On Sunday, I made my way to Tate Britain to see The EY Exhibition, “VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN”. To say I was blown away would be an understatement! I can’t do justice to the exhibition, but I will give it a go and try and capture why I found this to be an amazing experience. I’m really grateful to the Tate for allowing people to take photographs. I have relied very heavily on the exhibition leaflet and the information about the paintings in the rooms for which I’m very grateful too.
Vincent van Gogh in London
Vincent van Gogh spent nearly three years in England (1873-1876). London, at that time, was a technologically very advanced city but also had slums where people lived in extreme poverty. van Gogh worked for two years at the Covent Garden offices of the art dealers Goupil. He lived at Stockwell and Oval. He used to travel by boat and underground and loved walking in the city. Each day he would walk across Westminster Bridge to Goupil, wearing his top hat. “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.” Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, London, 1874
van Gogh loved Victorian novels, describing them as “reality more real than reality.” He read Bunyan and Eliot and re-read Dickens’s Christmas stories every year. Of Dickens he said, “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.”
In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh wrote, “Reading books is like looking at paintings…..one must find beautiful that which is beautiful.”
Two of van Gogh’s favourite books feature weavers, Dickens’s Hard Times and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. He made a series of paintings and drawings of weavers when he was living in Nuenen. He described his work as, “weaver who must control and interweave many threads…so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts.”
van Gogh liked the poem, Song of the Shirl about a seamstress by English poet Thomas Hood.
During his time in London he visited various galleries. Among the works he admired he listed John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church and John Constable’s landscapes. van Gogh liked the briskly brushed “stormy skies” for which the British artist Richard Bonington was known for.
van Gogh saw the above painting in the Paris office of Goupil. He wrote to Theo, including a sketch of the painting, saying, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what’s it like early in the morning, and in winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.”
van Gogh was homesick and also suffered the pain of unrequited love for his landlady’s daughter. His letters home from this time are depressed and religious. After being dismissed from his job he tried teaching and preaching in Ramsgate (in Kent) and Isleworth (west London). Later he would write, “I often felt low in England…but the Black and White and Dickens, are things that make up for it all.” Vincent van Gogh, 1883.
Hoping a change in scenery would help van Gogh, his uncle arranged for him to move to the Paris office of Goupil. Van Gogh left London in December, 1876 but his love for British art and culture influenced his style and subject matter. “When I was in London, how often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southhampton Street in the evening.” Vincent van Gogh, 1883.
van Gogh painted three night scenes after moving to Provence in 1888 including Starry Night below which he described as “the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river with the starry sky above.” His night scenes remind one of the views of the Thames but without the fog.
Vincent van Gogh’s love for autumnal scenes
van Gogh saw Meindert Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middleharnis (1689) at the National Gallery and admired the perspective.
van Gogh drew avenues of trees in his letters and pictures. Road in Etten (below) was his first important experiment with a figure on the road in autumn.
The woman in mourning dress and the autumnal scene makes this a picture of sadness. van Gogh would later write, “How perfectly simple death and burial happen, coolly as the falling of an autumn leaf.”
van Gogh had been reading about colour and this is reflected in the contrasting blues and oranges used in this landscape which shows a side-on view of the avenue.
van Gogh had met John Everett Millais and had seen his Chill October (probably at Christie’s). He mentioned it often in his letters.
His Autumn Landscape at Dusk has a “personally intimate” effect that he admired in Chill October.
van Gogh copied out Keats’ poem “To Autumn”. He said Keats was“the favourite of painters here, and that’s how I came to be reading him.”
van Gogh had seen John Constable’s “The Valley Farm” (below) in the South Kensington Museum.
Years later, he would write to his brother,“I….always keep thinking about some English paintings- for instance, Chill October by Millais…the Hobema in the national Gallery, a couple of very fine Constables.”
van Gogh continued to love autumnal scenes. He painted The Bois de Bouligne with People Walking in Paris. He had adopted the bright colours and brushstrokes of the impressionists.
van Gogh spent his last autumn in hospital in Saint-Paul.
Vincent van Gogh and the British newspaper, The Graphic
van Gogh admired the community of artists at the British social reforming newspaper, The Graphic, calling them, “the great portrayers of the people.” He collected a series of prints called “Heads of the People Drawn From Life” by various artists at The Graphic. He learned from these prints and used light and dark shadings to emphasise the shapes of his figures as seen below.
van Gogh collected most of the illustrations of Hubert von Herkomer, a leading illustrator at The Graphic.van Gogh had an engraving of Herkomer’s famous church scene. He produced his own (see below) by assembling his “heads” to represent a congregation.
While living in Paris van Gogh started a series of self-portraits, using some of the principles of his British-inspired”Heads of the People”. In these he is seen as a dignified, modern man of depth.
van Gogh painted the self-portrait below during his last months in Paris. The eyes are emphasised, strokes are bold and colours have been combined. This was featured in the first solo exhibition of his art in Britain at the Leicester Galleries in 1923. The Tate tried unsuccessfully to buy it for the nation.
Vincent van Gogh and Black and Whites
van Gogh learned about British “Black and Whites” while working at Goupil. British print makers wee portraying modern subjects using light and shade. van Gogh’s study of these prints helped him develop his drawing style.
“I often felt low in England…but the Black and White and Dickens, are things that make up for it all. Vincent van Gogh, 1883.”
van Gogh’s first known drawing from the time he took up art in 1880 was a drawing of men and women miners from the mining area of Belgium.
The cityscape below, commissioned by van Gogh’s uncle but was not to his taste.
Vincent van Gogh’s influence on others
Francis Bacon said, “van Gogh is one of my great heroes…[He] speaks of the need to make changes in reality…This is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of the reality.” Bacon’s brushwork shows van Gogh’s influence.
Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and British flower painting
Alexander Reid, the Scottish art dealer, gave van Gogh the still life below. It influenced him greatly. He hoped that his paintings would be of commercial value as were Monticelli’s. He wrote to Theo, “If our Monticelli bouquet is worth 500 francs to an art lover … then I dare assure you that my sunflowers are also worth 500 francs to one of those Scots or Americans.”
“Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until van Gogh saw… the arrogant spirit the inhabits the sunflower.” Roger Fry, Art critic 1910
The van Gogh below isn’t of flowers but I’ve included it here as I absolutely love it! van Gogh was out walking with the Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid and was struck by the beauty of these apples. Reid bought them for van Gogh who rushed home and painted two versions; the one below he gave to Reid and the second was given to Lucien Pissarro. Reid and Pissarro brought these back home to Britain and they became one of the first van Goghs to come to Britain.
A Toi, van Gogh!
Artists such as Walter Richard Sickert, Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore and Matthew Smith adapted van Gogh’s brilliant colours and brush strokes. Gilman had a print of a van Gogh’s self-portrait on the wallof hisstudio. Before he started to paint, he would wave his brush at the print and say, “A toi, van Gogh!” (Cheers, van Gogh).
Harold Gilman had seen the above painting in Paris. Later, he would paint “nothing but trees” many of them with van Gogh’s brushstrokes.
Vanessa Bell’s The Vineyard reminds one of van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Bell, too,suffered from mental illness and found comfort in painting the Provence countryside.
Walter Richard Sickert was a British art critic who supported van Gogh. The self portrait (below) was exhibited in 1907 during the Paris exhibition, Portraits of Men, with four van Gogh’s.
In 1920 William Nicholson was commissioned to paint a portrait of Gertrude Jekyll, a garden designer and writer. She refused to stop her work to sit for him so he, taking inspiration from van Gogh, painted her boots.
Vincent van Gogh’s use of prints of other artists as inspiration
van Gogh used printed images as inspiration. He said,“It’s not copying…It is rather translating into another language, the one of colours.” van Gogh knew about London’s prisons from the time he loved there as well as from Dickens’ “A visit to Newgate”. van Gogh had over 30 prints of prisons and prisoners, including two Gustave Dore’s illustrations of Newgate.
The “translation” below was made while van Gogh was in Saint-Paul hospital. He described the hospital as, “The prison was crushing me, and pere Peyron didn’t pay the slightest attention to it.” pere Peyron was his doctor.
Vincent van Gogh and Lucien Pissarro
Pissarro was part of a group of artists experimenting with painting in dots and dabs of contrasting colours. van Gogh saw Pissarro’s La Maison de laSourde, Eragny in an exhibition.
van Gogh started experimenting with neo-impressionism. Path in the Woods is one of a series of paintings he made during this time.
Shortly after attending van Gogh’s funeral, Pissaro moved to Britain and shared his knowledge of van Gogh with British artists. His The Garden Gate, Epping, shows van Gogh’s influence.
“You may not always be able to say what it is that confines and yet you feel I know not what bars…and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long, is this for ever, is this for eternity?” Vincent van Gogh, 1880
The following van Gogh’s really touched me.
In London, van Gogh had seen a print, Worn out” by the Scottish artist, Thomas Faed. He gave this English title to his work below. He wrote that he was also thinking of a scene in the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The war veteran, Cornelis Schuitemaker (below). Images of thoughtful people facing the end of the year and the end of their lives had along history in British and European art.
van Gogh made drawings and lithographs of another war veteran, Adrians Zuyderland (below). He wrote that this was “to express the special mood of Christmas and new Year. At that time, in both the Netherlands and England, there’s still always a religious element.”
“I met a woman…who roamed the streets in winter – who had to earn her bread, you can imagine how. I took that woman as a model and worked with her the entire winter. Vincent van Gogh,1882. The model was the prostitute and seamstress Clasina (Sien) Maria Hoornik. van Gogh met her in a soup kitchen. She lived with van Gogh from 1881-1883. Their relationship was not accepted by his family, though Theo did not stop supporting him. At Theo’s urging,van Gogh left Sien in 1883 to paint in Drenthe, ending the only domestic relationship he would ever have. On 12th November 1904 she threw herself into the Schelde river and drowned as she had predicted to van Gogh in 1883, saying, “what the bad moods are is still more desperate…it’s bound to end up with me jumping into the water.” She was 54.
The painting, “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) seen below was done while van Gogh was at the Saint-Paul hospital. It is based on his lithograph made eight years earlier (see above). When he was not well enough to go outside, he used to make “translations”from prints. When van Gogh was unwell, his doctor said, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.”