian’s painting, is that Bacchus throws the crown into the sky. The other, claims Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and promised her the whole sky. He then raised her into the heavens where she became the constellation.

The Corona Borealis is one of many constellations that can be found in mythology. Others include Andromeda, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, Orion and Pegasus.

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

As well as the individual stars and constellations, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a story to explain the existence of the Milky Way.

The story, which is shown in The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94), involves Jupiter’s desire for his son Hercules to be immortalised. Hercules was the son of Alcmene, a mortal, therefore he could never be fully immortal unless he had been nursed by a goddess. Jupiter’s wife Juno refused to nurse a child that was not hers, especially the son of her unfaithful husband, however, whilst she was asleep, Jupiter held Hercules up to Juno’s breast so that he could drink her milk. At that moment, Juno awoke and milk spurted upwards into the sky, forming the Milky Way. The milk droplets that fell to earth became white lilies.

Instead of depicting milk, Tintoretto represented the beginnings of the Milky Way with ten shooting stars. The original painting also showed lilies forming on the ground, however, about a third of the canvas was cut off at the beginning of the 18th century.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

Of all the different genres of paintings, the one where you are guaranteed to find stars or at least a star are scenes of the Nativity. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men or magi followed a star from the East, which led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem. Paintings of this nature are often called The Adoration of the Kings or The Adoration of the Magi.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was one of many artists to depict this biblical scene. Mary, dressed in blue, sits with the Christ-child in the ruins of a building, receiving a gift from one of the “kings”. The Bible never mentioned the visitors were kings and nor did they have names. Art historians, however, have given this figure the traditional name Caspar. Melchior stands to the right of Caspar and Balthazar to the left. Alongside the “kings” are several exotically dressed attendants and more can be seen approaching in the distance.

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Floating above the scene are angels and right at the top, slightly dwarfed by everything else in the painting, is the Star of Bethlehem. The entire composition was painted on oak panels that when pieced together measured 177.2 cm (69.8 in) by 161.8 cm (63.7 in), and the star does not take up much space at all. Nonetheless, when studied closely, Gossaert’s precise brushstrokes and painstaking detail emphasise the importance of this star. Most likely painted in lead-tin-yellow, the star lights up the sky around it, appearing to push the surrounding clouds away so that it can shine over the Christ-child.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

The star is much more prominent in the Baroque painter, Carlo Dolci’s (1616-86) version of the subject. This highly finished picture contains fewer people than Gossaert included, keeping the focus on the three “kings” in opulent robes as they kneel before Mary and the Christ-child. Although their gifts look important and expensive, they are executed in paint, whereas the haloes over Mary and Joseph and the light surrounding Jesus’ head was painted in gold.

Although the figures and their robes were painted in rich colours, the Star of Bethlehem outshines them all. The star’s light bursts forth from the clouds above, making it the brightest part of the painting. When looking at the composition as a whole, the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the star, which some see as a symbol of God looking down on his precious son.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

In contrast to the previous two paintings, Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) version contains a less obvious star, fading in the light of the daytime sky. Probably due to the star mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, artists tended to portray the visit of the magi at night rather than during the day.

Another difference between Lippi’s version and the traditional version is the landscape. The Holy Family sit in the ruins of a building in a rocky landscape. They have very little shelter and there appear to be no other establishments nearby. As well as the “kings” and their retinue, there are several saints hidden in the background. These have been identified as Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine. There is also a representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

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The way Lippi chose to portray the star is very different from the previous two examples. To begin with, it appears much lower in the sky, floating above the Holy Family. Rather than a solid or compact star, it resembles a firework. Lines of golden light appear to be shooting in all directions, some landing within touching distance of the figures below. Yet, this slightly faded star does not make it seem less important than other versions. The explosion of light beams emphasises God’s magnificent power that, although it is not easy to see in the daylight, is always there.

Lippi’s painting was the last to feature in the National Gallery’s Star Trail. The handful of paintings they looked at revealed that stars have been important in science, mythology and religion. Of course, there are so many more examples of stars in the National Gallery and other locations. Each artwork demonstrates one method of representing stars. Some artists opt for a five-pointed star, whereas others choose a greater number. Alternatively, a star can be represented by a ball of light or the smallest of dots, as Turner chose.

Vincent van Gogh‘s (1853-90) Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhône are perfect examples of alternative ways to paint stars. As an impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s stars are less precise with no clear outlines. They are made from swirls or dabs of yellow paint and yet, everyone knows they are stars.

The National Gallery’s online exhibition Star Trail provides a new and interesting way of looking at art. Sometimes a painting has so much going on that it is impossible to appreciate every detail. Also, when walking around a crowded gallery, it is not always possible to pay the artworks the attention they deserve. Looking for stars, or any other object, helps people to understand the artwork and the artist. By first studying how the star is depicted, it is then possible to step back and admire how it interacts with the rest of the scene.

Challenge: next time you visit a gallery, look out for stars in paintings. Until then, enjoy looking at them online.

Meet Vincent Van Gogh

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After captivating audiences in Beijing, Barcelona and Seoul, the official Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience has arrived in London. When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, not only did he leave behind a great number of paintings and drawings, his voice was captured in hundreds of letters to his brother and other friends and acquaintances. Using the wealth of information in these correspondences, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has designed an exhibition through which the artist speaks directly to the visitor. An audio guide tells Van Gogh’s story, reading directly from many of his letters in order to teach visitors everything they need to know about one of the most celebrated artists in the world.

Please do touch! Nothing is off-limits in this experience, there are no ropes separating visitors from exhibits. Large recreations and 3D prints of Van Gogh’s works allow people to see and feel the texture of the paint. Reproductions of tools and materials help to demonstrate the artist’s method and technique, and interactive stations throughout the experience encourage visitors to create their own art, using the words of Van Gogh as their guide.

Unlike art galleries where everything is neatly hung on walls, the Van Gogh Experience uses digital projections, props, and videos to make it feel as though one is walking directly into a Van Gogh painting. The breaking down of traditional boundaries lets visitors pull up a chair at the Potato Eater’s table, sit on a haystack, stand beside the Yellow House and enter Van Gogh’s recognisable bedroom.

As you progress through the exhibition, the scenes change, revealing key turning points in Vincent’s life. With his disembodied voice in their ears, visitors accompany the artist from Nuenen in the Netherlands to Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Engaging with the sets provides the opportunity to feel as though you are seeing the world and his paintings through Van Gogh’s eyes.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. He was the first surviving child of the Dutch Reformed Church minister Theodorus van Gogh (1822-85) and Anna Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus (1819-1907), born exactly a year after a still-born brother. Vincent had many siblings: Anna (1855-1930), Theo (1857-91), Lies (1859-1936), Willemien (1862-1941) and Cor (1867-1900); however, it was with Theo that Vincent had the strongest relationship.

At least 902 letters of Van Gogh still exist, 819 of which he sent and 83 he received. Vincent burnt the majority of correspondence he received since it was impossible to keep them all; Theo, on the other hand, did not like to throw things away and managed to save 658 letters from his brother. Twenty-one letters to his sister Wil (Willemien) also exist, however, there appear to be none addressed to his other siblings.

Vincent was initially taught at home by his mother and a governess before joining the village school in 1860. In 1864, however, he was sent away to boarding school where he felt abandoned and deeply unhappy. Eventually, he returned home and his uncle obtained him a position at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, Vincent was sent to Goupil’s London branch where he began earning more money than his father. In retrospect, it is believed this was the best year of Van Gogh’s life.

The earliest dated letter from Vincent to Theo was sent in September 1872 in which he begins to confide in his brother, telling him about the things he has seen or read. “You must write to me in particular about what kind of paintings you see and what you find beautiful.” (January 1873) The letters continued during Vincent’s time in London where he regularly visited museums. “English art didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it.” (January 1874)

Theo began working with Goupil & Cie three years after his brother, which made their relationship even stronger. Vincent’s letters, however, had become rather gloomy, often writing about a “quiet melancholy”. This may have been triggered by the rejection of Eugénie Loyer who he had confessed his love to whilst living in London. Vincent began to isolate himself and became religiously fervent, adopting the words “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) as his motto.

Van Gogh’s father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Goupil’s Paris branch, however, due to Vincent’s poor attitude, he was dismissed in 1876. Over the next few years, Vincent explored a variety of career possibilities, including returning to England to work as an unpaid supply teacher in Ramsgate. This proved unsuccessful, so he returned home where he worked at a bookshop in Dordrecht. This also proved futile and Vincent spent hours doodling or reading the Bible.

Even though Van Gogh’s father was a minister, he thought his son’s religious passion was excessive. Nonetheless, to support Vincent’s new-found desire to become a pastor, his father sent him to live with his uncle and theologian Johannes Stricker (1816-86). Unfortunately, Vincent failed the entrance exam for the University of Amsterdam, nor did he pass the three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, Belgium.

Undeterred, in 1879 Vincent took up a missionary post in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Up until this point, his letters to Theo had contained passages or references to the Bible, however, his experience of the squalid living conditions made him turn his back on religion. Feeling that he had no career prospects and nowhere to go, Vincent returned home.

After a few months living with his parents and a brief spell in a lunatic asylum – presumably for depression, Vincent returned to Borinage where he temporarily lodged with a miner. A letter written to Theo at the time suggests Vincent had stopped writing to him during his difficult period. “My dear Theo, It’s with some reluctance that I write to you, not having done so for so long … Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think…” (August 1880)

Whilst living in Borinage, Van Gogh became interested in the people and scenes around him, producing quick sketches, which he sent to Theo. His letters became both a means of communicating and a way of documenting his ideas. Encouraged by his brother’s new way of expressing himself, Theo encouraged Vincent to take up art in earnest. Van Gogh followed Theo’s recommendation, eventually registering at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Vincent’s early sketches in Borinage proved to be more than a desire to draw but also the inspiration for Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters.

By the end of 1883, loneliness or, perhaps, poverty had driven Van Gogh to move in with his parents, who were then living in the Dutch town of Nuenen. During his two year stay, Vincent completed many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of the local weavers and cottages. Unlike the vivid colours of his later work, Vincent worked in sombre earth tones to capture the true nature of the scenes.

The colours inadvertently reflect the events in Van Gogh’s life during the period he stayed with his parents. In August 1884, the neighbour’s daughter Margot Begemann fell in love with Vincent and he, reluctantly at first, developed a strong relationship with her. They both wished to marry but their families were strongly against the proposal. Upset, Margot swallowed rat poison and was rushed to hospital where she was lucky to survive. Unfortunately, Vincent received another blow not long after this incident on 26th March 1885 when his father died.

Nonetheless, Van Gogh continued with his drawings and paintings then, the same year, Theo wrote to him asking if any of his paintings were ready to exhibit. Vincent replied that he had been working on a “series of peasant studies” and submitted his first major work, The Potato Eaters. This was a culmination of several years work, taking inspiration from the people in Nuenen, who often sat for him, as well as his experience in Borinage.

“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people.”
– Vincent to Theo (30th April 1885)

Two years later, Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters to be “the best thing I did”, which he confessed in a letter to his sister Wil. Critics, on the other hand, were less inclined to agree, including Vincent’s friend and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-92). Initially, Vincent was angry with Rappard’s criticism and told him that he “had no right to condemn my work in the way you did” (July 1885). A month later, with his confidence in tatters, Vincent tried to defend his efforts, writing “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

In November 1885, Van Gogh spent a brief time living in a room above a paint dealer’s shop in Antwerp. Although Theo supported him financially, Vincent chose to spend the money on painting materials rather than food. He also bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, which he studied and copied, incorporating some elements into his paintings. He also broadened his palette, beginning to paint in reds, blues and greens.

“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
– Vincent to Theo (28th November 1885)

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Portrait of Vincent van Gogh – Toulouse-Lautrec

Due to living in poverty and eating poorly, Van Gogh was hospitalised between February and March 1886, after which he moved to Paris where he lived with Theo. Since they were living together, there was no point in writing to each other, therefore, not a lot is known about Vincent’s time in Paris.

Other sources of information reveal Vincent spent time in the Louvre, examining paintings, colour schemes and artists’ techniques. Through Theo, he met up-and-coming artists, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

Theo found living with Vincent almost unbearable and, although they remained firm friends and brothers, Vincent moved in 1887 to Asnières in the northwest of Paris. Here, Vincent met Paul Signac (1863-1935), a neo-impressionist painter who helped develope the Pointillist style. Inspired by Signac, Vincent began to include aspects of pointillism in his paintings.

Van Gogh’s artistic breakthrough occurred after he had moved to Arles in the south of France in an attempt to recuperate from his smoking problem and smoker’s cough. It is believed he had the intention of founding an art colony, however, this never came to fruition. Nonetheless, existing letters reveal Vincent was in contact with several artists at the time, including Bernard, Charles Laval (1862-94) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

During his year in Arles, Van Gogh produced over 200 paintings and 100 drawings, the majority of which were intended for the decoration of the Yellow House – a personal gallery of his work. When Vincent first arrived in Arles, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 Place Lamartine, however, it was not yet fully furnished so he was only able to use it as a studio. Meanwhile, he resided at the Hôtel Carrel and the Café de la Gare.

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The Night Café, 1888

“I want to do figures, figures and figures … Meanwhile, I mostly do other things.” Van Gogh desired to paint portraits and, whilst he painted a few, he mostly produced landscapes. Inspired by the local harvests, wheatfields and landmarks, Vincent painted Arles in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. The wheat fields were a common feature in his landscapes, however, Vincent also painted his house, sunflowers, fishing boats and the Café de la Gare. Writing about one of his paintings of the latter entitled The Night Café, Van Gogh revealed he was trying to “to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Once the Yellow House was suitable to live in, Van Gogh began displaying some of his paintings on the walls as can be seen in his depiction of his bedroom: Bedroom in Arles. When planning this painting, Vincent wrote to his brother that “colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream.” The walls are a pale violet and the wooden furniture is “yellow like fresh butter”. On the bed, a scarlet bedspread lies on top of a “lemon light green” sheet and pillows. The windows are shuttered and the blue doors closed, one which led to a staircase and the other a guest bedroom.

The guest room was used by Paul Gauguin when he agreed to visit Van Gogh in Arles. While waiting for him to arrive, Vincent frantically worked on paintings to decorate the house, including more sunflowers, a painting of his chair and a painting of the chair he had purchased in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit.

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin eventually arrived on 23rd October and the artists settled into a routine of sleeping and painting in the Yellow House. Noticing that Van Gogh always used visual references, Gauguin encouraged Vincent to paint from memory. They also went on outdoor ventures to paint en plein air, however, the only painting Gauguin completed in Van Gogh’s studio was The Painter of Sunflowers, a portrait of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh had hoped for friendship with Gauguin, however, after two months the relationship began to deteriorate. Vincent admired Gauguin and wished to be treated as his equal, however, Gauguin was rather arrogant and full of criticism, which was frustrating for Vincent and led to many quarrels. Every day, Vincent feared Gauguin would leave him, describing the situation as one of “excessive tension”. Eventually, Vincent’s fear became a reality.

It is difficult to determine exactly what happened next because Van Gogh had no recollection of the events. Gauguin claimed they had been cooped up in the house due to several days of heavy rain, which led to much bickering culminating in a huge argument. To cool off, Gauguin left the house to go for a walk, however, Vincent, presumably mistaking this action for abandonment, “rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand”. That night, Gauguin stayed in a hotel rather than returning to the Yellow House.

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Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Alone in the house, Van Gogh was plagued by “voices” and cut off his left ear with the razor. Whether this was wholly or partially is now unknown since there are discrepancies between the sources from the time of the incident. Van Gogh bandaged his heavily bleeding wound, wrapped the ear in paper and delivered it to a woman at a brothel he and Gauguin frequented. Vincent was discovered unconscious by a policeman the following morning, who took him to the local hospital.

Van Gogh was diagnosed with “acute mania with generalised delirium” and remained in the hospital for some time. Although Gauguin had returned to Paris, the artists put the event to one side and continued to correspond through letters. They proposed to form a studio in Antwerp when Van Gogh was well but they never had the chance.

On 7th January 1889, Van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, however, he was still suffering from hallucinations. Some sources claim Vincent tried to poison himself, whereas others say this was one of his delusions; nonetheless, concerned for his welfare, inhabitants of Arles demanded that he was forcibly removed from the house. Vincent found himself back in the hospital, eventually agreeing to voluntarily admit himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Van Gogh stayed in the asylum for about a year, during which time he was allowed to paint. The clinic and its gardens were Vincent’s primary sources of inspiration as were patients and doctors. The Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, was painted in the hospital grounds.

Letters continued to be sent back and forth between Theo and Vincent as well as a few friends. Since there was a limited amount of artistic inspiration in the hospital, Theo sent his brother prints of famous artworks from which to copy. Some of Vincent’s favourite artists to study included Jean-François Millet (1814-75), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Van Gogh’s letters to his brother became increasingly sombre and he suffered a relapse between February and April 1890. During this time, he felt unable to write, however, there are a few small paintings dated around this time. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset was one of these, based on an artwork by Millet.

Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s paintings were beginning to attract attention and he was invited to submit some of his paintings to an avant-garde exhibition in Paris. Whilst some people were critical of his work, others defended Van Gogh’s style and he was soon invited to participate in an exhibition with the Artistes Indépendants in Paris. Claude Monet (1840-1926) declared Van Gogh’s work was the best in the show.

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Almond blossom, 1890

It was not the success of the exhibition that buoyed Van Gogh’s motivation to write and paint again but rather the news from Theo that his wife Jo (1862-1925) had born a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. “How glad I was when the news came… I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.”

Almond Blossom is unlike any of Van Gogh’s previous paintings. The blue sky is more realistic than the swirly backgrounds of his recent works. The branches of the tree are outlined in black, which was a feature Van Gogh admired in Japanese paintings.

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Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

By May 1890, Van Gogh was deemed well enough to be discharged from Saint-Rémy, however, he had no home to which to return. Instead, he moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to both Theo and his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet (1828-1909). Van Gogh continued painting, absorbed by “the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow” and “vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies”. When writing to Theo about one of his final oil paintings, Van Gogh said that they represented “sadness and extreme loneliness” and “tell you what I cannot say in words”.

On 27th July 1890, Van Gogh failed to return to his lodgings for his evening meal. His arrival later in the night revealed the reason for the delay; Vincent had shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. Although there was no damage to any vital organs, there was no surgeon in the area to remove the bullet. Two local doctors did the best they could and left him at home where he was joined by Theo. Vincent was in good spirits but soon began to suffer from an infection. Not long after his final words, “The sadness will last forever”, Vincent van Gogh passed away in the early hours of 29th July.

“… and then it was done. I miss him so; everything seems to remind me of him.”
– Theo to his wife Jo, 1st August 1890

Van Gogh was buried the next day in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise and was joined by Theo the following year. Theo had been ill and worsened after the death of his brother. Initially, Theo was buried in Utrecht, however, his wife had his body exhumed and reburied beside his beloved brother. Jo knew how much Vincent meant to Theo and it is thanks to her that Vincent’s letters have been preserved and made public. Although other family members were unhappy about this, without the letters Vincent may never have been as celebrated as he is today.

Van Gogh’s story does not end with his death but continues through the lives of millions of people around the world for whom he is still a source of inspiration. Well-known artists have been influenced by Van Gogh, including Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.

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Contemporary artists are also fans of Van Gogh and attempt to recreate his style, for example, a Van Gogh-esque painting of Donald Duck that appeared on a Walt Disney magazine in 2015.

The Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience proves how much Vincent van Gogh is loved and appreciated. His life was full of mental anguish and unhappiness, which ended prematurely before he had the chance to witness his success. His tragic story is part of the draw to the artist, however, Van Gogh’s highly recognisable works are appreciated all over the world for their uniqueness.

With a museum named after him, Van Gogh has excelled beyond his expectations and it is a shame that he will never know. The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience allows people to learn more about the artist, to discover his story, and to appreciate his work with a greater understanding.

Tickets for the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience vary between £16.50 and £18.50 for adults, and £12.50 and £14.50 for children. Time slots and tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster in advance. The experience will be open every day until Thursday 21st May 2020.

Ever yours,
Vincent

Van Gogh and Britain

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Self-Portrait, 1889

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.

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L’Arlésienne, 1890.

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.

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Self-Portrait with Felt Hat – Van Gogh, 1887

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.

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Vincent van Gogh in conversation – Pissarro, 1888

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.

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Sunflowers – Van Gogh, 1888

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.

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Study for Portrait of Van Gogh IV – Francis Bacon, 1957

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.