Eric Mattson | Contributor
He was poor and unrecognized. Cast off by critics and dismissed by contemporaries. Riddled with mental illness and possessed by his dream. Vincent Van Gogh would not live long enough to see his reputation transition from an impoverished artist to an enigmatic, avant-garde genius who would forever move the world.
Van Gogh was a Dutch painter who became associated with an art movement called Impressionism. Impressionism was a prominent style in France in the late 1800’s. With the invention of paint that could be carried in a tube, artist could begin to paint landscapes at an accelerated rate. The increase in work speed allowed Impressionist’s paintings to take on the feel that you were walking by and stealing a passing glance of life at the very moment. The goal was always to create motion within the paintings.
At the age of 37, Van Gogh would make his final trip to the grassy plains to paint and limp back with a gunshot wound in his gut that would eventually kill him. Years after his death, Van Gogh’s work would lead the Impressionist movement. Critics realized the brilliance in his radically new perspectives, his strangely tilted horizons, his expressive color and his bold, innovative brush strokes. The Van Gogh Up Close exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum highlighted three major paintings of interest.
The first painting is titled Vase with Twelve Sunflowers. Van Gogh had been pursuing art seriously for about six years when he moved from the Netherlands to the south of France. There, his painting style began to dramatically evolve. He found Impressionists in France were using vibrant color, which was a radical departure from his grim Dutch paintings. There was also an abundance of Japanese work, which depicted landscapes and expressive colors, which were exotic to Europe at the time. Van Gogh’s brother Theo was a successful art dealer and shared a bond of collecting these and other European works with Vincent.
The sunflowers began to strangely interest Vincent, and many of his paintings are dedicated to this flower, and to nature itself. Art historians now debate why Van Gogh became famously obsessed with sunflowers. Some historians believe Van Gogh may have consciously chose the sunflower because it is the only flower whose head grows too large for its body and therefore collapses under its own weight. That becomes then associated with the idea of artists collapsing under the weight of their own genius. We all know of artists like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and more recently, Heath Ledger, who have imploded under the weight of their own creativity- oddly resembling the sunflower.
The second important painting on display is titled Rain. Eventually Van Gogh’s mental health, which had been questionable for some time, began to further deteriorate. Theo felt that he could no longer care for his brother and sent him to the Saint-Paul asylum. The open plains and wheat fields near his bedroom window in the institution were the perfect setting for some of Van Gogh’s most creative and ambitious works.
One dreary night, as a violent storm consumed the landside, Van Gogh sat and began to paint. In the middle of this painting, Van Gogh took the opposite end of his paintbrush and carved the raindrops into the wet paint rather than actually painting them. This innovative style turned his work into something more than a painting. It turned the work into a kind of sculpture and painting fusion. With Van Gogh mostly confined to the asylum grounds and his room, this painting mirrored his growing sadness and loneliness.
Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, was preparing to have a child in the last year of Vincent’s life. Theo had told Van Gogh that he wished to pass his namesake onto his child by naming him after his older brother. The thought of Theo so greatly honoring Van Gogh inspired this third classic painting, Almond Blossom.
The perspective of this painting has always intrigued historians, because it feels as if you are under a tree staring up at the branches and the sky. This was not a popular perspective at the time, and many claim this was a bold, new view, and extremely modern. The clear skies stained the background and the branches of the almond blossom and the flowers on the tree were depicted as clinging for their new lives as they fought against a light wind. This painting would symbolize the beginning of his nephew’s new life, and would mark end of Van Gogh’s.