Shepherd and his Flock, Vincent Van Gogh

Shepherd and his Flock, Vincent Van Gogh, September 1884, oil on canvas on cardboard, Nuenen

Van Gogh lived with his parents between 1883 and 1885 in Nuenen. During his time there, he met Antoon Hermans, a successful, retired goldsmith, with whom Van Gogh wanted “to remain on good terms if possible”. [1] From Van Gogh’s perspective, Hermans was “rich and has built a house that he’s filled with antiques again, and furnished with some very fine oak chests. He decorates the ceilings and walls himself, and really well sometimes.”[1]

Hermans was also an amateur painter, and Van Gogh took him on as a student. This may come as a surprise with the knowledge that Van Gogh began pursuing his artistic career only four years earlier. Van Gogh had previous teaching experience after taking up a position at a boy’s school in Ramsgate, England after he lost his job at Boupil & Cie, the Art Dealers in Paris in 1876. He really enjoyed his time teaching, so much so he questioned it, writing to Theo, “These are really happy days, the ones I’m spending here, day after day, and yet it’s a happiness and peacefulness that I don’t trust entirely, though one thing can lead to another.” [2] There was also material motivation behind Van Gogh teaching amateurs how to paint, as he told Theo, “I have a plan, though, to gradually get people to pay something — not in money, however, but by telling them ‘you must give me tubes of paint.’ [3] Van Gogh taught Hermans whilst he lived in Nuenen, and he also took on tanner Anton Kerssemakers and telegrapher Willem van de Wakker as students. Van Gogh taught them general painting techniques and how to paint still lifes.

Hermans was a particularly interesting student, because he wanted Van Gogh’s help to paint the interior walls of his house. Hermans had already painted flowers on twelve panels of his dining room, and he wanted Van Gogh to help him design images of saints for the remaining six panels. Van Gogh thought that scenes depicting the four seasons would be more suitable, and Shephard and his Flock above, is one of the images that Van Gogh created for Hermans to enlarge. This painting represented autumn. He has created a strong feeling of an oncoming stark winter with the angular, leafless trees. The contrast of the bright pasture and flock of white sheep against the dark, looming clouds and night setting in, vividly creates the feeling of a cold autumn evening.

As with a lot of Van Gogh’s work, Jean-Francois Millet’s influence can also be seen:

Jean-François Millet – Shepherd Tending His Flock, oil on canvas, 1860

Van Gogh also used this project to improve his drawing of the human figure, as he engaged various models to complete the painting studies. He initially sketched an ox-cart in the snow (which was later replaced with wood-gatherers in the snow), a ploughman, a sower, a grain harvest, a potato harvest, and the above sower. He then created oil paintings from the sketches. Van Gogh made an agreement with Hermans that he would create six compositions for him to reproduce onto his walls, only if Hermans returned the paintings to him. It is unconfirmed if Hermans ever returned his paintings, or paid Van Gogh for the work.

Written by Lauren Ottaway

[1] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Monday 4 August 1884

[2] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Saturday 6 May 1876

[3] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Monday 17 November 1874

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.