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Vincent van Gogh's Biography

Vincent van Gogh's Growth as a Painter

Once settled in his brother's apartment in Paris, van Gogh seemed intent upon self-improvement. For years, he had neglected his health and his appearance. Now he trimmed his beard, visited a dentist, and bought new clothes. Theo described the transformation in a letter to their mother, claiming that she would not recognize her eldest son.

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh in a Cafe by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887
Vincent van Gogh met
Henri de Toulouse-
Lautrec, who painted
Portrait of Vincent van
Gogh in a Cafe
, in Paris.

Van Gogh made the rounds of the galleries and art exhibitions, and that spring he attended the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition. There he saw Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884-1886), in which the juxtaposition of dots of pure pigment prompted the eye -- rather than the painter's hand -- to mix the tones.

He frequented Fernand Cormon's Atelier Libre (Free Studio), where the curriculum was unstructured and the other students shared his interest in the innovative developments in contemporary art. With Theo's connections, he visited the studios of artists whose work he had admired from a distance. He wrote to Horace Levens, an English painter he had met in Antwerp just a few short months ago, "I did not even know what the impressionists were, now I have seen them."

Most significantly, van Gogh acquired a circle of friends, including aspiring painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Bernard, and Paul Signac, with whom he could exchange ideas, share experiences, and debate issues.

Vincent van Gogh's Fishing in the Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asnières), 1887
Vincent van Gogh's Fishing in the Spring, the
Pont de Clichy (Asnières)
is an oil on canvas
(19-1/4 x 22-3/4 inches) that is housed in
the Art Institute of Chicago.

To advance his own development, van Gogh experimented with new techniques. He worked in fresh, high-keyed color, painting en plein air to master the spontaneous approach of the Impressionists. He adopted a pointillist brush stroke, using dots, dabs, and dashes to explore the theories of Neo-Impressionism. He shed his gloomy Nuenen palette, as seen in Fishing in the Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asnières) (1887), a sun-drenched image of boating on the Seine.

Van Gogh acquired more confidence in his color by painting bouquets. Flowers were readily available at the market, and with a bouquet he could work alone in his studio without having to hire a model.

Vincent van Gogh's Flowering Plum Tree (After Hiroshige), 1887
Van Gogh made replicas
of Japanese prints,
Utagawa Hiroshige's
Flowering Plum Tree,

during his studies

Over the course of two years in Paris, van Gogh painted more than 30 floral still lifes, varying the blossoms for color effects and seeking to purge the dark tones from his palette. He described his work to his friend Levens: "I have made a series of color studies in painting, simply flowers....Trying to render intense color and not a grey harmony."

Van Gogh also made copies of Japanese prints. For many artists of van Gogh’s generation, the Japanese prints that were available in European markets offered an intriguing aesthetic alternative to western conventions of space, composition, and color.

Van Gogh first purchased Japanese prints in Antwerp, where he pinned them up on his walls for decoration. In Paris, there were many shops where he could browse through large selections and buy prints at reasonable prices. In 1887, he made three meticulous copies of prints, two by Utagawa Hiroshige and one by Keisai Eisen. Replicating the color and the formal structure in his own medium of oil convinced him that elements of Japanese art could be transferred to western compositions.

He wished as well to replicate his sense of how artists lived in Japan. Van Gogh based his idealistic vision on what the prints portrayed: a neat, orderly world of broad, tranquil vistas where men and women carried out their daily tasks with grace and purpose. He came to believe that the balanced beauty of Japanese art reflected a similar balance of life and nature in Japan.

Vincent van Gogh replica of Utagawa Hiroshige's The Plum Tree Teahouse at Kameido, 1857
Vincent van Gogh replica
of Utagawa Hiroshige's
The Plum Tree Teahouse
at Kameido

Van Gogh, in fact, was beginning to tire of Paris. He had found little recognition in the fiercely competitive art world, and the pace of Parisian life had drained him. During the last months of 1887, an early, harsh winter descended on Paris, and van Gogh yearned for sun and a more moderate climate, as well as the easy rhythm of rural life.

In February, he boarded a train headed south for Provence. His destination was Arles; he had never been there, but he imagined it as calm, quiet, and tranquil, a French counterpart to his idealized vision of Japan.

Snow covered the ground when van Gogh arrived in Arles, but within a few weeks the fruit trees began to bud and flower, and he took his easel out into the orchards to paint. Well aware that the spectacle of trees in flower was transient, he worked with speed and intensity, writing to Theo that "there is nothing like striking when the iron is hot." He kept as many as nine canvases in progress at the same time, and by late April, as the blossoms fell and the fruit burgeoned, he had completed more than 20 paintings.

Theo met his constant needs for more paint and canvases and also sent him money for living expenses. In return, van Gogh shipped his paintings to Paris, hoping that Theo could sell them, writing, "I must reach the point where my pictures will cover my expenses."

As spring warmth gave way to summer heat, van Gogh changed his subjects, first painting the meadows of irises and then setting his easel up in the fields to capture the first June harvest. As the sun gained intensity his palette became more brilliant, reflecting the vibrant contrast of the golden fields seen against the cerulean skies.

He explained to Theo that he often exaggerated the saturation of his tones for striking juxtapositions and powerful effects: "Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily, in order to express myself forcibly."

Vincent van Gogh experienced a tumultuous relationship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Read about this period of van Gogh's life in the next section.

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