5 Places That Inspired Vincent van Gogh’s Art
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Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh led a turbulent, restless life. From a young age, he moved incessantly, searching for both artistic inspiration and an environment that would calm his gnawing nerves. “It always seems to me that I’m a traveller who’s going somewhere and to a destination,” he wrote to his brother, Theo, in August 1888. By the time of the artist’s death in 1890, at age 37, he’d lived in over 15 different cities across Europe.
Each location deeply influenced the passionate, volatile painter’s life and work, and together, they provide the framework for a new biography, Living with Vincent van Gogh: The homes and landscapes that shaped the artist (2019), by scholar and curator Martin Bailey. Below, we highlight five places where Van Gogh embedded himself, unfurled his canvases, and developed his unique, feverish, and spellbinding paintings.
The Hague, the Netherlands
In 1869, at age 16, Van Gogh left his rural hometown of Zundert, the Netherlands, for the more cosmopolitan, seaside city of The Hague. There, he began his first apprenticeship at the Goupil gallery and was exposed to modern art (19th-century paintings by French, Italian, and Spanish artists) for the first time. At other exhibition spaces across the city, he fell in love with the bucolic, soft-hued landscapes of the Hague School of painters, especially Anton Mauve. A number sketches from this period survive, which reveal Van Gogh clumsily but resolutely experimenting with cityscapes and landscapes.
In December 1881, when the artist was in his late twenties, he returned to The Hague. (In between, he’d spent 12 years as an itinerant art dealer and burgeoning artist.) By this time, he’d committed fully to artmaking and began sketching urban life, with a focus on the city’s poor and downtrodden people. One of Van Gogh’s most striking, empathetic figurative works, Sorrow (1882), comes from this period. It depicts his muse and lover, a prostitute named Sien, as naked, pregnant, and clutching her body. During this stint in The Hague, Van Gogh also injected color into his palette for the first time, and began creating vibrant, thickly impastoed oil paintings. As Bailey points out, one of the artist’s finest early canvases, View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), depicts the roiling, blue-grey ocean not far from his home. To this day, grains of sand are embedded in the painting’s surface, evidence that Van Gogh painted it en plein air on a windy day.
Nuenen, the Netherlands
At age 30, in December 1883, Van Gogh followed his family to the Dutch pastoral village of Nuenen. While he had a fraught relationship with his parents, the painter established his own private studio space on their property—in the former laundry room—where he could work in peace. He also cemented a business arrangement with his brother, Theo, that provided him with financial stability and calmed his nerves; Theo, who was an art dealer, would send Van Gogh a regular allowance in exchange for any paintings he produced.
In this stable and mostly calm environment, Van Gogh made strides in his work. He spent concentrated time perfecting his oil technique. Landscapes from 1884, which depict the surrounding countryside and the church where his father was a pastor, show the artist experimenting with modulation of color and the representation of glowing, autumnal light. Peasant life also provided endless artistic fodder for Van Gogh, and inspired what Bailey considers his first masterpiece: The Potato Eaters (1885). With a dusky palette, thick brushwork, and exaggerated figures, he depicted a lively peasant dinner table. He wanted the work to be gritty and honest, harnessing the “smells of bacon, smoke, potato-steam,” he explained. “These folk…have tilled the earth themselves with these hands…so it speaks of MANUAL LABOUR and––that they have thus honestly earned their food.”
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