• Paul D. Wilke

Ten Underappreciated Van Gogh Paintings

"I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.” Vincent Van Gogh

Introduction


Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) died in 1890 at the young age of 37. When he died, he had only been painting for about ten years. But during that time, he finished over 2000 works of art, some of which remain masterpieces to this day.


We know that Vincent struggled with bouts of mental illness that became more severe in the last few years of his life. Still, he continued to paint, in part as therapy for his tortured soul, and also because his manic personality was compelled to put on canvas what he felt. Painting was an outlet to relieve the pain of his daily existence and the challenges of dealing with other people.


Vincent's relations with the locals in the places he lived were troubled, to say the least. In Neuen, he was shunned by the townspeople. The clergy there accused him of impregnating (he denied it) a local woman and urged parishioners to not have any contact with him.


In Arles, a few years later, the locals would sign a petition to have him removed. People thought he was weird and creepy. Children taunted and threw stones at him; locals referred to him as "crazy" or that "queer painter." [1]


The same happened later in Auvers-sur-oise, where a pack of kids constantly badgered the painter all the way to the end of his life. They made him the butt of their pranks, pouring salt in his coffee and even once hiding a snake in his paintbox. When they learned that Vincent had the habit of sucking on a dry paintbrush, they rubbed it with a red hot pepper when he wasn't looking and then laughed when he spat and cried out in pain. [2]


You see, everywhere he went, Vincent made people uncomfortable and weirded them out. He was a misfit, a poorly dressed vagabond, and someone with terrible social skills. This made him easy prey for ridicule and added to his sense of alienation from society.


Sadly, during his life, he sold only one painting. To say he was misunderstood and ignored would be an understatement. Even his younger brother Theo, who was an art dealer in Paris with good connections to the art world, felt that his brother's paintings were not sellable.


Before killing himself in July 1890, Vincent was depressed that he was both a burden on his brother, who had long supported him financially, and a failure at his art. The evidence for this failure was the stacks of unsold paintings that nobody wanted.


What makes this all particularly poignant is that we all know his art was not garbage. On the contrary, it was a treasure before its time. Vincent's reputation has only skyrocketed since his death and many now consider him to be one of the greatest painters of the 19th century whose unique style transformed the art world.


Finally, I want to point out one special aspect of Van Gogh's art: his use of color. The vibrant colors in his late work are what (in part) make his art so stunning. That wasn't always the case, however. Early on, Van Gogh rejected color, going for darker hues instead. Most of his work from the early Neuen period is dark, shadowy, and filled with black, gray, and brown colors.


Only when Vincent moved to Paris in 1886 did he see the possibilities of color from other artists of the era like Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet. If you look at Vincent's paintings from his Paris period (1886-1887), you can see this transition taking place. The darker images are still there, but the colors of his later work are emerging.


As a rule of thumb, you can roughly date a Van Gogh painting by noting the amount of color in it. He eschewed color up to approximately 1886. After that, his paintings increasingly shine with it.


Most of us are familiar with his most famous masterpieces: Sunflowers, Starry Night, Cafe Terrace at Night, and the many self-portraits, just to name a few of the best known.


What I want to do here is show you some other hidden gems that I find equally captivating, even if they are not as famous.


Below are ten paintings by Vincent Van Gogh you may have missed. This list could have been much, much longer, and I must confess, is utterly subjective. I have no doubt left off some paintings that deserve just as much attention.



1. Autumn Landscape (October 1885)


“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” Vincent Van Gogh


Toward the end of his troubled stay in Neuen (to autumn 1885), Vincent painted several autumn landscapes like this one. After trouble with the locals made further painting impossible, he departed Neuen in November 1885 and moved to Antwerp.


2. View of Roofs and Backs of Houses (Spring 1886)


“I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.” Vincent Van Gogh


Vincent moved to Paris in March 1886, where he would remain for the next two years. Here he was exposed for the first time to some of the era's most outstanding artists in the artistic capital of the world. This was the age of the Impressionists, led by superstar artists like Pissaro, Degas, Manet, Monet, Sisler, and Renoir. While he remained ambivalent about what he saw, their influence can nevertheless be seen emerging in his painting. In particular, what's notable about Vincent's Paris period is the gradual emergence of color. 


However, change only came gradually. Paintings like "Roofs and Backs of Houses" reveal his continued preference for darker hues. Yet, if you look closely, you can see brighter colors beginning to emerge from the shadows. This was a trend that would gain momentum during the last four years of his life. Later, during his time in Provence in southern France, golden sunlight, rainbow landscapes, and a vivid imagination would combine to bring about an explosion of colors.


If you follow the chronology of Vincent's output while in Paris, you can clearly see how colors and brightness begin to dominate.

3. Vase with Red & White Carnations on a Yellow Background (1886)


“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” - Vincent Van Gogh


Vincent always struggled to find suitable models, and Paris would be no exception. He could either find no one interested in posing for him or could not afford to pay them. When he couldn't find suitable models from the Parisian brothels he frequented, his workaround was to paint still lifes. He turned to inanimate objects - flowers, books, plaster busts, and landscapes - as subjects for his paintings. "Vase with Red & White Carnations on a Yellow Background" is one such example. Note how the earthy tones continue to predominate, though we are drawn to the bright red carnations in the vase. A hint of Vincent's dramatic shift to color can be seen here. 


That said, his stay in Paris was troubled. The snooty Paris art scene met him with either indifference or contempt for what they saw as his amateurish, self-taught technique. No one was interested in his paintings, even with his brother's connections to the art world.


Theo described how bad it got for Vincent in Paris by the end. Models refused to pose for him; people on the street and the police harassed him when he tried to paint in public. Theo noted that "Even those with whom he is the best of friends find him difficult to get along with. There's something in the way he talks that makes people either love him very dearly, or find him intolerable." [3]


4. View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground (May 1888)


“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.” Vincent Van Gogh


Vincent fled the stifling indifference of Paris for the rural beauty of Arles in southern France. With "View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground," we see an excellent example of Vincent's later art emerging, characterized by brighter colors that almost seem to radiate off of the canvas. As you can see, he's shifted from gloomy earth tones to sunnier hues. Looking at this painting, one can almost feel the sunshine of that long-ago day when it was painted.



5. The Harvest at La Crau (June 1888)


“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh


"The Harvest a La Crau" is my personal favorite. The detail and luminosity are breathtaking. Vincent's time in Arles would be one of his most prolific and also most troubled. He even teamed up with fellow artist Paul Gauguin in a partnership that produced some amazing art by both men, but also some bitter conflicts. 


The relationship between the two men soon soured. Vincent was notoriously difficult to live with. His life up to that point was punctuated by strained or ruined friendships, and this one would end no differently. Vincent was moody, emotionally needy, and very quick to take offense. Paul Gauguin was the opposite. He was cold, domineering, calculating, aloof, and more worldly about art than Vincent. He was ice to Vincent's fire.

Paul also made art look easy, at least compared to the indifference Vincent was experiencing from the art world. Equally grating was the relative ease Paul had in selling his paintings while he struggled to get anyone, including his brother Theo, to take any serious interest at all.



6. The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles (April 1889)


“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke” Vincent Van Gogh


Vincent had a final quarrel with Paul in December of 1888 that precipitated a complete mental breakdown. The details are hazy, but after finding out that Paul intended to leave Arles, they argued. After Paul left, Vincent reacted by cutting off his ear and then giving it to a prostitute. He was soon after institutionalized in an insane asylum in Arles, though he persuaded the doctors there to let him paint in and around the hospital. The amazing painting above was the product of that time.



7. The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital (May 1889)


“I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.” Vincent Van Gogh



After his mental breakdown, Vincent struggled to recover but suffered several relapses. He understood that something was different this time, that his mental state was fragile in a way that it had not been before. He was admitted to a private asylum at Saint-Remy, where he spent the next year. Here too, he was given the freedom to paint, especially outdoors, under the not-crazy idea that spending time outside in nature would be good for his mental health. They were right. His landscapes and portraits from this period are some of his greatest.


By this point, Vincent was a master of color, and his paintings dance with it.


8. First Steps (after Millet - January 1890)


“Art is to console those who are broken by life.” Vincent Van Gogh


Vincent's time at the Saint Paul asylum was marked by several cycles of recovery and relapse. When he could not get outside to paint during the relapses, he kept going by reproducing paintings from other artists. "First Step" is just such a reproduction from Jean-Francois Millet's picture of the same name from 1858. Even though it is a reproduction, what we see is Vincent's own spin on a classic painting.


9. Undergrowth with two figures (1890)


“The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too” Vincent Van Gogh


In the spring of 1890, just a few months before his death, Vincent left the south and returned to be near his brother's family in Paris. He didn't want to stay there, however, since he felt the city was too loud and his presence would upset the domestic tranquility of Theo's new family life. However, Theo wanted the emotionally fragile Vincent close by, even if he was not living under the same roof. Vincent ended up settling in Auvers-sur-oise about 30 minutes outside Paris under the care of a local doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet.


For a few short months during the summer of 1890, Vincent trudged out into the countryside every day to paint the picturesque rural landscapes around Auvers. These last paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are some of my favorites.



10. Wheatfield with Crows (July 1890)


“The sadness will last forever.” Vincent Van Gogh


One of his final paintings, the melancholy "Wheatfield with Crows," shows a stretch of wheat fields under a dark and stormy sky. Ominous crows dot the canvas, extending up into the sky to the right. Vincent wrote of this painting and two others like it, that "They are vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I didn't have to put myself out very much in order to try and express sadness and extreme loneliness." [4]


A few weeks later, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself and died the next day. It's a pity because his art was just beginning to catch on. His brother Theo would follow him to the grave six months later. It would fall on Theo's widow, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, to pick up the torch and promote Vincent's art. That this remarkable woman succeeded beyond all expectations is an amazing story on its own (see video below). Today, thanks in no small part to Jo, Vincent Van Gogh is remembered as one of the world's greatest artists.


I completely agree.


P.S. This is a bit of pure syrup fantasy, but here is a clip from Doctor Who where Vincent Van Gogh time travels to the present to see an exhibit of his own masterpieces at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. We see Vincent finally get to see what he never got a chance to see, namely that he left the world vastly richer than he found it. If you know Vincent's back story, this will bring a tear to your eye.




Works Cited


1. Steven Naifeh, and Gregor White Smith. Van Gogh: the Life. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012, 727.


2. Ibid., 841.


3. Ibid., 733.


4. Vincent van Gogh. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Penguin Books, 1997, 500.




Resources


Chronological List of Van Gogh's paintings


Vincent Van Gogh Museum Website





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