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Vincent Van Gogh Biography Essay Outline

Study Questions

Discuss the mythic relationship between Vincent van Gogh's artistic/creative drive and his delicate psychological condition. Is one necessary for the other, or are they mutually exclusive? Describe a possible cause and effect scenario, using the artist's own words.

Few artists have created a body of work that is so inseparable from the facts and myths of the artist's life and persona. Van Gogh's unbridled passion and ecstatic contemplation of life, nature, and art, his intense spirituality and religious zeal, his generous, ardent, and sincere disposition, and especially, his violent and enigmatic illnesses and suicide at age thirty-seven have all contributed to powerful and often inaccurate myths that can obscure a clear understanding of the important painter. The months he spent in Arles, St. Remy, and Auvers allowed Vincent to paint at a near frenzied pace, until he felt "broke and crazy" (L 513, July 1888). His last two and a half years of life comprised the most prolific and successful period of his career. However, the stress and sheer physical and mental exertion of this obsessive output was too much for his encroaching illnesses, and his condition gradually worsened as his painting became increasingly facile, formally daring, and accomplished.

It is easy, but ultimately misguided, to view and interpret van Gogh's painting strictly in light of his psychological condition–the strong evidence of his letters indicates that he only worked during lucid periods. He was able to discuss his work on a superior intellectual and rational level with his brother and his friends. More accurate than the notion that his art was produced by his psychological crises is the understanding of his art as the catalyst for his psychological collapse. Vincent himself voiced sentiments of regret at the physical and mental disintegration that he believed were the fault of his obsessive creativity: "The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more I am an artist.... [A] kind of melancholy remains within us when we think that one could have created life at less cost than creating art" (L 514, July 1888). In other words, we should not overestimate the effect van Gogh's breakdowns had on his art, but instead untangle the myths in order to recognize and concentrate on a profound talent tempered by a prodigious, exhausting, and ultimately, debilitating creative effort.

Discuss the influence that Impressionism and Japanese prints had on van Gogh's work, specifically during the Paris period. Did Impressionism permanently alter his sense of color and form, or were the influences that led to his mature style more complex?

Although he was still an outsider (due to his non-French nationality, his unallied work, and his unpredictable bipolarity), Vincent finally felt part of a community of artists during his time in Paris. He was able to trade paintings with many of the Impressionists, and a Parisian dealer even took some of his work. The influence of the Impressionists's color theories and use of light, along with Vincent's rising interest in Japanese prints, brought Vincent closer to his mature style as he tried a pseudo-Pointillist approach to painting in discreet, regular, short brushstrokes in heavy impasto and explored vibrant color, "seeking oppositions... to harmonize brutal extremes... trying to render intense color and not a gray harmony" (L 470).

By August 1886, Vincent had left Cormon's studio because of Cormon's refusal of the new color theories and his insistence on painting plaster casts rather than live nude models. Vincent painted atmospheric cityscapes (like View from Vincent's Window and The Roofs of Paris) and a remarkable series of flowers in vases (like Vase with Poppies, Daisies, Cornflowers, and Peonies and Vase with Gladioli) to discipline his discovery of powerful color and Impressionist/neo-Impressionist theory. His Paris style is a unique amalgam of Impressionism and his own mature style of proto- Expressionism; van Gogh was influenced by Impressionism and the flattened, linear forms of Japanese prints (which he collected), but also by the old Dutch masters. His art was inherently synthetic, combining disparate influences to create a completely unique vision of stylized representation that went far beyond the circumscribed confines of Impressionism. Even in his Parisian self- portraits and portraits (particularly Portrait of Pere Tanguy), he began to distort and exaggerate form to express the overwhelming turmoil of his emotional life. Vincent experimented with Impressionist theory and technique, absorbed what he wanted, and then rejected the rest. His conception of art was fundamentally different from the Impressionists'–his paintings record the immediacy of emotional, spiritual, and psychological impact with the subject filtered through the artist, as opposed to the purely optical/perceptual recording of the Impressionists. His mature style bears little resemblance to Impressionism–the color, form, heavily modeled line, paint handling, and texture is diametrically opposed to Impressionism in its intensity, nonobjective, unnatural choice of colors and the violent, forceful attack of line and form.

What influence did van Gogh's radical stylistic departures from the Parisian avant-garde's languages of Impressionism and post-Impressionism have on the development of modernist painting?

A brilliant colorist who took Gauguin's subjective color choices a step further to his characteristically acidic, imaginative, overwhelmingly intense hues, Van Gogh's tremendous influence on the development of Expressionism is due to his unique skill as a draughtsman and his immediately recognizable heavy, sculptural line. He wrote to his brother, "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly... to exaggerate the essential and to leave the obvious vague" (Arnason 85). For instance, in his nightmarish masterpiece The Night Cafe, 1888, he sought "to express in red and green the terrible passions of human beings" (Schapiro 26). Van Gogh's revolutionary approach to painting had a strong influence on the next generation of artists, beginning with Matisse and the French Expressionists, also known as the Fauves. He offered these early modernists a powerful alternative to the avant-garde centrality of delicate Parisian Impressionism and post-Impressionism. His innovative and radical use of unnatural color, his angular, heavy line, his compression of three-dimensional space into two-dimensional discreet pictorial elements (like brushstroke and pattern), and particularly his stylized distortion and often-groteque exaggeration of reality all appealed to the Expressionist artists. The German Expressionists, especially the Die Brucke group, considered themselves the heirs to van Gogh, whom they esteemed the premier genius of modern art. Van Gogh's penetrating and revealing portraits were of special interest to the young Germans' and Austrians' high regard for the psychoanalytical theories of Freud. Even Picasso was not immune to van Gogh's formidable influence. Picasso's pre- Cubist work demonstrates his knowledge of van Gogh's painting, and the Vincent's spontaneity and forceful immediacy affected even Picasso's transitional Cubist work in the era of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Joan Miro admitted that his early work was indebted to van Gogh. His influence reappeared after WWII with Abstract Expressionism, particularly the work of fellow Dutchman Willem de Kooning, and the respectful van Gogh studies and tribute paintings of the British neo-Expressionist painter Francis Bacon. Even today, van Gogh's stylistic syntax is evident in neo-Expressionist painting in Europe and the United States.

Essay Topics

Discuss van Gogh's complex relationship with his family, particularly his brother Theo. To what extent did Vincent distance himself from his family and/or embrace his heritage?

To what extent did van Gogh's nationality influence his life, his art, and his outsider status? Is his nationality crucial to his artistic development? Does it matter that he wasn't French like the rest of his avant-garde colleagues?

Discuss van Gogh's obsession with portrait painting in light of his life and his personality. Why did the portrait fascinate him so, especially towards the end of his life? What did he mean when he said he wanted his portraits to be like "apparitions"? Cite specific examples of work.

Discuss the development of the landscape in van Gogh's art, from his early work in The Netherlands through his transcendent final double-square landscapes from Auvers? Does van Gogh ever really achieve abstraction with his landscapes?

What role did religion, spirituality, and faith play in van Gogh's life and art? Discuss the evolution of his faith, from childhood to death, citing specific works if possible.

Why do you think van Gogh was so preoccupied with peasant portraiture and documentation for so much of his life, even though he himself came from a decidedly middle-class family? How does this preoccupation relate to his ideas about religion, place, and the value of life?

Do you think van Gogh's psychological troubles, and/or his spiritual and artistic life, was really triggered by his first failed love affair with Eugenie Loyer in London? What part did romance play in van Gogh's life and work? Discuss his view of women, in light of his early interest in Michelet's writings as well as his depiction of women in his art? Cite specific paintings as examples.

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