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Vincent Van Gogh

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Vincent van Gogh, the eldest son of a Dutch Reformed minister and a bookseller's daughter, pursued various vocations, including that of an art dealer and clergyman, before deciding to become an artist at the age of twenty-seven. Over the course of his decade-long career (1880вЂ"90), he produced nearly 900 paintings and more than 1,100 works on paper. Ironically, in 1890, he modestly assessed his artistic legacy as "of very secondary importance."

Largely self-taught, Van Gogh gained his footing as an artist by zealously copying prints and studying nineteenth-century drawing manuals and lesson books, such as Charles Bargue's Exercises au fusain and cours de dessin. He felt that it was necessary to master black and white before working with color, and first concentrated on learning the rudiments of figure drawing and rendering landscapes in correct perspective. In 1882, he moved from his parents' home in Etten to the Hague, where he received some formal instruction from his cousin, Anton Mauve, a leading Hague School artist. That same year, he executed his first independent works in watercolor and ventured into oil painting; he also enjoyed his first earnings as an artist: his uncle, the art dealer C. M. Van Gogh, commissioned two sets of drawings of Hague townscapes for which Van Gogh chose to depict such everyday sites as views of the railway station, gasworks, and nursery gardens (1972.118.281).

Van Gogh's admiration for the Barbizon artists, in particular Jean-FranÐ"§ois Millet, influenced his decision to paint rural life. In the winter of 1884вЂ"85, while living with his parents in Nuenen, he painted more than forty studies of peasant heads, which culminated in his first multifigured, large-scale composition The Potato Eaters) (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam); in this gritty portrayal of a peasant family at mealtime, Van Gogh wrote that he sought to express that they "used the same hands with which they now take food from the plate to dig the earth." Its dark palette and coarse application of paint typify works from the artist's Nuenen period (67.187.70b).

Interested in honing his skills as a figure painter, Van Gogh left the Netherlands in late 1885 to study at the Antwerp Academy in Belgium. Three months later, he departed for Paris, where he lived with his brother Theo, an art dealer with the firm of Boussod, Valadon et Cie, and for a time attended classes at Fernand Cormon's studio. Van Gogh's style underwent a major transformation during his two-year stay in Paris (March 1886вЂ"February 1888). There he saw the work of the Impressionists first-hand and also witnessed the latest innovations by the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. In response, Van Gogh lightened his palette and experimented with the broken brushstrokes of the Impressionists as well as the pointillist touch of the Neo-Impressionists, as evidenced in the handling of his Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat of 1885 (67.187.70a), which is painted on the reverse of an earlier peasant study. In Paris, he executed twenty-four self-portraits that reflect his ongoing exploration of complementary color contrasts and a bolder style.

In February 1888, Van Gogh departed Paris for the south of France, hoping to establish a community of artists in Arles. Captivated by the clarity of light and the vibrant colors of the ProvenÐ"§al spring, Van Gogh produced fourteen paintings of orchards in less than a month, painting outdoors and varying his style and technique. The composition and calligraphic handling of The Flowering Orchard (56.13) suggest the influence of Japanese prints, which Van Gogh collected. The artist's debt to ukiyo-e prints is also apparent in the reed pen drawings he made in Arles, distinguished by their great verve and linear invention. In August, he painted the still lifes Oleanders (62.24) and Shoes (1992.374); each work resonates with the artist's personal symbolism. For Van Gogh, oleanders were joyous and life-affirming (much like the sunflower); he reinforced their significance with the compositional prominence accorded to Ð"‰mile Zola's 1884 novel La joie de vivre. The still life of unlaced shoes, which Van Gogh hung in Paul Gauguin's room at Arles, suggested, to Gauguin, the artist himselfвЂ"he saw them as emblematic of Van Gogh's itinerant existence.

Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles in October and abruptly departed in late December 1888, a move precipitated by Van Gogh's breakdown, during which he cut off part of his left ear with a razor. Upon his return from the hospital in January, Van Gogh resumed working on a portrait of the wife of the postmaster Joseph Roulin; although he painted all the members of the Roulin family, Van Gogh produced five versions of Madame Roulin, shown holding the rope that rocks her newborn daughter's cradle (1996.435). He envisioned her portrait as the central panel of a triptych, flanked by paintings of sunflowers. For Van Gogh, her image transcended portraiture, symbolically resonating as a modern Madonna; of its palette, which ranges from



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