Vincent van Gogh

10 Mar

Starry Night, from 1889

I start with van Gogh not because I believe he had a particularly great impact on the development of art (he did) or because he remains one of the most popular artists of all time (he is), but because of a bit of sci-fi.  OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Doctor Who.  I’m not going to spend time defending my enjoyment of British sci-fi, however, no matter how good I think it is.  This is about an artist.  The Series 5 episode “Vincent and the Doctor” got me thinking about why Van Gogh is so popular and the impact he had on art.  I also dare say that anyone who saw the episode will understand the emotional power that it had and why I would suddenly be drawn to the artist.

Unlike other artists it’s easy to see why van Gogh is so popular.  His paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Normally when an expert remarks on the “masterful use of color” by an artist it seems rather perfunctory and does nothing to explain the painting to a layman.  Not so with van Gogh.  The colors in his paintings almost seem like gemstones, they are so vivid.  His most famous paintings create a feeling of heightened reality that is common amongst our own favorite memories.  In short, van Gogh was such a great artist that you don’t need to know a thing about art history to appreciate them.  They are classic images that touch everyone on some level.

But where does the artist end and the legend begin?  Vincent van Gogh is the great archtype of the troubled artist.  Constantly suffering from mental illness, he famously cut off part of his left ear in 1888 and commited suicide in 1890.  It’s also a well-known fact that he was not a great success in his lifetime.  When we see a van Gogh we’re not simply seeing a great work of art, we’re seeing a great work of art that was created despite the artist’s madness.  This cult of personality goes a long way in explaining the enduring interest in van Gogh.  It’s not simply morbid curiosity, however.  Knowing what we do about his troubled life allows us to appreciate all the more how beautiful his artworks truly are.  They remind us in a way that there is always beauty in life no matter how dark things can be at times and of the transcendent nature of art to connect us to this beauty.

More on Vincent van Gogh:
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with a detailed biography
Van Gogh Gallery, online resource with an extensive catalog of works
Don McLean’s “Vincent”, set to various van Gogh paintings


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