“Vincent—Saying Something Comforting”

We will begin our assessment of Early Modernism—1890 to 1945+—by examining the work of the great Dutch master Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).  With the work of Vincent we see the development of a distinct avant-garde both in product and aesthetic mentality.  We also see the ramifications of artists turning “one’s back” on the established Western European patronage through the emergence of the “starving artist” syndrome.  The life and work of Vincent certainly epitomizes that transformation from artists being celebrated by the wealthy class to being disparaged, ridiculed and isolated.  Such consequences were unfortunate within the bigger picture of Early Modernism for sure, but in the case of Vincent, these punitive efforts of society would have long lasting and very extended aftereffects into the next century.  As we will see in our Thursday class meeting, Vincent was very authentic and genuine in what he wanted to give to society through his art.  In an 1888 letter to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote the following:  “In a painting I want to say something comforting in the way that music is comforting.  I want to paint men and women with that element of the eternal that was formerly symbolized by the halo, and that we try to express by the actual radiance and vibration of our colours.”

What are your thoughts on the artist Vincent van Gogh in general and, after reading and reflecting on his words to Theo, his work as an artist of Early Modernism?

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Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889

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Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait at the Easel, 1888

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

32 Comments

32 thoughts on ““Vincent—Saying Something Comforting””

  1. Vincent Van Gogh has been one of the many inspiring artists despite what people might have called him. The fact that he cut his ear off, is usually the thing people would comment on, but as I learned, he was not as crazy as people said he is. Though not the first, he sure does have a place in history as an interesting artist.

    With what Vincent has said to Theo, we can see that he shows inspiration of wanting to create something pure. It is something to think about as an artist whether or not it helps him or her.

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  2. Van Gogh has always been accompanied by the “starving artist” image within my mind. I don’t think it is a bad image at all. It always seems to be the artists who are out of the spotlight that tend to make meaningful works of art. I also accompany his name with the “tortured artist” image as well. It is disheartening to think that no one took his epilepsy seriously. All he needed was medical attention and yet, people still have the primitive mindset of thinking he was possessed be the devil. Also, why do people seem to condone insanity? When people think of tortured artists, they connect the artists problems or insanity to good artwork. Yes, certain emotion can make art stronger. But they are still only people who are hurting inside, whether they need help or just someone to listen and understand them. He’s not crazy, but rather, ahead of his time.
    I like how Van Gogh states that everyone has there own colors and vibrations. It is true anyway. When he mentions the halo (which I presume is in a religious sense), it is almost like he knows that, in a way, we are all Godly in our own right. God isn’t a singular entity, but is within everyone. Van Gogh always wanted to portray truth, color, and the purity of the human soul.
    His contribution to Early Modernism is amazing. He portrays ordinary people and objects as subjects worthy of something greater. Subjects that deserves much more than meets the eye. Just like his piece with the potato farmers. He has gotten much more expressive since that piece. Without him, I feel that we would be very much behind in the art world. I’m glad his brother Theo had his back.

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  3. Vincent Van Gogh is really interesting for how he lived and worked very differently compared to previous generations of artists and I think this is an aspect of his life that many of us often overlook. Having the privilege to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam opened my eyes to not only the amazing things he accomplished throughout his life but also the reality that he was a man who lived in his own world. His story is one of passion and tragedy, but just a glimpse at the brushwork and layered paint on his canvas told an even greater story about how he saw the world around him. I think his choice to paint for the sake of painting rather than patronage is a really remarkable one because it shows that he had a strong emotional connection to the canvas and materials in front of him that was greater than any attachment to wealth, fame, or worldly possessions. One thing that I’ll always remember is how some of his canvases actually had paintings on both the front and back sides. Surely a man who does something like that is more interested in the process and the feelings he gets from painting than in showing off a beautiful masterpiece. In my mind, Van Gogh was a storyteller, but the kind who told stories to himself and not others. I think painting was his way of remembering the places and people he met and loved. I also think this explains his many self portraits. I think these were made to help him figure out himself. Perhaps his biggest contribution to Early Modernism was this different way of thinking. Seeing colors and patterns in his surroundings that spoke to him in such a way he couldn’t help but replicate them, despite society’s ideas about art being more straightforward and representative in the traditional sense.

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  4. I’ve always thought that Vincent Van Gogh was one of the most influential artists of all time. Such an inspiration. My favorite aspects of his pieces are the dream-like quality in them, his authentic brush-stroke style, and, of course, his color choices. None of them seem realistic to the eye, but he painted with emotion and clarity. They weren’t just simple portraits or landscape paintings; they expressed more than what the simple eye can see. I like how he says he wants his paintings to be comforting, like music. I see the movement and vibrations in his paintings. They’re soothing and they each keep a steady rhythm.

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  5. The tortured artist,
    living in the mind.
    Heaven on Earth, from grime and grit.
    The search starts from ground level.
    Feeling deeply, feeling keenly,
    to be touched by the people.
    The wretched, the used,
    Offer yourself as the food of the murkiness of the mind.
    Unsuitable, to the possible,
    Marinating the meat of human existence.
    Disease infested purity of bright life,
    stirring life force in the muck.
    Softening the brain,
    the ejaculation of physical substance,
    Dissolve the horizon,
    loneliness and isolation grays the plane.
    Drain the mind, with dialog,
    For joy comes not without sweat.
    A piece of me strikes fear to those who hastily accept.
    Accept me and absorb my gray.

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  6. I’ve always had an admiration for Vincent van Gogh’s work and his struggles with mental torment. He has always been known as being a “mad” artist. Yet, he was able to create beautiful paintings with his own unique point of view. He poured himself into his art even though he did not get any recognition from any patrons. I appreciate the time and effort he went through just to create his art. I’ve always enjoyed his unique impressionistic style. I’ve always wondered how different his life would have been if people were quicker to realize his talent rather than ridiculing him till the end. Now reading this quote from one of Vincent’s letters to Theo, I realized that Vincent was just a man in the pursuit of his own internal happiness. He was lost. He was a tortured soul, but he did want to find his happiness rather than dwell on his sorrow. I think his work as an early modernist was very innovative and was a big inspiration for many artist to come.

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  7. Vincent has long been one of my favorite artists. When you originally learn about Vincent, through TV shows, movies and early education, you hear about this starving artist persona. The crazy artist who cut his own ear off, the tortured artist and his hard life. However, when you look beyond that, you have a man who is one of the most influential artists of all time. A man that, while fighting his own demons, used his own palette to create a dreamlike world filled with colors. He replaced the halo with the colors that live within us and around us. He shows the innocence and purity of the world. He broke barriers with his color choices as well as his brush strokes. The haste at which he painted, was not because of boredom or time constraints, but an unleashing of creativity that was unprecedented at his time.
    I cannot begin to imagine the hardships that he endured while trying to break out into the art world. His paintings at the time were not well received because they broke barriers; barriers that people were not ready to have broken. It is tragic that he died so early and was not able to see how well received his art became. I am sure if he were alive today, he would be astounded at how loved his work is. He is a key component to Early Modernism. He brings this time period to life, it shows the struggles the artists of this time had. But it also shows how these artists changed the art world, and how people viewed the world in general (once it was accepted of course).
    Vincent Van Gogh was an artist before his time, he was unknowingly paving the way for other artists, for a deeper form of expression through art. All Vincent wanted was to share his unique art and how he viewed the world with people; people that learned to appreciate it too late.
    I think learning about Vincent at the beginning and so in-depth, really opens up the door for understanding Early Modernism and the roadblocks and difficulties these artists had.

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  8. Well, my thoughts on Vincent van Gogh go back all the way to elementary school. I remember talking to my friends in the 4th grade about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told them I wanted to be an artist. At the time I wasn’t sure what kind of artist, but no less an artist. I then remember them telling me that I shouldn’t because I would go crazy and cut of my ear. Mind you this was at a very young age. Through my years of art school I (like many art students) have learned the history of Vincent van Gogh. Yes, he did have mental health issues, but to me he is known as the artists before his time. He was apart of the growing pains that many artists went through during that transition. His work did not fall in line with what art viewers were looking for. It’s truly a shame that his work didn’t get much attention until after he past away, but his work changed the way people approach painting.

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  9. After reading through some of my classmates’ comments I know that I am surely not alone when I say that Vincent is one of if not my all-time favorite modern painter. I have many other influences, particularly minimalist and abstract artists, but Vincent is my main influence for emotional art. In almost all of his art, not only does there exist the clear skill and talent, there exists an emotional tone that breaks through the monotony of classical art. That is not to say that classical art lacks emotion, but in many cases there is a pure showcase of skill rather than an exposition of emotions.

    In 2013 I travelled to Washington D.C. and visited the National Gallery of Art where I was able to see an authentic Van Gogh painting for the first time in my life. I stood in front of the Self Portrait from 1889 (the one shown above), and I could feel everything, every emotion that the painting held. I could feel Vincent there, it was breathtaking. In all honesty, the paining is not very large; from what I remember it could have been 18″x24″. However, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the attention that it commands. From the details of the brushwork, to the clarity of the color scheme, it truly is an Early Modern masterpiece.

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  10. What I like about Vincent van Gogh is that he really didn’t care about what others thought of him. There were so many people criticizing him for his unusual personality and unorthodox methods, yet he continued on like he didn’t care. That’s because he genuinely cared about the art and nothing else. Little did he know that this was what he would be known for for many years to come and still to this day. You can tell that van Gogh was passionate about his art. You could say that he was crazy, or you could say that he was just very in tune with his emotions, which is possibly why he was so successful in evoking emotion with his art.

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  11. Vincent van Gogh is an artist that I admired growing up. The Starry Night is easily one of the most recognizable paintings of our lifetime. He had a way to his paintings that always caught my eyes. Throughout the years I’ve learned of his troubles with life and how his paintings were not well received. Kind of sad that he never got the recognition he deserved while he was alive. His paintings were gorgeous and you can tell that he wanted to show the world his vision thru his paintings. He was a master of his craft.
    After Reading his letter to Theo, You can see through his paintings that he wanted the audience to feel emotion through his paintings. Vincent was a storyteller, whom conveyed feelings through his paintings that were pure.

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  12. With Vincent van Gogh, throughout common knowledge that is heard from previous lectures, documentaries, past classes within early education, etc. Commonly you hear the most repeated stories about this artist who was a starving artist or having a starving artist persona. Describing this artist as a mad man or a crazy artist who had cut and chopped off his own ear off, but within that back story and many different variations to it. Van Goh however had a hard life and in thinking he had sort of a vibe of misery and tortured artist. When viewing the whole idea in a different retrospect passed the incidents. Vincent was the most influential people in art. As being his own successful person among than his own personal uncomforting thinking’s. He had his own way of expression, having his own palette creating beautiful works of art creating a wondrous world full of all sorts of colors. Displaying the innocence and pure aspects put into the world he exceeded the limits and broke barriers within his passion of artwork.
    His journey that he had dealt with to get where he wanted to be among his hardships. He pushed through to make it known for his work which is very admiring to what he had done. The paintings he created broke all sorts of barriers everywhere in the world. But I felt that his time in this world was short lived and if he were still around he would see how all his artwork became today. With all of the aspects and characteristics that he put into his artwork, it ties into the fact that it was a key component to Early Modernism. During his time, Vincent had a mind of wondrous visionary and had a mind of an artist even before he himself was an artist.

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  13. There is a common misconception to the fact that Vincent van Gogh’s work is the result of his complete insanity, however it is not incorrect suggest that the image he established for himself contributed to the art that he created. He did have some negative relationships and did not live the cleanest life, but without these things his art would not be as impactful nor would potentially look the way that it does. Perhaps the life that Vincent lived allowed him to see the world in a way that no one was able to, thus is why he became known as one of the pioneers of the early modern movement. His way of seeing was far from what was expected of him in the role of an artist in this time, but this kind of change and divergent thinking is what allows society to progress along and advance. So for that I thank Vincent van Gogh for his “insanity” in the sense that it has played a crucial role in leading art into what it is today.

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  14. I agree with everyone else that Vincent Van Gogh is a complete master of art. Definitely one of the best artists to ever live. Though, often times van Gogh is perceived as a lunatic or an insane person overall, I think this is what helped him in some areas in his art. I think that it served as a medium for him to express himself. Van Gogh’s path to how he is known today took a very long and unique road. I’d say that Vincent van Gogh forever changed art.

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  15. Personally, I love Vincent Van Gogh, he’s always been one of my favorite artist. He lived in a period of intense suffering and at the peak of his metal illness, he created the most representative masterpieces. On the letter to his brother Theo he said that he wanted to paint something comforting, like music, express radiance and vibration of colors. I think he definitely did it. He had a different way of representing light. By looking at his art pieces we can see light contrast and motion, a turbulent flow. His paintings have prominent brushstrokes, and so much energy. I watch a TED-Ed called Math & Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” by Natalya St. Clair where they suggest that Van Gogh’s paintings can be compare to the turbulent flow in Fluid of Dynamics which is a very complex idea that is hard to explain mathematically. According the TED talk, paintings made during his worst of his illness, like The Staring Night, behave similar to fluid turbulence. I think it is remarkable that in a period of intense suffering he was able to express art so beautifully on his canvas. He accomplished his goal, he made something comforting.

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  16. I don’t see Vincent van Gogh as a lunatic as so many people did during his lifetime. I would describe him as a person that had a passion and poured his heart into. It really is a shame that Vincent’s work didn’t gain much notoriety when he was living. His work has such a distant look and feel to it. You can tell that Vincent was very passionate about painting and genuine in his efforts.

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  17. I feel bad for Vincent in general. I mean, I don’t think he saw himself as an artist and only really does it because he doesn’t have very many options. I think he really just wanted to prove that he was a good person and that he could help or inspire in some way especially since most thought of him as deranged, mad, or possessed due to a lifetime of epilepsy. Vincent’s technique as an artist brought radiance to early modernism through his vibrant palette, violent strokes, and vivacious contrast.

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  18. I definitely believe Vincent deserved better in his career, especially considering all he did for artists and their community after he died. To this day he still inspires people with his work and it’s disheartening to hear that his intentions to comfort society and express its radiance through art was not recognized until much later. After hearing the words of his brother Theo, it shows just how much he suffered to be acknowledge as an artist and all the inner conflicts he had to deal with because of those struggles. I feel like many artists suffering from the same feelings especially when trying to get their work accepted by society, or even just appreciated by anyone for that matter.

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  19. It’s interest to think how a painting has the huge ability to create a mood such as feeling of anger, happiness, comfort, or sadness. My thoughts on Van Gogh is that he could achieve that feeling a person gets. For me personally, I feel very comforted looking at Van Gogh’s work, especially the paintings that involves many trees and greenery. It’s almost as if I could picture myself there in this isolated but peaceful painted world Van Gogh has created through his work. As a kid, we were taught a lot about The Starry Night and the feelings of peace and quiet with a beautiful illuminated sky. Looking at his work, my most favorite would be Cafe Terrace at Night because it brings me comfort in my own personal way. The setting of a cafe at night with lights is a very cozy people knowing a couple people are around brings me that comforted feeling. In regards to the letter, he’s definitely achieved that. Those mixing of feeling I get with music, fashion, and food is similar to how I can get when looking at his art. Those feelings of comfort, sadness, happiness…he was truly an amazing artist.

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  20. I, in general, agree with most comments here in that I do feel a little bad for Vincent as a person. He was an artist out of dual necessity. It was as The Batman said in his post that he did not succeed at anything else in his life, including his artwork for the most part. However, the main reason I believe he ultimately chose art was that he could not survive without it. I think that through his art he was able to alleviate his mental illness and the only time he was truly at peace was when he was drawing and painting. I don’t think that the style he developed was out of any rational thought or process, but rather the way he painted and portrayed the world was true as he saw it due to his epilepsy.

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  21. I do not think that self-portraits are necessary to include in a body of work. I think it’s more important to include interpretations of the ordinary in unconventional ways. For this reason, I find Klimt’s comments on information about himself very intriguing. It causes viewers to dive deeper into his work and analyze his paintings from a blank slate point of view. His ability to depict strong figural works of art doesn’t necessarily derive from studies of his own form. I believe it is possible to see representations of the artist in every single piece of work, therefore making any piece a self-portrait in loose terms.

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  22. From my perspective, Vincent Van Gogh was an artist that wasn’t intimidated by anything or anyone. He consistently attempted to bring life to his subjects in a way that presented their form; however, he depicted them with eccentric color pallets and expressive strokes. His work definitely challenged classical styles of visual art-making and clashed with previous ideals. He was very aware that his work was different from others and that didn’t make him want to change his style in order to sell. Money obviously wasn’t very important to the artist; he was more concerned with displaying his perspective to the world. Regarding his letters to Theo, it is apparent that he saw ordinary objects in a much brighter light. Instead of a dismal scene, he would revel on the plethora of colors displayed by subject.

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  23. I think it is interesting to think of Vincent Van Gogh in the context of ‘the starving artist’ because as it was mentioned in the original post, previous artists were creating things and receiving recognition and wealth from the wealthy class. Van Gogh was creating work for the intrinsic reward of “saying something comforting” with his paintings, which is what all artists want ideally. We create work to say something, to share a feeling or an idea, or to work through our own thoughts, which I think is where the starving artist mentality may come in, because not all artists are creating for profit, some are creating to feed their soul.

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  24. I admire Vincent Van Gogh as an artist because even after all the struggle he went through and he kept doing what he loved. Some people only recognize Van Gogh as someone who went mental and wasn’t of sound mind, but beneath all that is someone who was struggling and pushing towards making his visions come to life. It is sad to know that he wasn’t able to be recognized during his lifetime, but only after his life ended he became one of the most influential artists in the field. His letters to his brother Theo showed that his intentions were of pure mind and he wanted to share what he envisioned with others. He was a tortured soul, but even through all the pain he went through, he never lost sight of what his goal was and I admire him for it.

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  25. Although not seen as so during his time, Vincent van Gogh remains to be one of the most influential artists of all time. You could tell that he was very passionate about his work and that he painted simply to paint. His use of vivid colors and expressive brush strokes in his works is what makes him and his style unique from others. His letters to Theo not only show the close bond they had, but also Vincent’s ability to see his subject matters with brilliance and luminosity. It is unfortunate that neither Vincent nor his brother were able to see the success of Vincent’s paintings today, considering how much influence they have and how impactful they have been.

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  26. In response to what I have learned about Vincent is that if you could not understand him mentally, it was best to look through his artwork. He displayed much of his emotion through his art whether it made you pay attention to the color palette used, the gesture displayed within the piece or simply by challenging a different art style with what was popular. I feel as if his work puts you in a different realm, out of the norm and that is one of the reasons why so many were inspired by him and his work. His letter to his brother was almost confirmation of what Vincent really wanted out his work and he had the right person there to be able to translate those thoughts for him today.

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  27. I have great admiration for Vincent Van Gogh because he painted with passion that you can see with every brushstroke. Wheatfield with Crows is one of my favorite works by Van Gogh because he is able to create such beautiful landscape with each chaotic stroke of the brush. They’re so precise and controlled, simplistic yet able to depict the image to the viewer. It’s this uniqueness that makes him standout among artists.

    People questioned his mental stability and called him a madman but what I saw is a genius painter that was misunderstood for his love for the arts. Some of his letters to Theo were so eloquently written, no madman could have written them. He reminds me that to become a great artist, one will struggle, and always be humble.

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  28. Van Gogh has always been one of my favorite artists. Maybe it’s because my mother is Dutch, but I think I really began to appreciate his work while I was in high school. One year we took a field trip to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Ca. The had a collection of Van Gogh’s work on display, but what really stood out to me was “The Mulberry Tree”. While I had seen it in books before seeing it in person was almost awe inspiring. Being a mere inches away from it you could really study and appreciate the vigorous brush work and the sheer amount of paint that Van Gogh applied to the canvas. Up close it resembled a 3D topographical map, peaks and valleys created by the paints. When studied that close it almost takes on a separate life. I think it’s work like this that can give you a better idea of the torment that was going on in Vincent’s head.

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  29. Vincent van Gogh is one of the most loved and famous artist in art history. He is loved because he did not commercialized his tragic life. In his letter to his brother Theo, he wanted to be an artist or art piece who did he feel keenly and sensitive. I think he is great and loved artist because he painted various experiences with everyone could have. He suffered from pain, despair, frustration and love of nature, and he shouldered everything and painted everything is why he is loved painters all the time.

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  30. Van Gogh always had my attention since learning about artists in 5th grade. It is what I now know about him that intrigued me more. I never even knew he had a brother at first, but I found his relationship with him interesting. Learning that Van Gogh suffered immensely was heartbreaking. But, look at him today, there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know him. Learning more about his background, made me more appreciative of his work. It comes from a very vulnerable place. A place maybe some people can relate more than he thought.

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  31. Van Gogh had a true passion for art and it is made apparent in his letter to Theo. It’s sad to think that not very many people had much appreciation for what Van Gogh was creating at the time. His work was so much different from anyone else at the time which is why I have so much respect for him. It is interesting how their was this shift in views of art which led to this “starving artist” syndrome, but I can’t help but wonder what could have happened differently to Van Gogh if his brilliance was recognized from beginning?

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