Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles, in the south of France, in 1888, hoping to establish an artists’ colony there. During the next few years, Van Gogh experienced the most intensely productive period of his life, painting some 400 works, including several versions of his blazing Sunflowers, his timeless Night Caf, living landscapes, portraits, and brilliant still life.
The nightlife in Arels brought out the worst of company, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the homeless. Van Gogh, the poor struggling artist, felt quite at home with this company. One of the meeting places was Caf de la Gare, where Van Gogh rented a room. Van Gogh wanted to get back at the owner for paying rent, so he painted a picture of the caf, trying to capture the dirty aspects of the caf.
Van Gogh used blood red and green, contrasting colors, to express his feelings about the caf. The picture’s large blocks of pure, flat color anticipate the later German movement of Expressionism in many ways (Cutts & Smith 90). With Van Gogh’s trademark brushstrokes, he is able to give the illusion that the floor and the pool table are scuffed up from the many years of wear and tear. There is a feeling when looking at the floor that the splinters are ready to pierce one’s bare skin. The lamps that give off an almost tangible, luminous energy add to the overall sense that, as Ban Gogh himself so aptly put it: “It is the delirium tremens in full swing.”(Cutts & Smith90) Van Gogh observes the people with no moral judgment as he always does. The main figure in this painting is the figure next to the pool table. This is the owner of the caf. He shows the owner’s face with no expression.
At Caf de la Gare, Van Gogh met a man by the name of Joseph-Etienne Roulin. Roulin’s easy-going demeanor, Republican convictions, and lifestyle of heavy drinking all appealed to Van Gogh (Cutts &Smith 168). Furthermore, he also comes to consider Roulin as something of a father figure, whose wisdom he compared to that of Socrates.
Even though Roulin had the mind of a philosopher Van Gogh painted Roulin in his blue uniform with yellow buttons to show him as a working man. The background is decorated with flowers. This is not the background that Van Gogh saw while painting Roulin, but the background that Van Gogh felt should be there. This is a concept that Van Gogh used in other portraits such as Portrait of Dr Rey, Portrait of Eugene Bach, and La Berceuse, Roulin’s wife.
Van Gogh was immediately struck by the hot reds and yellows of the Mediterranean, which he increasingly used symbolically to represent his own moods. An example of this would be Van Gogh’s painting The Sunflowers. The Sunflowers expressed the radiant warmth and joy felt by a man whose melancholia had been magnificently banished (Cutts & Smith 138). The man responsible for Van Gogh’s mood was, a fellow artist and friend, Paul Gauguin. They lived in Van Gogh’s yellow house, which Theo helped pay for. During this time four paintings of sunflowers, which this is the most famous (Cutts & Smith 138).
Their “light on light” techniques, in which multiple shades of yellow magically enhance one another, were to Van Gogh the embodiment of happiness (Cutts & Smith 138). The whole composition is alive. Van Gogh believed that each flower is it own individual. So, each flower twist and turns to it’s own path. However, life does not always imitate art, and shortly after this painting Van Gogh and Gauguin got into a heated argument that which lead to Van Gogh cutting off a piece of his ear, which he later sent to a prostitute.
After the mutilation of his ear, Van Gogh painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Similar to Self- Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, this painting, unlike the other, gives a real sense of personal catastrophe (Cutts & Smith 164). With an easel in the background, Van Gogh must be relating his suffering to his art.
Van Gogh checked into Saint-Remy-de-Mausole asylum as a voluntary patient. In the asylum at Saint-Rmy, between attacks, van Gogh devoted himself to his art with a desperate determination. He called painting “the lightning conductor for my illness” (Schapiro). And observing his continued ability to paint, he felt sure that he was not really a madman.
Irises in a Vase is considered to be one the first paintings Van Gogh did in the asylum. The profusion of elements in this closely-packed picture is tamed and ordered for the eye without loss of freedom by the division of the canvas into fairly distinct, large regions of color approaching symmetry: the cold leaf-green in the middle, the iris- blue above and beneath, and in two corners the red ground and the distant warm green, touched with yellow, orange, and white (Schapiro). Each region has its own characteristic shapes and spotting, and all are luminous.
Also while in Saint-Rmy, Van Gogh painted Starry Night, probably his most famous painting. Starry Night was not Van Gogh’s first depiction of a night sky. In Arles, he had been proud of his painting of the stars and the reflection of the lights of the town in Starry Night over the Rhone (1888). Van Gogh considered this painting [Starry Night] to be one of his less successful renditions of nature (Cutts & Smith 187). To his critics and crooners it is a visionary masterpiece.
This painting is very expressive and full of energy. He shows not the stars he observed, but exploding masses of gold fire expanding against the blue (Hartt 953). Two of these stars swirl through the sky in a kind of cosmic entrance….. The sky is reminiscent of Rembrant’s etching. The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1634) (Cutts & Smith 187). The small clusters of houses and the silhouetted cypress tree looks just like a nestling Dutch village, with its typical church spire (Cutts& Smith 187).
Van Gogh did a couple of his many self-portraits while in the asylum. Self-Portrait was created shortly after Van Gogh’s suicide attempt (by swallowing paints). This painting shows the self-image of the painter showing masterly control and power of observation, a mind perfectly capable of integrating the elements of its chosen activity (Schapiro). The background reminds us of the rhythms of Starry Night, which the portrait resembles also in the dominating bluish tone of the work.
In some ways this portrait does not appear to be the work of a man whose inner torment has recently led him to attempt suicide (Cutts & Smith 208). His furrowed brow may betray a certain dissatisfaction or disturbance, but the face that stares out at us so intently is also confident and surly.
Van Gogh left Saint-Remy at the end of 1890. Van Gogh traveled north to the town of Auvers-sur- Oise, near Paris. In the three months following his release from Saint-Remy, Vincent produced many great pieces of work including the Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), Church at Auvers (1890), and the famous Wheat Field with Crows.
Church of Auvers is alive with emotion; even the building, with its rounded, softly undulating lines, is organic (Cutts & Smith 224). The whole effect is disorientating and confusing, the church seems to be heaving and folding under a great pressure.
While in Auvers, Theo had Dr. Gachet watch over Vincent. Dr. Gachet was a rather eccentric homeopathic doctor responsible for Van Gogh’s medical care and supervision. Van Gogh called Dr. Gachet “nervous troubles…from which he certainly seems to be suffering at least as seriously as I.” This painting is warm yet melancholy in attitude, and falls prey to decorative stylization (Cutts & Smith 227). The blue tone of the painting; the way Dr. Gachet is slumped over and has a has a look as if he is “staring into space” gives the feeling that Dr. Gachet is suffering from some kind of mental illness.
Wheat Field with Crows is generally assumed to be Van Gogh’s last painting. This painting reflects an ambivalence of optimism and hopelessness with the dark clouds of depression slowly lifting up from the skyline (Butterfield). In a letter, Van Gogh himself described the image as representing “vast fields of wheat beneath troubled skies” (Cutts & Smith 254).
This painting undoubtedly contains elements of Van Gogh’s melancholy. The vigorous, frustrated brushstrokes being witness to his troubled mind (Cutter & Smith 254). Van Gogh has the dark blue contrasting with the lighter blue to give the sky a very expressionistic quality about it. A short period after painting this scene, Van Gogh walked into the very same fields and shot himself in the chest. He died two days later.