Van Gogh: Modern and Traditional

An important concept that has gotten lost in translation for many, is the fact that all the accomplished artists throughout history who we call “Masters” studied under another Master for years, becoming completely infused by their style. Prior to the age of Modern Art, and modern art curricula, becoming an artist at all meant a period of very intensive study and practice under an established artist. From there, an artist would branch out on his own, ever so slowly, until he established his own version of the style in which the master worked. As an artist practicing at the very beginning of what art historians consider the “Modern” period (1860’s - 1970s), Vincent Van Gogh enthusiastically practiced in this "traditional” way, only picking and choosing varied artists and styles, which he successfully synthesized into his own, unique style.  

A popular idea at the advent of the Modern Art era was to throw out “The Academy”, (the established pathways of study and practice), and “build something entirely new”. What we can see from our historical distance is the fact that artists seem to have forgotten that by the very nature of how we are designed, each and every individual artist can’t help but put their own mark on something, however close they try to copy. A fatal mistake is thinking we can learn nothing from those who have gone before. Van Gogh understood this more than any of his contemporaries, and I am convinced that in the end, this is why he is now seen as one of the “most original” painters of the modern era. Irony at its best! 

I think Van Gogh really had a “love-hate” relationship with “the Academy”. He started out at The Antwerp Academy, which was known for its rigorous training in traditional academic techniques, which emphasized the importance of drawing from life and copying from plaster casts and models. He left after a brief while, writing to his brother Theo, “I am doing what I can to learn the drawing trade, but I find the methods of the professors unsympathetic." From there he picked up his own individual course of study. Considering the breadth and depth of his subject matter over his career, his exuberance and curiosity, traits that underscored his genius, may have cost him under such a structured environment.  Vincent was a naturally curious and voracious student of art on his own. He spent countless hours studying the works of other artists. He believed that studying the works of other artists was essential to developing his own style and techniques. He was interested in the techniques and methods used by other painters, and he believed that copying their works was an effective way to learn from them. He studied the works of artists such as Rembrandt, Millet, and Delacroix, and tried to replicate their brushstrokes and use of color in his own paintings.

Van Gogh and his Japanese Prints

 In the mid 1800’s Japan finally ended its isolation from the West and began to open up trade. This introduced Europeans to a shockingly different aesthetic, and prints from the Edo period (1603-1867) became very popular. They depicted everyday life, landscapes, and famous actors and courtesans. These prints had a significant influence on Van Gogh’s work, as he was drawn to their bold colors, simplified forms, stylized objects, and unusual perspectives. Vincent moved into his brother’s Paris flat in early 1886. Together, they built up a sizable collection of Japanese prints. Vincent soon began to view them as more than a pleasant curiosity. He saw the prints as an artistic example and thought they were equal to the great masterpieces of Western art history.

 "My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches." 

- Vincent to his brother Theo from Antwerp, 28 November 1885

Ongoing Influence of the Japanese Prints 

If you have studied Van Gogh’s work and looked at it closely, you can’t help notice that the style and perspective influenced by the Japanese prints stayed with him for the rest of his career. Some of these influences include his strong outlines; the use of black contours is an element typical of Japanese woodblock prints. His color contrasts and cropped compositions also reveal this influence.  

My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.

 - Vincent to his brother Theo from Antwerp, 28 November 1885

In the image above, left, we see Hiroshige’s woodcut, “The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido”, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo., 1857. In the middle we see Van Gogh’s actual tracing of Hiroshege’s work, and on the right we see Van Gogh’s finished work, “Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige), of 1887. Some may be startled to see a direct tracing of Hiroshige by Van Gogh of this print. Back to the point I made in the beginning, this mode of copying a master's work was commonplace. (just to be clear, outright copying work and passing it off as your own is NOT what we are talking about here. Also note that in all these paintings that Van Gogh did, he gives credit in the title by saying 'After Hiroshige'). Back to the why. As a painter I know it immediately; to retain muscle memory! You can really see this influence in the rest of the trees in Van Gogh's work throughout his career. We can see this influence of the strong outlines, the flattened picture plane, and the trees almost taking on personalities of their own in the work Van Gogh did until he died. Here are some of his last paintings of trees he painted at the asylum, at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France in 1889.

Van Gogh, Hospital at Saint Remy, 1889

Van Gogh, Olive Trees, Saint Remy, 1889

Van Gogh, Almond Blossoms, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, February 1890

I’ll end this with one of the most popular paintings depicting trees in this period that most people recognize by Van Gogh: Almond Blossom, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, February 1890. This is one of my personal favorites. I think it shows a perfect synthesis of the Japanese influence and his own personal love of painting trees, giving them such life and personality. Vincent painted this as a gift for his brother Theo and sister-in-law Jo to celebrate the birth of their first son. Theo wrote to Vincent, ‘As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.’ This work remained closest to the hearts of the Van Gogh family. Vincent Willem went on to found the Van Gogh Museum.

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this look into Van Gogh's life and work. 

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