A man ahead of his time

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“On Sunday, July 27, a certain van Gogh, a Dutch subject and art painter… inflicted a revolver shot on himself out in the fields; as he returned to his room, where he died two days later.”

—The local paper L’Echo Pontoisien dated 7, August 1890

It was on 29 July 1890 the world-renowned Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh succumbed to his wounds and passed away. By the time he passed away, he was not a known painter. It is said that only one of his paintings was sold during his lifetime. Thus he is addressed as ‘a certain van Gogh, a Dutch subject and art painter’ in the local newspaper when reporting his death.

 However, today he is known as one of the most sought-after painters in the world and his paintings are among the world’s most expensive and cherished masterpieces.

Living only for 36 years, van Gogh produced almost 900 pieces of paintings (some say it’s 1000) in about a short period of 10 years. Among thousands of painters, and among hundreds of great masters, why is van Gogh special? His paintings are among the most studied and examined paintings in the world. What is so unique about his art?

Why is van Gogh, unknown, unrecognised and underappreciated during his lifetime, now considered one of the most celebrated painters of all times? Is it because of his tragic life or is it because of his unique style of art?

For filmmakers, novelists and poets, it’s mostly his tragic life that has been inspiring. Yet for artists and art critics, it’s his unique paintings that are inspiring.

But what is so special about his art? What makes him Vincent Van Gogh among great masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Monet, Constable and Degas?

Let us find out.

His unique style

The most striking feature of van Gogh’s paintings is his fascinating use of colour, his thick layers of paint, his bold and confident brush strokes, and his strange combination of blues, greens and yellows. His colour palette as well as his style was something new in his time.

His early style was mostly monochrome

During his early days, he drew without using colours. Some of his most loved early drawings are in pencil, ink, charcoal or one-colour pastels.

Being a self-taught artist, he trained himself by copying prints, and masterpieces, and reading art books and manuals. As he believed in mastering drawing before painting, and mastering the command of black and white, before learning colours, he trained himself in drawing figures and landscapes in pencil, charcoal, ink and one colour pastel.

 If one carefully studies his early oil paintings, the use of dark dull colours is prominent, which van Gogh gave up in his later times. These paintings were mainly about the peasant life and hardships faced by those who worked in the fields and mines or mundane landscapes.

Influenced by impressionism and Japanese styles

It is reported that in January 1886 van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that he need to go to Paris and to go to the studio of the history painter Fernand Cormon.

Van Gogh’s travelled to Paris, greatly influenced his work as he was inspired by impressionism and neo-impressionism. The impressionism and neo-impressionism styles influenced van Gogh’s colour palette and brushwork. His style of painting sceneries and human figures beyond realism also reflected his natural tendency toward the impressionism movement.

The most striking feature of his paintings is how he adds life and movement to his paintings through his unique style of brush strokes. This style shows glimpses of the influence of Japanese painting styles. His swirling brush strokes animate the painting and this makes his work unique.

His love for yellow, blue and green

Van Gogh preferred bright hues of yellows, blues and greens and he also used contrasting colours to make his work more vibrant and animated. However, some of his paintings such as the ‘Sunflowers’ has yellow as the dominant colour. The pale blue-green he has used in the background contrasts the yellowness of the sunflowers, while slightly blending it with the yellowness at the same time.

 “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully.”

—Vincent van Gogh

 Van Gogh preferred to use colours to express his mood, rather than using realistic colours. His brief association with Paul Gauguin also had an influence on his work as his colours and brushwork were inspired by Gauguin’s unique style.

Impasto

His most notable brushwork technique is also known as the style Impasto. This is the thick pastes of paint he uses on the canvas. Although he mainly used the brush for this, it gives a look at the work of a palette knife. His use of rich colours highlights the thickness and heaviness of the paint further.

The other most interesting thing about his work is that, although he lived a very lonely life, and mostly battled with his inner demons, he produced vibrantly rich coloured paintings of beautiful mesmerising skyscapes, landscapes, and vineyards, flowers, and water scenes.

Van Gogh is a painter who lived ahead of his time. He has influenced generations of artists of the world. It is his unique style and his never-ending passion for art that make him special. This self-taught artist, who was unknown during his time, is today studied and researched by almost every art student, critic and loved by art dealers and gallery owners. His work today is priced in millions. Among his best works, ‘Starry Nights’ and ‘Sunflowers’ are considered his iconic masterpieces. He is also known as one of the best self-portrait artists ever. 

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy