Vincent Van Gogh’s art has often been viewed through the prism of his turbulent personal life. He experienced recurrent bouts of mental illness, featuring bouts of depression as well as psychotic episodes, and may have been suffering from bipolar disorder. He committed suicide at the age of 37. But this interpretation demeans him as an individual by reducing him to his illness.
It also misrepresents the power of his work. Van Gogh was an outstanding painter, who changed the direction of modern art. He wasn’t a great artist because of poor mental health but despite it. His art transcended his life.
Van Gogh produced most of his best paintings in his final two years after he had moved to Arles, in the South of France, in 1888. And while many of his pictures undoubtedly reflected his psychological struggles, they also offered a new way of depicting the world.
At the age of 22 he had written, “To act well in this world men must give up all selfish aims…Man is not on this earth only to be happy; he is only there to be simply honest, he is there to realise great things for humanity.” The art historian Herbert Read considered that this commitment ‘to be simply honest’ guided him throughout his short life,
Van Gogh realised that it was essential to discover a mode of self-expression; and the more earnestly and honestly he sought that mode, the more he was driven to strength of form, to purity of colour, to renewed contact with reality – to all those qualities that make up the strangeness and vitality of his art.
The language of art
Art expresses humanity’s deep relationship with the world. This is clearly experienced in Van Gogh’s work. He wrote,
It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.
His art was defined by his bold use of colours and expressive brushwork. But it was surely this deep-rooted feeling for the world around him and the everyday lives of ordinary people that helps explain why his paintings still resonate with us.
To my mind, one of his finest paintings, often bypassed in lists of his best works, is The Red Vineyard at Arles. The genesis of the painting is revealed in a lengthy letter to the painter Eugene Boch, which concluded with a casual remark about his plans to paint The Red Vineyard, "Ah well, I have to go to work in the vineyard, near Mont Majour. It’s all purplish yellow green under the blue sky, a beautiful, colour motif."
Van Gogh was captivated by the vineyard, whose colours were turning to autumnal reds and yellows. The painting captures these vibrant colours and the distinctive light of the early evening Provençal sun, shimmering in the river and irradiating the glowing landscape. Its intoxicating rays illuminate the workers gathering in the ripe grapes, who seem to merge with the vineyard. Many are stooped over. All are actively engaged in the harvest in a symbolically close relationship with the land which reflects the rhythms of agricultural labour.
Van Gogh described the scene in a letter to his brother, Theo,
A red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow and then a green sky with the sun, the earth after the rain violet, sparkling here and there where it caught the reflection of the setting sun.
Blazing suns feature in many of Van Gogh’s paintings, suffusing the landscape with an intense heat. He surely understood its symbolism as the source of light, warmth and life. But perhaps this was also because his art flourished under the strong sun of Provence. He also understood the symbolism of the harvest, representing the end of the natural cycle, whilst locating us in the wider world.
John Berger, the art critic and writer, wrote about Van Gogh, “For him, the act of drawing or painting was a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at.”
The roots of artistic creativity
The stereotype of the tortured genius is a legacy of the 18th Century Romantic movement, which associated subjectivity and individualism (along with madness) with the discovery of profound truths. It’s a cliché which obscures the reality of artistic creativity.
Art, along with any human activity, is created within a specific social and historical context, which impacts on the artwork itself. As the development of human civilisation has steadily dominated and transformed nature, it has also parted company with nature and confronts itself as a stranger in the world it has created.
Van Gogh was alienated from his parents, found social relationships difficult and struggled to find his place in the world. His distinct talent was unrecognised by society and he was virtually unknown in his lifetime. The Red Vineyard was the only painting he sold. But his powerful, expressive style not only provides a pleasurable aesthetic experience. It also offers an opportunity for people to both encounter life and reconnect with the natural world. As he wrote, “I want to reach the point where people say of my work, that man feels deeply, and that man feels subtly”.