August 9, 2023

Through the Brush of Van Gogh: A Journey of Resilience and Rebellion

Through the Brush of Van Gogh: A Journey of Resilience and Rebellion

The name 'Van Gogh' resonates as a potent symbol of artistic audacity and resilience. Vincent Willem Van Gogh, a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter hailing from the humble town of Zundert, has left an indelible mark on Western art. His vibrant creations, once overlooked, are now adored globally and have permeated cultural touchstones, stirring the hearts and minds of millions.

Born on March 30, 1853, Van Gogh's journey in life is a turbulent one. A silent observer during his early years.

Following an intriguing stint as an art dealer and a Protestant missionary, Van Gogh fully embraced his artistic calling in 1881. His parents were not happy with his choice but that didn’t stop him. He took painting lessons with artist Anton Mauve, a Dutch artist in The Hague who worked mainly in gray and blue tones. 

His subsequent decade of productivity was astounding, leading to the creation of approximately 2,100 artworks, encompassing around 860 oil paintings. Remarkably, the majority of these pieces materialized in the last two years of his life, underscoring his unwavering dedication to his craft amidst deteriorating mental health.

Van Gogh: A Revolutionary in Palette and Technique

Young Van Gogh was drawn to the world of colors and shapes. He studied lots of books on color theory, from which he learned that complementary colors intensify one another, laying the foundation for an enduring connection with art.

“Color expresses something in itself. One can’t do without it; one must make use of it. What looks beautiful, really beautiful — is also right.”

Vincent to his brother Theo, c. 28 October 1885

Defying the traditional color palettes of his time, Van Gogh's works are marked by their vivid hues, reflecting not the physical world, but his inner emotional landscape. Masterpieces like "The Yellow House" and the "Bedroom in Arles" illuminate Van Gogh's psychological state with their bright, audacious colors.

The Yellow House, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Bedroom in Arles, 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885–86. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

His early work, "Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette," painted in 1886 while at the art academy in Antwerp, subverted typical artistic conventions. More than just an anatomical study, this piece symbolizes Van Gogh's rebellion against the norm. This painting, along with his other works, underscores Van Gogh's fascination with Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, whose bold outlines and flat areas of color greatly influenced his style.

Triptych of Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, c. 1844, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), V&A Museum no. E.1333:1 to 3-1922. Ukiyo-e[a] is a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries.

On the other end of his color spectrum, "The Potato Eaters" revealed Van Gogh's empathy for the rural populace. The painting's somber tones convey the stark realities of peasant life, demonstrating Van Gogh's ambition to portray the world through an unfiltered lens.

The potato eaters, 1885-85, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh's Cosmic Dance: The Night Sky and the Flowering Earth

Van Gogh's artistic brilliance is especially evident in his iconic works such as "Starry Night." Painted during his stay at the asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889, this masterpiece encapsulates his fascination with the cosmos. The canvas, dominated by varying shades of blue, is imbued with swirling patterns and rhythmic strokes, blurring the boundaries between dreams and reality. 

The Starry Night, June 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Sunflowers (F.458), repetition of the 4th version (yellow background), August 1889.[1] Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

His "Sunflowers" series, a profound departure from the starry skies, stand as vibrant symbols of friendship and gratitude. Born out of his stay in Arles, France, between 1888 and 1889, these works embody his mastery of color—painting sunflowers in three shades of yellow—to express profound emotional resonance.

The Paradox of Van Gogh: A Sorrowful Ecstasy

Yet, Van Gogh's oeuvre cannot be separated from his personal hardships. Struggling with mental illness, financial instability, and social isolation, his work often bore the imprint of his internal strife. His "Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat" showcases this duality, his Neo-Impressionist techniques coupled with a gaze that conveys introspection and desperation.

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Paris, Winter 1887–88. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


One of the most potent representations of his internal battles is "Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate')." Crafted during his recovery from a deep depression, the painting is a poignant portrayal of despair and longing. 

Yet, in contrast, his pieces like "Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer" and "The Harvest" brim with life, embodying Van Gogh's philosophy that art is a reflection of life's vitality.

Vincent van Gogh in Arles: Two seascapes - Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

De oogst (The harvest), 1888, Van Gogh Museum.

Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate'), 1890. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.
Tree Roots, July 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

"Tree-Roots," one of his last works, encapsulates Van Gogh's artistic journey, symbolizing the chaotic beauty of life. Completed in July 1890, shortly before his death, this painting portrays nature in its rawest form—twisted, chaotic, yet vibrant—reflecting Van Gogh's life and artistic voyage.

Van Gogh's life tragically ended on July 29, 1890, his commercial success unrealized during his lifetime. Yet, his enduring legacy transcends his personal trials. His works, scattered across the globe in prestigious museums, symbolize the power of the human spirit and its resilience. His life encapsulates his belief that "great things are done by a series of small things brought together."

Van Gogh's influence stretches far beyond the art world, pervading literature, cinema, and music. His life and work continue to stir emotions and inspire narratives, making him an enduring figure in popular culture. His journey—a testament to the power of individuality and the resilience of the human spirit—connects with audiences, making his story universally relatable and perpetually poignant.