By John Cauman

Pavilion Books. 144 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-911624-43-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s common knowledge that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. He lived frugally for the most part, supported by his brother, Theo, and with his work appreciated by a few fellow-painters and a handful of others who could see that the turbulent Dutch artist was producing art that would later be critically acclaimed, hung in galleries around the world, and coveted by collectors.

The intriguing thing about Vincent, as John Cauman’s stimulating book aptly demonstrates, is that his life can be followed through his paintings. He didn’t only paint what he saw, he also painted what he felt. His physical location at a certain period can be identified through the paintings, and so can his mental condition at the time. It’s no secret that Vincent had a troubled life, with frequent breakdowns. These were no doubt exacerbated by his heavy drinking, irregular eating habits, and financial pressures. He was usually short of money for food, rent, and supplies of art materials.

He was born in 1853 in Zundert, a small rural town in Holland. There were some links to the arts in the family. His mother sketched, and several of his uncles were art dealers, a trade that Vincent’s younger brother, Theo, would eventually take up. When Vincent himself was sixteen he was employed by Groupil, “a leading French art dealership”. This led to him working for seven years at their premises in The Hague, London, and Paris. Cauman says : “The art education he acquired in the process was rooted in conventional naturalistic painting, rather than in the avant-garde”. At the same time he became proficient “in the English and French languages, and educated himself in art history, and in English and French literature”.

It may have been a sign of Vincent’s emotional instability that he was eventually dismissed by Groupil because, Cauman suggests, he was spending so much time “reading the Bible, to the detriment of his gallery work”. His father was a pastor of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, and Vincent always had a deep religious sensibility as part of his character. For several years he drifted between jobs, at one point teaching in English boarding-schools and working in a Dutch bookshop. He also tried to qualify for the church, but failed to pass the necessary examinations. He did work for six months as a lay preacher in the Borinage region in Belgium, attempting to share in the poverty-stricken lives of the coal miners.

Although he had no formal training as an artist, he decided in 1880, at the relatively late age of twenty-seven, that it was what he would now devote his life to. As mentioned earlier, his time with Groupil had given him an insight into the history of art, but he knew little or nothing about the innovations introduced by the Impressionists and others. He did have some skills as a draughtsman, and one of the earliest illustrations in Cauman’s book is the 1882 pencil on paper, “Worn Out”, which shows an elderly man, head in hands, and obviously in a state of despair. It was during this period that Vincent received some tuition from his cousin, Anton Mauve, a member of the Hague School of Dutch artists who were realist painters of peasants, rural landscapes, and coastal scenes. Among earlier artists that Vincent admired were the Frenchmen, Daumier, Delacroix, and Millet, all of them having a strong social element in their work.

On a personal level, his emotional problems surfaced again when his approaches to a widowed cousin were rejected. He next had a relationship with an artists’ model and prostitute which ultimately failed when he was unable to financially support her and her child. A move to Drenthe, a rural province, followed, and then he returned to live with his parents. While he was in Nuenen, where his parents were now domiciled, he produced what may be one of his most easily-identifiable paintings, the 1885 oil on canvas, “The Potato Eaters”. Depicting a poor family clustered around a table for what is clearly a basic meal, it at first sight seems dark and grotesque, the faces exaggerated to emphasise their “homeliness”. But, as Cauman points out, in refusing to idealise them, “He sought to convey his empathy with poor and oppressed people, an impulse that was manifest in his previous vocation as a lay minister”. 

It was obvious that Vincent would have to move to Paris if he wanted to develop as an artist and familiarise himself with new ideas. He had previously written to Theo to say that he was not at all clear about what Impressionism was. He arrived in 1886 and began to study at the atelier of the academic painter Fernand Cormon. But probably of more importance was the fact that he got to know young painters, such as Émile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and saw work by, among others, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt.

Cauman draws attention to two paintings of “La Butte Montmartre”, the first dating from 1886 (mistakenly shown as 1866 in both the caption and the accompanying text), the second from 1887. The earlier is traditional in style, and bears resemblance to the work of The Hague and Barbizon schools of painting, having a “solidity of form”. The second is much more modern. Cauman comments that, “The artist has freely adapted Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist brushstrokes to suit his own needs…….In the course of one year, Vincent had transformed himself into an avant-garde painter”.

He eventually tired of Paris and decided to move south, staying for over a year in Arles where many of his most significant works were produced. It was also where some of the events that have gone towards constructing the legend of the chaotic but creative painter took place. Vincent had an idea of forming an artists’ colony in Arles, and to this end rented The Yellow House and began to make preparations for it to become the centre of activity. As it happened, the only artist to spend any time with him was Gauguin, and he eventually left when he could no longer cope with Vincent’s bouts of manic behaviour. This was, of course, when the Dutchman sliced off at least part of one ear and tried to present it to a girl in a local brothel. All sorts of stories have accumulated around this episode in Vincent’s life. He did paint a self-portrait which shows him with his ear tightly bandaged.

It needs to be said that several paintings from his early days in Arles do show him in a positive frame of mind. “The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing” is alive with colour, and there is an attractive “Still Life : Blue Enamel Coffeepot, Earthenware and Fruit”, which Cauman describes as of “great importance” for the painter. The items on the table were to “consecrate the Yellow House”, the focal point for the projected artists’ colony. There is also the panoramic “The Harvest”, which Vincent acknowledged as showing some influence from Cezanne.     

Of the other canvases from the time spent in Arles, “The Yellow House” naturally stands out: “For Vincent, the Yellow House holds a significance beyond its role as his personal home and studio……yellow and its juxtaposition with blue was replete with spiritual meaning: blue is the colour of the sky: yellow, of the sun”. And, as Cauman emphasises, “Yellow and blue would dominate not only Vincent’s diurnal paintings such as this one, but also nocturnal canvases such as “Café Terrace at Night”. Cauman describes this painting as “benign” when compared to “The Night Café”, which shows the interior of the Café de la Gare”, an all-night establishment with a clientele of “pimps, prostitutes, drunkards, the poor and the homeless”. In a letter to his brother, Vincent wrote: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green……..the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”. The much quieter, “Bedroom in Arles” might well relate to Vincent’s need for somewhere that could offer “a reassuring sense of shelter and protection from the exterior world”.

Going mad was what was happening to Vincent, and he became a voluntary patient in a psychiatric asylum. Paintings from this period, such as “The Starry Night” and “The Olive Trees”, offer evidence of his increasing agitation, the swirling colours having more to do with his disordered and feverish state of mind than with a direct representation of what he saw. It’s difficult to accept that the same person painted the beautifully simple “Almond Blossom”, a work influenced by his long-standing interest in Japanese art. It’s of interest to note that Van Gogh went back to “Worn Out”. his earlier drawing of an old man, this time painting the same picture in oils. He had written that he was “sadder and more wretched than I can say”.  Caumer thinks that it “may be regarded as a spiritual self-portrait”.

In May, 1890, Vincent moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be supervised by Dr Paul Gachet, a physician with a deep interest in art and the problems of those who created it. Initially, he appeared to be in a calmer frame of mind, and paintings such as “The Church at Auvers”, “Stairway at Auvers”, and “Farms near Auvers”, do appear to point to this. Cauman, in fact, says of “Farms near Auvers”: “It is as if the artist is presenting a Utopian vision of country life as shelter from the storm that he fears is approaching”. That “storm” may well have been forecast in the more-ominous, “Wheatfield with Crows”, where a threatening sky and the flock of crows indicate that all is not well.

Vincent shot himself on the 27th July, 1890, and died two days later. There have been speculations that he didn’t, in fact, carry out the act himself, and that he may have been shot accidentally by some boys who were killing crows in the vicinity. But I think there is good reason to believe he had reached the point where he wanted to end his suffering by committing suicide.

His reputation began to grow after his death, with exhibitions here and there, critical and popular acclaim, and the beginning of a legend. There is irony in all this. He had been the recipient of only one critical study (by Albert Aurier, who himself died in 1892) while he was alive. His brother, Theo, who had been Vincent’s main supporter, died just a few months after Vincent. It was largely due to Theo’s widow, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger,  that Vincent’s work was kept in the public eye, and his standing in the world of modern art began to grow. Soon there would be major exhibitions, books, essays, academic conferences, even whole museums devoted to the paintings. And they would sell for prices that the artist would have found impossible to comprehend. With an art market these days that has little to do with an appreciation of artistic qualities and more to do with investments and other forms of making money, it’s wise to remember how Vincent struggled and suffered to create art.   

The well-illustrated Van Gogh in 50 Works could make an excellent introduction to the artist’s work for anyone not too familiar with it. By relating Vincent’s movements, and his erratic mental condition, to the paintings, John Cauman throws light on his development as an artist, and the way in which the work reflects what was going on in his mind. The critical comments on the individual canvases are informative and to the point, and Cauman avoids art jargon. There are useful notes and a short bibliography.  He has clearly aimed his book at a general audience without in any way trivialising the tragedy of Van Gogh’s life or treating the paintings as little better than subject-matter for postcards and posters. There was much more to the work that Vincent Van Gogh created, even if most people at the time failed to appreciate it.