Van Gogh and Britain

We start with a question. Is knowledge of the background of an artist necessary to understanding and appreciating his or her work? The ongoing art exhibit at the Tate and an article on van Gogh seems to think it is. But it can be fun and self-educational to go into a group art show, look and react to the work without knowing who executed the works. Influences are a part of life. Primal emotions are also. It is difficult to separate the two. It is difficult to know what is in the mind of man or woman (only the shadow knows)! You know what is in your mind. It sometimes helps to get it out.

The ongoing art show at the Tate is:

Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Britain 

27 March – 11 August 2019

This exhibition attempts to reveal how the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh was inspired and influenced by Britain and British art. Van Gogh in his youth lived and worked in England between 1873 and 1876 ( age 20-23 ). He told his brother Theo that he enjoyed England. Working as a neophyte art dealer, he was exposed to many paintings.

At the age of 27, van Gogh decided to become an artist. He had mental health problems. He died by suicide at the age of 37. Like many artists he used painting as a way to express his primal emotions.

The following article from the New York Times sums up the thrust of the exhibit, which attempts the show, the influence of his stay in England on his later work and to highlight the more normal aspect of the early life of van Gogh.

Van Gogh the Wild Man? Try Van Gogh the Suburban Professional

As reported in the NY Times

B-1. van Gogh Starry nignts merlin_152403333_3552f80f-9675-4951-bc32-0b8cbdbfa090-jumbo

Figure B-1. “Starry Night,” an 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh in Tate Britain’s new exhibition. The work depicts the Rhone in France, but scholars believe it was influenced by a view of the Thames in London. Credit: RMN-Grand Palais/Musee d’Orsay

By Nina Siegal

March 26, 2019

LONDON — We like to think of Vincent van Gogh as a creature of the elements: buffeted by the wind and rain, or going mad in the sunflower fields under the wilting Provençal sun.

But here’s another, just as valid, idea of van Gogh: comfortable, middle-class Vincent in a top hat and coat, commuting to work in Victorian London, and spending his weekends rowing on the Thames, or strolling in Kensington Gardens.

That was, indeed, van Gogh in his early 20s, when he moved to London from his native Netherlands to work for the international art dealing firm Goupil & Cie. as an assistant in their branch in the Covent Garden district.

Van Gogh didn’t make a single painting in London, but as “Van Gogh and Britain,” a new exhibition at Tate Britain makes clear, his time in the British capital had an enduring impact on his work.

The exhibition, which opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 11, offers us a vision of van Gogh as a thinker who absorbed the cultural influences around him, especially 19th-century English literature, and often used references from British illustrations, prints and paintings in his work.

B-2 James Abbott McNeill Whistler bridge

Figure B-2. “Nocturne: Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, from around 1871. The flickering lamps along the Thames may have influenced van Gogh’s work. Credit: Burrell Collection; Glasgow Life/Glasgow Museums on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Image was lightened for this blog to highlight night-lights on water.

“Looking at his work through his relationship with Britain brings into the foreground his amazing intellectual curiosity,” said Carol Jacobi, the lead curator of the show.

Recent research into lesser-known chapters of van Gogh’s life, such as his time in Britain, have provided us with a more well-rounded image of the artist, slowly replacing the old vision of a wild man whose art came directly from the soul — though it will take a long time to shift that idea, said Sjraar van Heugten, an independent van Gogh art historian and curator based in Belgium.

“It’s entirely clear that van Gogh was not the completely spontaneous painter who worked very fast, almost without thinking,” said Mr. van Heugten in an interview. “He read very widely: literature as well as popular science. If you carefully study his work, the image arises of a man who carefully thinks about his works and prepares.”

Van Gogh got his job in London at the Goupil gallery through family connections in the Netherlands. Both Vincent and his brother Theo worked first in the firm’s branch in The Hague, and about the same time that Theo moved to the Brussels branch, Vincent was sent to London. They both ended up working in the Paris headquarters, but although Theo rose through the gallery’s ranks, Vincent was fired a couple of years later.

“It’s really interesting to think of van Gogh as having this commercial chapter to his life,” said Ms. Jacobi. “He started to work at Goupil when he was 16, and he was sent to the London branch when he was only 20, all alone in this massive city. His letters home were very enthusiastic about the art he was seeing.”

B-3 John Everett Millais chill-october.jpg!Large

Figure B-3. “Chill October,” 1870 a bleak image by John Everett Millais, may have inspired van Gogh’s “Autumn Landscape at Dusk.” Credit:via Tate Britain

Mr. van Heugten said that at the gallery, van Gogh “got to know about the artists of his time. He saw the prints and paintings at Goupil, he got to discuss art with the art dealers, and because of Goupil, he got to live in cities with museums.”

B-4. prisoners-exercising

Figure B-4. Gustave Doré bases Van Gogh’s “Prisoners Exercising” from 1890 on an engraving of inmates in Newgate Prison in London. Van Gogh painted the work while being treated for mental illness in Saint-Rémy, France. Credit: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Continue Reading “van Gogh the Wild Man …”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. msageelmer says:

    I certainly don’t think that it is necessary to know who or where an artist is or comes from to respond to their art, it is personal and innate from the viewer. I do believe however that the artist’s collective experiences and internal expressions are a culmination of one’s combined biological, environmental, and societal influences. When we eventually know who may have created the art we respond to, then we become aware and possibly influenced by our new found knowledge. Our initial perception can be wrong or can be skewed by this new information. I believe art historians are faced with this all the time…interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.


    1. jdsage12 says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I take it you have studied and have been exposed to the arts! Like Van Gogh, You may wish to try expressing yourself by taking up the paint brush! Never too late..


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