03 June 2017

Colour and emotion in Vincent van Gogh's post-impressionist years

Post Impressionism is a term initially used to refer to the styles developed during the last two decades of the C19th by French painters like Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. The most famous Post Impressionists independently dev­eloped their styles, yet all were united in their rej­ection of Impressionism. Impressionism recorded Nature in terms of light and colour, while Post impressionists rejected these limitat­ions and instead sought to be more expressive and less idyllic.

The term Post Impressionism was invented by English artist and art critic Roger Fry in Nov 1910, calling his London exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists. The exhibition was held after many of the Post Impress­ion­ists art­ists had died; none of them ever used the term them­sel­ves.

The Post-Impressionists stressed their personal view of the visual world and preferred a freely expressive use of colour and form to de­scribe emotions and movement. The bold, intense colours and very expressive work stood out, particularly in Gauguin. But I had never thought of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh as a Post Impressionist, at least in the early years of his very short, 10-year career.

Still Life with Wildflowers and Carnations, 1887
private collection, Paris

Nor had I thought of van Gogh as a painter of flowers in a vase. The current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne suggested that flowers had become an obsession in Paris, grown in local hothouses or freighted in from the southern Midi region of France by train. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel fost­ered a vogue for floral paintings, in particular by Claude Monet, to go into Durand-Ruel’s own home. Van Gogh certainly had visited this site.

In summer 1887 in Paris, van Gogh painted Still Life with Wildflowers and Carnations and three other canvases, all featuring summer blooms in a vase. Note his chromatic brilliance in the high keyed contrasts of crimson, cobalt blue and pure white. And note the heavily textured surface and vibrancy that might have been modelled on Adolphe Mont­ic­elli, a French painter who died just a year before (1886).

Van Gogh admired Gauguin enormously but couldn’t get Gauguin to join him in Arles until the end of 1880, when the two finally painted tog­ether. Van Gogh and Gauguin visited Montpellier in December 1888, where they saw works by Courbet and Delacroix in the Musée Fabre. As we know now, their relationship was doomed. Gauguin was arrogant and domineering while Van Gogh was depressed and anxious.

Their fighting was bound to lead to a crisis. van Gogh returned alone to his home in Arles, where he was overwhelmed by voices and severed his left ear with a razor. van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence for a year (May 1889-May 1890). I mention it because the year was probably the most difficult of his entire life, filled with personal demons. And possibly because Post Impressionism used expressive use of colour and form to describe strong emotions, the year was also one of his most creative and pro­ductive years. Amazingly he completed 142 paintings in that time.
Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background, 1890
painted in the asylum.
Now in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 

Red Poppies and Daisies, 1890
painted in Dr Gachet's Paris home.
Now in Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

Examine Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background (May 1890). In a letter, van Gogh wrote: At present all goes well, the whole horrible attack has disappeared like a thunderstorm and I am working to give a last stroke of the brush here with a calm and steady enthusiasm. I am doing a canvas of roses with a light green background and two canvases representing big bunches of violet irises, one lot against a pink background in which the effect is soft and harmonious because of the combination of greens, pinks, violets. On the other hand, the other violet bunch (carmine to pure Prussian blue) stands out against a startling citron background, with other yellow tones in the vase and the stand on which it rests, so it is an effect of tremendously disparate complementaries, which strengthen each other by their juxtaposition. And note that Van Gogh's interest in the specific colour contrast of violet and yellow dated back to his Paris period, when he wanted to “to harmonise brutal extremes”.

Theo Van Gogh was searching for a home for his brother on his release from the Saint-Rémy asylum in May 1890. Camille Pissarro, a former patient of Dr Paul Gachet, told Theo about Gachet's interests in working with artists, so Theo sent Vincent to the doctor's second home in Auvers, Paris. Thus Vase with Daises and Poppies (mid 1890) was VERY late in Van Gogh’s career - only months before the artist’s death. The painting featured brilliantly coloured poppies and some small daisies, in addition to other meadow flowers. 

The stunning Portrait of Dr Gachet was painted as a thank-you in June 1890. It was sad but gentle, clear and intelligent. The ultramarine blue coat of Gachet was set against a lighter blue background of hills; two bright yellow books were displayed on the table, alongside the purple medicinal herb foxglove. Despite Vincent having sold only one work in his life time, his paintings are now very valuable. In 1990 Christ­ie's sold this original Portrait of Dr Gachet, with van Gogh's signature, for $82.5 million.

Vincent Van Gogh died in Auvers in July 1890 and was buried in the municipal cemetery there. He was 37.

Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890
painted in Dr Gachet's Paris home.
Now in a private collection

Pablo Picasso's first major exhibition was held at the dealer Ambroise Vollard's gallery in June 1901. The exhibition pictures showed how Picasso was absorbing the influences around him, especially Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. But it was Vincent Van Gogh whose art meant more to Picasso than any of the other artists.


Andrew said...

I prefer the three flower paintings here to Sunflowers, which I have never been keen on. Still Life with Wildflowers and Carnations is lovely.

Student of History said...

When we examine Van Gogh later this year, could we have a tour of the NGV exhibition together?

bazza said...

Even in the later pictures where one can see his disturbed mind clearly influencing the canvas, Van Gogh's work always had certain outstanding chracteristics. Namely the fact that he bared his soul so frequently and all of those pictures contain elements of great beauty.
On the subject of post-impressionism: most new movements are, of course, reactions to the status quo. From here we see post-impressionism as the natural smooth successor to impressionism but these things can only be determined after the events. In a similar way Fauvism came after post-impressionism and so on and on.
I think the world is a better place because artists like Van Gogh have been in it and left their mark.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s auspicious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Agreed. I concentrated on the later bright, colourful flowers because Van Gogh's early work (1880-83) was so UNcolourful.

His early images were usually created from pencil, charcoal and chalk, with no colour or muddy colours only. His later works (1884-1899) loved coloured oil paint eg Le Cafe de la Nuit. His career was short but he learned to display colour and emotion quickly.

Hels said...


The NGV exhibition ends in mid July, before we start with van Gogh's life and times in the last term of 2017. So I hope each intending student will visit the NGV exhibition in the meantime.

By the way I loved how the works were displayed, but I didn't enjoy the crowds.

Hels said...


Every generation or two, people look at establishment writing, painting, architecture and furniture design with a new eye. They want to be more in tune with their age than their parents and grandparents parents were, more modern and more functional.

So it makes sense that after impressionism, artists would got excited about post-impressionism, art nouveau, expressionism and fauvism. I think if van Gogh painted just before or after WW1, and worked in Germany instead of Netherlands and France, his openness of soul would have made him an expressionist.

CherryPie said...

I like your colourful choice of paintings for the post.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Mental duress seems to bring out unusual creativity and perception in some artists. I recall in the British Art Gallery at Yale, the curator pointing out certain canvases painted before and after an attach of mental illness by a British artist, and the differences were remarkable.

Hels said...


I selected paintings suggested by the NGV exhibition, specifically to highlight van Gogh's new confidence with strong colour. They do look good!

Hels said...


mental illness distressed van Gogh terribly but it had two important impacts. A) As you noted, it freed up his creativity and B) he painted hundreds of completed paintings each year. Frantically busy and perhaps little sleep.

Foxtel said...

See "The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution" on the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013cqpz

Waldemar Januszczak looks in depth at the work of Georges Seurat, taking into consideration his academic training at the Beaux-Arts School in Paris and the artists that influenced him. The second half covers Van Gogh's time in Paris, charting the incredible journey the artist made from his brown, dull canvases to the splendid colour and light that pervaded his work on the cusp of his departure for the South of France.

Hels said...

Thank you. I had a look at Waldemar's programme and started to appreciate the appalling struggles van Gogh had to face along his incredible journey. It was to his very great credit that so many of his works influenced aet history into the future.

stenote said...

Very interesting article....Read also an interview with Vincent (imaginary) at stenote.blogspot.com/2016/07/an-interview-with-vincent.html Hope you like it.

Hels said...


cute interview, thank you :) I wonder if Vincent van Gogh was ever that verbally fluent and skilled.

stenote said...

Good article. Read also an interview with Vincent (imaginary) in stenote.blogspot.com/2016/07/an-interview-with-vincent.html

Hels said...


many thanks. I read the interview and found it easily believable!