MOSCOW, RUSSIA, August 2, 2011—Visiting the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday, I encountered a remarkable painting. Titled The Red Vineyard, it is by Vincent Van Gogh.
The picture shows a company of toiling harvesters bathed in the resplendent light of a sunset. Van Gogh made this painting from memory in a single afternoon in early November 1888. He was just thirty-five years old, and he had less than two years to live.
It is Vincent’s bravura coloring that immediately seizes one’s attention. The luminous white in the centre of the setting sun gradually gives way to a full red in the foreground. The harvesters – wholly absorbed in their labor – unknowingly participate in a symphony of throbbing color that is being played in the red-yellow range of the chromatic spectrum.
The Red Vineyard stands as a striking example of Vincent’s groundbreaking genius. After having begun in the realistic tradition, Vincent realized that pure colors – when expertly manipulated – can in themselves generate an aesthetic charge of the highest intensity.
In the second half of the 1880’s, following a difficult road of discovery, van Gogh tore himself away from the conventions of his day and began turning out a stream of pictures whose color schemes bore less and less semblance to real life. The result was nothing short of spectacular.
If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, you must not miss the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum in the Museumplein. The gallery houses numerous sketches and more than two hundred paintings from various stages of the painter’s artistic journey. There you can see The Potato Eaters, Vincent’s first major picture. Steeped in the realistic tradition, it is a grim image executed with a palette of dark hues. This early work stands in sharp contrast with The Yellow House, a painting which figures as a seminal work not only in Vincent’s oeuvre, but also in the history of western art.
The subject matter of the The Yellow House could not be more prosaic. It depicts a seemingly unremarkable building in the French town of Arles where Vincent had his humble lodgings from 1888 to 1889. But the combination of the saturated yellow of building’s front and the cobalt blue of the sky above has an extraordinary effect: If you take the time to focus, you will likely experience a burst of physical pleasure coursing through your body. Such is the power of pure colors exquisitely juxtaposed. Van Gogh was the first artist to fully bring this power out.
The world of academic painting, however, was scandalized. To them such a blatant disregard for reality equalled blasphemy. So novel was Vincent’s vision that the academics and critics of this day failed to perceive its inherent aesthetic value.
This is too often the story of genius, because a genius almost invariably discovers a new way of looking at things. It is this very newness that shocks and offends those used to the old ways. It was only after Vincent’s death that the world began catching up with his vision. Once it did, a revolution ensued that has been unfolding to this day.
Almost every picture painted in the last one hundred years has been impacted by this revolution. The fact that we are no longer scandalized by pictures that feature pure colors testifies to the lasting impact of Vincent’s artistic coup d’etat. We have, in fact, become so accustomed to his way of seeing that realistic color schemes seem now almost out of place.
I marveled at all this as I stood before The Red Vineyard the other day. But one thought I could not get out of my mind: Even though Van Gogh’s paintings are today among the most expensive in the world, The Red Vineyard is the only picture he ever sold. It was bought by Anna Boch, the sister of the Belgian painter Eugene Boch, whose portrait Vincent had painted earlier. Anna paid 400 Swiss franks for the picture, which translates roughly into $1,600 in today’s money.
When visiting the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam a few years back, I was struck by the sheer size of the massive structure. Designed by the famous architect Gerrit Rietveld, it cost millions to erect. The pictures it contains are worth several billion. And yet the man behind all this wealth received virtually no reward for his splendid work.
Vincent could only pursue his love of colors, because of the small allowance from his younger brother Theo who himself struggled financially as an aspiring art dealer. It was only thanks to Theo’s selfless support that Vincent could buy his paints and canvases and food. It was only thanks to his brother that he could go on to make discoveries that forever changed the course of western art.
Vincent shot himself dead at age age of 37. Theo died less than six months later aged 33. Both broken and impoverished in the end, they received no pecuniary benefit from the splendor their combined effort had spawned.
During his anguish-ridden, short life, Vincent van Gogh managed to create a treasure of immense aesthetic and financial value. Millions upon millions have experienced untold pleasure as they have gazed in wonder at his magnificent creations. Some have become extremely wealthy by being lucky enough to come into possession of a piece of his art.
Vincent’s reward, by contrast, was mostly trouble and pain. The world’s gain was his loss. Life is, indeed, not always fair.
Standing before The Red Vineyard yesterday, I could not but rejoice in the dazzling interplay of the colors before my eyes. But remembering the cost to its author, it was also difficult not to be sad.
Note: The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh is on display in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. For more information visit the museum’s website.
- Entrance Public Garden in Arles 1888 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
- Les Iris 1889 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
- Landscape with House and Ploughman Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: Hermitage Museum
- Orchard Bloom with Poplars, 1889 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Germany
- Field with Poppies 1889 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: Kunsthalle Bremen Museum, Germany
- Starry Night Over the Rhone 1888 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night Over the Rhone, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
- Wheat Field under threatening skies Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
- Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889 Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) Oil on canvas Source: Vincent van Gogh: Wheat Field with Cypresses (1993.132) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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