Van Gogh’s Still Life

Still Life with Apples and Pumpkins, Vincent Van Gogh, September 1885, oil on canvas, Nuenen

Van Gogh and the seasons has been the fastest selling show in the history of the National Gallery of Victoria. Over 150,000 people visited the exhibition during the first month. There have been a number of people comment that they had expected to see Sunflowers, or Starry Night, and they were surprised by his darker work. As Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned 10 years, only finding his most well-known style two and a half years before his death in Arles, we are taking a closer look at his earlier works. The years of study preceding the painting of Still Life with Apples and Pumpkins in 1885 play an important role in the establishment of Van Gogh’s dynamic style and the paintings that have become household names.

Under Anton Mauve’s short-lived tutelage, Van Gogh was introduced to still life objects. Normally a painting teacher would make their student study the work of another artist before they began their own compositions. Mauve, however, set up still lifes for Van Gogh, including apples, pumpkins and cabbages. This appealed to Van Gogh because, for him, they symbolised the harvest, and peasant life.

Van Gogh was living in Nuenen at the time he painted Still Life with Apples and Pumpkins. This was a particularly prolific period of his life; he produced 195 paintings, 313 drawings, 25 water colours, and 19 sketches in his letters to his brother Theo. [1]

Studying still life was not only cheap for Van Gogh (he did not have to pay for a model to sit for him), it also provided exercises in exploring light and how it affects colour. His palette was fairly limited, with mainly earthy tones, particularly dark brown. You cannot see any indication that this young artist would paint with such vivid colours, only two years later!

Van Gogh was aware that still lifes did not sell very well, however he wrote to Theo, “it is damned useful, and I shall continue to paint them this winter.” [2] You can see how Van Gogh has used the painting above as a very effective exercise in light and shadow.

Van Gogh also used still life to learn how to represent form using colour on the canvas. He applied varying tones of a limited number of colours to depict how the light fell and turned on the surface of objects to create planes, and form. Writing about his piece below, Van Gogh explained to Theo that he tried “to express the material in such a way that they become heavy, solid lumps – which would hurt you if they were thrown at you, for instance.” [3]

Basket of Potatoes, Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1885

Only a year after he painted these still lifes, Van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his brother, and these dark colours were flushed out of his paintings and were replaced with the growing spectrum of Impressionist colour.

Written by Lauren Ottaway


[3] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 425 to Theo van Gogh. Written 4 September 1885

[3] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 425to Theo van Gogh. Written 4 September 1885

Van Gogh, The Sower – a closer look

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, December 1882, pencil, brush and ink, watercolour, The Hague

After following his brother Theo’s advice to pursue art, Van Gogh went to study anatomy at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1880. He returned to his parents’ home in 1881, where he focused heavily on drawing, and thus begun his serious artistic exploration.

Van Gogh greatly admired Jean-François Millet’s and his work had a profound influence on the emerging artist. Millet, who had quite a modest background, created nostalgic tributes to farmers, and Van Gogh identified with them and recognised the compassion in Millet’s work, which he highly valued.

Van Gogh began studying Millet’s work and produced drawings in order to learn how to paint. He drew The Sower (after Millet), pictured below, which was based on a black and white print of the painting. Van Gogh’s interpretation of the monochrome reproduction led to some interesting, minor inconsistencies; the grains that Van Gogh’s sower is scattering behind him were actually birds in Millet’s work.

That year Van Gogh also travelled to The Hague to try and sell his work, and to also meet with his second cousin, and successful artist, Anton Mauve. He returned to The Hague to study under Mauve a few months later after working in pastels and charcoal as Mauve had instructed. However, after a short month together, and a strained relationship, they had a final falling out about drawing from plaster casts. “First and foremost, I had to draw from plaster casts. I utterly detest drawing from plaster casts – yet I had a couple of hands and feet hanging in the studio, though not for drawing. Once he spoke to me about drawing from plaster casts in a tone that even the worst teacher at the academy wouldn’t have used, and I held my peace, but at home I got so angry about it that I threw the poor plaster mouldings into the coal-scuttle, broken. And I thought: I’ll draw from plaster casts when you lot become whole and white again and there are no longer any hands and feet of living people to draw.” [1]

The Sower, which Van Gogh produced at The Hague, is particularly poignant to the body of work on exhibition at the NGV, and Van Gogh himself, because it is a depiction of the seasons and the people who toil in order to maintain a meagre life. Van Gogh had lived in many rural areas and was captivated by the sowing of the wheat, the harvest, the sheaves of wheat in fields, and the haystacks, which you see increasingly in his later work in the late 1880s. The sower, amongst other working-class figures engaged in the field, formed a body of work ‘from the people for the people’, which Van Gogh thought ‘would be a good thing – not commercially but as a matter of public service and duty’[2]. He planned to produce thirty low-cost prints to create this body of work. Van Gogh sent photographs of four of his drawings of people working in the fields, including the Sower, to his brother (first image above). This is how he described the work to Theo, “Then a second Sower, with a light brown fustian jacket and trousers, so this figure stands out light against the black field, bordered by a little row of pollard willows. This is quite a different type, with a clipped beard, broad shoulders, rather thick-set, somewhat like an ox, in that his whole frame has been shaped by his labour in the fields. Perhaps more of an Eskimo type, thick lips, broad nose.’ [2]

Van Gogh wanted to show these figures in action – not at rest, because ‘there is more drudgery than rest in life.’  He worked on these series of working-class drawings because he tried ‘to work for the truth.’ [2]

The Sower (after Millet), Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, late October 1889, Saint-Rémy.

Millet’s influence on Van Gogh was clear during the early stages of his career. When he was living in Paris in 1886-87, his focused shifted from the fields to the Parisienne cafes. However, the countryside returned to his work when he moved to Arles in 1888, and then over three months from late 1889 to early 1990, Van Gogh produced twenty-one copies of Millet’s work. During this time Van Gogh was in the asylum at Saint- Rémy, and he described to Theo his own interpretations of the Millet’s works. ‘If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn’t have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour […] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation.’ [3]

Written by Lauren Ottaway

[1] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Friday 21 April 1882

[2] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 291 to Theo van Gogh. Written 3-5 December 1882

[3] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 607 to Theo van Gogh. Written 19 September 1889

Walking in the footsteps of Van Gogh

I was lucky enough to be in the South of France and visited Arles to experience the scenes I have admired for so many years in Van Gogh’s paintings. I would like to take you on a little walking tour through the city where Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace, Starry Night over the Rhone, and the hospital grounds where he was taken after the ear incident.

In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved to a small town called Arles in the South of France with the aim of creating a school of art outside of Paris. He believed that his new, personal style could thrive outside the capital and contribute to what was the modern art movement. He also preferred to work alone and the prospect of a quiet, Southern town in France was where he felt he needed to go.

A short history of Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles

Van Gogh rented the Little Yellow House in May 1888 (which was unfortunately bombed in WWII and no longer stands). Van Gogh painted prolifically during this time, and produced a number of masterpieces including his Sunflowers and Haystacks series.

Van Gogh convinced Paul Gauguin to join him, and he did eventually in October. However, Gauguin and Van Gogh’s friendship was strained; they debated often about their differing opinions of art. Van Gogh, who was suffering mentally which was exacerbated by his significant output of work, was not the easiest person to live with.

There are many theories as to what happened with Van Gogh’s ear: a battle wound from a violent altercation with Gauguin; an accident whilst he was shaving and suffered an epileptic fit; an action of ill mental health. What seems to be known however, is that he presented his ear to a local prostitute with whom had fallen in love with, as a last attempt to win her heart.

Van Gogh was taken to the local hospital in Arles, which is now L’espace de Van Gogh and has been kept as you see it in his painting. The hospital also houses some of his masterpieces.

Walking in the steps of Van Gogh in 2015

If you visit the tourism office in Arles you can purchase a map with a walking tour of ten famous scenes that Van Gogh painted. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Van Gogh and being in the real scenes that he painted was overwhelming; however the reality was somewhat less romantic. Arles is not the typical idyllic Southern French town; it was a little dirty, and a little smelly, which surprised me because I was anticipating the bright, moving scenes from Van Gogh’s paintings (which was over a hundred years and a couple of wars ago, so I removed my rose-coloured glasses).

It didn’t take long to forget about the state of the town though; retracing Van Gogh’s paintings around Arles was a bit like an artistic treasure hunt for me. Here are some of the places I found:

L’entree du jardin public

L'entree du Jardin Public, Vincent Van Gogh
L’entree du Jardin Public, Vincent Van Gogh
L'entree du Jardin Public, Vincent Van Gogh
L’entree du Jardin Public, Vincent Van Gogh

This was the first stop on the map. It was a strange feeling standing in the same scene that Van Gogh depicted in the painting. I took my time here to digest exactly what I was doing. I looked for details that weren’t there; I tried to match up positions of the trees and park benches, and turn the elderly men drinking into women in black dresses. I then just stood there and took in the feeling of the park, the shady refuge it provided in the middle of the town. Van Gogh certainly had a way of making something we consider ordinary, so moving.

Les Alsycamps

Les Alsycamps, Vincent Van Gogh
Les Alsycamps, Vincent Van Gogh
Les Alsycamps, Vincent Van Gogh
Les Alsycamps, Vincent Van Gogh

Les Alsycamps is a famous Roman necropolis and was Arles’ burial ground for over 1500 years. The walk down this long avenue of stone coffins to find Van Gogh’s famous scene had to be taken in slow, silent steps. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted side-by-side here and produced a number of paintings. Above is a particularly emotive painting by Van Gogh, which describes the vast space and desolate feeling of Les Alsycamps.

Garten de Hospitals

Garten de Hospitals, Vincent Van Gogh
Garten de Hospitals, Vincent Van Gogh
Garten de Hospitals, Vincent Van Gogh
Garten de Hospitals, Vincent Van Gogh

The hospital was an extremely moving place. You could not help but feel melancholy walking underneath the yellow arches. The gardens have been kept more-or-less the same as how Van Gogh described them in his painting, including the stunning blue irises. The hospital, now housing some of his pieces and a few touristy boutiques was eerily quiet, as people around me paid their silent respects to Van Gogh and his troubled life.

Le Cafe Terrace

Le Cafe Terrace, Vincent Van Gogh
Le Cafe Terrace, Vincent Van Gogh
Cafe Du Terrace
Le Cafe Terrace, Vincent Van Gogh

I was quite star struck when I discovered this iconic scene. The cobbled streets no longer remain; there is an army of plastic chairs and tables in the foreground; the cafe has been renamed Cafe Van Gogh; however, you can still imagine Van Gogh painting this scene. This was the easiest image to visualise and also feel. There was a bustle to the streets, and the buildings had aged with the painting. I felt so lucky to be standing there.

The Trinquetaille Bridge

The Trinquetaille Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh
The Trinquetaille Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh
The Trinquetaille Bridge, VIncent Van Gogh
The Trinquetaille Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh

This was not the most pleasant place to visit in Arles, but I am glad I found the painting. The steps up to the left had large worn dips in them from hundreds of years of footsteps. The painting can be viewed as historical in nature and it also shows how Van Gogh can see a composition from such a simple scene. The light of Van Gogh’s painting, which was completed in October 1888 appears to be a lot different to how I saw it in early May. It would be interesting to come back during Autumn.

The Langlois Bridge

The Langlois Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh
The Langlois Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh
L'anglois Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh
L’anglois Bridge, Vincent Van Gogh

We had to travel a little further to see the bridge because it had been moved because of an expanding industrial area. Driving past the old site you could see an abandoned Van Gogh cafe, used when tourism for the painter had been booming, I assume. The bridge was important enough to reassemble down the river however, and I did run into another Van Gogh enthusiast.

There are a couple of towns around Arles with more scenes that Van Gogh painted, including Auvers-sur-Oise where he ended his life. I recommend visiting the scenes of painters you admire so you can have your own experience of a composition you have may have been looking at for a long time.

Written by Lauren Ottaway.