Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Real Van Gogh - Portraits

The Postman Joseph Roulin (1888)
oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65.4 cm
Vincent van Gogh

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
all photographs copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Back in December 20087, as part of my Van Gogh project, I wrote a very long post about Van Gogh: Drawing Figures, Portraits and Self-Portraits. It was a particularly interesting experience therefore to be able to visit the The Real Van Gogh Exhibition - The Artist and his Letters exhibition at the Royal Academy and see two rooms which focused on his particular approach to portraiture. The exhibition contains:
  • very many drawings of peasants, friends, their family and models in Arles
  • portrait paintings spanning his career
This post highlights what I learned from the exhibition - and the context of Van Gogh's letters.
What I'm most passionate about, much more than all the rest in my profession - is the portrait, the modern portrait, I seek it by way of colour, and am certainly not alone in seeking it in this way. I would like, you see I’m far from saying that I can do all this, but anyway I’m aiming at it, I would like to do portraits which would look like apparitions to people a century later. So I don’t try to do us by photographic resemblance but by our passionate expressions, using as a means of expression and intensification of the character our science and modern taste for colour.
Letter 879: To Willemien van Gogh. Auvers-sur-Oise, Thursday, 5 June 1890
The Peasant in Action

Drawings of peasants
in Room 2 of the exhibition


Room 2 of the exhibition, follows on from scenes of the Dutch Landscape - to scenes of Dutch peasants. As Van Gogh: Drawing Figures, Portraits and Self-Portraits explained, Van Gogh revered the paints of peasants produced by Millais and used peasants as models to develop his skills in drawing people.

Van Gogh was diligent in his exercises:
  • he studied drawing handbooks and books on anatomy and perspective
  • he copied reproductions of Bargue's lithographs
  • copied a skeleton and learned about the muscle structure
  • rew figures working on the land in Etten (April to December 1881)
Weaver (March 1884)
oil on canvas, 62.5cm x 84.4cm
Vincent van Gogh (see letter 445)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • drew figures in interiors - in particular Sien Hoornik and her family with whom he lived and the weavers
  • tackled different poses
  • endeavoured to reconcile proportions from different perspectives
  • practiced the development of compositions with figures
I can assure you there's a lot involved in composition with figures, and I'm very busy. It's like weaving, you have to give it all your attention to keep the threads apart; you must control and keep an eye on several things at once
Letter 271: To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 8 October 1882
  • he followed Delacroix's creed about processing from volumes rather than lines - and started to draw figures from the torso
  • created a set of large drawings of working figures
The exhibition includes a large lithograph of The Potato Eaters. I was amazed to learn that Van Gogh drew the composition from memory directly onto to the stone without first making a sketch - which explains why the lithograph (and his signature) are both in reverse.

It's interesting that following some severe criticism, Van Gogh seemed to realise that creating compositions with several figures was not an area which he found easy nor did he excel at this. I've certainly been of the opinion for a long time that Van Gogh's earlier figures are surprisingly inaccurate considering the amount of effort he employed. However there are drawings in this exhibition which confound this atttitude.

The Modern Portrait

Van Gogh's principal aim - when he moved to Antwerp was to paint portraits. He had decided that portraiture rather than paintings of groups of figures was more amenable to his talents - and more marketable.

The exhibition catalogue suggests that Van Gogh:
  • he moved away from trying to portray people in action. and
  • his focus shifted to creating paintings of 'character' and 'type'
  • avoided making paintings of the people he was closest to.
Gauguin's Chair (November 1888) by Vincent Van Gogh
oil on canvas, 90.5cm x 72.5cm

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

The portrait of Gauguin's chair, which can be seen in the exhibition alongside the portrait of Van Gogh's own chair, might be termed a symbolic portrait.

I'd never realised before that Van Gogh's stated that his painting of Gauguin's chair is a painting of an "empty place" (see Letter 853 To Albert Aurier. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Sunday, 9 or Monday, 10 February 1890).

However the letter was written a year later and Van Gogh misremembered the timing since he painted the chair in the November and it wasn't until several weeks later that they argued, fell out and Guaguin left.
A few days before we parted, when illness forced me to enter an asylum, I tried to paint ‘his empty place’. It is a study of his armchair of dark, red-brown wood, the seat of greenish straw, and in the absent person’s place a lighted candlestick and some modern novels.12 If you have the opportunity, as a memento of him, please go and look a little at this study again, which is entirely in broken tones of green and red.
Letter 853 To Albert Aurier. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Sunday, 9 or Monday, 10 February 1890
The Roulin family also provided models for a number of portraits in the exhibition. He painted the father a number of times. It's certainly apposite that the exhibition should include the portrait of a man who was key to the discourse via letter - namely Joseph Roulin a postal employee at Arles Railyway Station who he had dealings with whenever he sent paintings to Theo. Roulin was also the man who looked after the house while Vincent was in hospital and who kept Theo informed about his state of health.

Van Gogh describes him as a "Socratic type" and "a fierec Republican".

This one of the peasant girl in a straw hat - painted at towards the end of his life - is sketched in a letter to Theo dated 2 July 1890.
Here are three croquis – one of a figure of a peasant woman, big yellow hat with a knot of sky-blue ribbons, very red face. Coarse blue blouse with orange spots, background of ears of wheat.
It’s a no. 30 canvas but it’s really a little coarse, I fear.
Letter 896 To Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Auvers-sur-Oise, Wednesday, 2 July 1890
The other main change between his earlier drawings and later oil paintings is the use of colour. It's not simply the change one sees when an artist shifts from drawing to painting. Van Gogh's bold use of complementary colour to portray many of his subjects creates portraits with enormous impact. His use of colour stemmed mainly from his discovery of Impressionist painters and contact with some of the younger artists - - particularly Signac, Bernard, Gauguin and Seurat.

He used colour for expression and emotional impact. He does this either in Japanese style, using largely flat areas of colour. Alternatively, by using brush strokes of unmixed colour which follow the form of the subject - which he used to best effect in his own self-portraits.

He provided an excellent reason for artists to to pursue portraiture
in their art
I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love.
These portraits, first, are faded more quickly than we ourselves, while the painted portrait remains for many generations. Besides, a painted portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented. What remains to us of the old Dutchmen? The portraits.
Letter 804 To Willemien van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 19 September 1889
More Information about the Exhibition

This is a BBC News slideshow and interview with Ann Dumas, the curator of the exhibition

Royal Academy Magazine: The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters
  • A beautiful mind Martin Gayford explores the Van Gogh beyond the canvas. The artist’s letters reveal his thought processes and give a rich and moving picture of what he was really like
  • Behind the scenes Curator Ann Dumas and Exhibitions Director Kathleen Soriano explain to Martin Gayford the complex negotiations involved in putting together ‘The Real Van Gogh’
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