Van Gogh by Pascal Bonafoux

Summary from Goodreads

The artistic career of Vincent Van Gogh streaks across the history of modern art like a flashing comet. When Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, at the apogee of the Impressionist revolution, he associated with Pissarro, Cezanne, Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and explored with them such new forms of painting as divisionism and cloisonnism. But Vincent, fascinated though he was by Gauguin, knew that he carried within himself a message, a genius, that was his alone. He left Paris and in a few years - he was to commit suicide four years later - in Arles, in the psychiatric asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, near Saint-Remy-de-Provence, and finally at Auvers-sur-Oise, he accomplished his life's immense work. 

The Starry Night has enjoyed immense popularity. It's on Barbie dresses, and sneakers, and mugs, and tile mosaics and cakes. And I can see why. I was enthralled by it the first time I was introduced to an image of it. It's a beautiful, chaotic swirling mass of blues and yellows and blacks. This painting of his, is perhaps how I came to know the existence of an artist named Vincent Van Gogh. 
Fig 1: Various Self-Portraits

Bonafoux's Van Gogh, while it touches on art techniques and composition, is largely biographical. Bonafoux goes way back to Vincent's boyhood and chronicles his days as a young boy in a family of seven, a boy struggling with his studies, a boy eliciting frustrations from his father because he could think of nothing but painting. 

And after years of fruitless studies, an uncle who was a partner at the French gallery Groupil & Cie, recommended Vincent for employment. There he sold prints and lithographs. All seem to be going well until his declaration of love to a clergyman's daughter was met with rebuke. He took refuge in his family but his attitude soon became unpredictable and reticent that his job at the gallery suffered. He eventually even lost the desire to draw, as well as his employment.

He soon sought to devote his life to God and to preaching. But again, tribulations beset him. His life, unfortunately, has not been as bright as his color pallet. Unrequited love, poverty, despair, loneliness, isolation and sickness. Then the ups and downs, and the manic moments that led to physical deterioration. 
Fig 2
Above: Crows in the wheatfields
Below: Field under thunderclouds

His struggle with mental illness is particularly evident in his paintings. Dark tones for dark days with flurries of chaotic strokes, and bright ones for peaceful days with much calmer strokes. And I was surprised at how much this was true. His canvases reflect his state of mind. And as they say, you can never really separate a man from his art and the art from the man.

See Fig 2 to your right. Crows in the Wheatfields is said to have been the last painting he did, right after he took his own life. Below is Field of Thunderclouds, to which he said this "My present, almost excessively calm frame of mind is just the state needed to paint this." Note the contrast in the two paintings. One seemingly more violent, with a mass of black colors, the other shows lighter shades with a sense serenity.

Vincent's unpredictability has made most people view him as an oddity, and has been met with ridicule for his peculiarities. But in all this strife and bleakness, his beacon of light has been his brother Theo. Perhaps I can go on and say that there could have been no Vincent Van Gogh, or much less of him, had there been no Theodorus Van Gogh. This goes well beyond the financial support the latter has given the former. Theo was his most constant supporter and confidant. Always encouraging, continuously understanding.
Fig 3:
Left: Self-portrait
Right (top): Starry Night over the Rhone
(below): The Starry Night

In his lifetime he only had two successes. One when Albert Aurier praised his painting in an article published in Mercure de France. Another when The Red Vineyard got sold for 400 francs. Two, from roughly 900 paintings and 1,100 sketches. Two. Two! This takes me back to Episode 10, Season 5, of BBC's Doctor Who, entitled The Vincent and The Doctor, where the later took the former time traveling in his blue box to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay, where his works hung on ever corner and space of the gallery. Where the art curator spoke of him as "the greatest painter of them all" and "one of the greatest men who ever lived." Vincent cried. I cried. It's true this didn't happen. But don't you wish it could have?

It's funny that when you come to know about the man behind the art, you somehow tend to view his works differently. Stories and emotions get somehow attached to his paintings and add layers to them. It's a very peculiar feeling. But I believe I am very far from understanding him or his works. The only thing I can offer is genuine appreciation for his art, and hopefully that is enough.   


  1. I have to watch that Doctor Who episode! Thanks Tin for this post. I think I'm going to view Van Gogh's works differently from now on.

    1. I am very happy to hear that! :D (PS: Tapusin mo na kasi ang season 1! Bilis! Dali!)


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