Friday, May 2, 2014

A College Essay: How Van Gogh's Works Differ From Both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

How Van Gogh's Works Differ From Both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

     Two of the major movements in European and American art are the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Works from the Impressionist movement are known for being the artist's “impression” of a scene. Post-Impressionism came about in part as a reaction against Impressionism. Among others, such as Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is classified as a Post-Impressionist artist. Nevertheless, van Gogh's art was different also from the works of other Post-Impressionist artists of his time; he used many characteristics of Impressionist art in his works as well as newer techniques, some unique to his own work, even becoming the “archetype” of expressionism (Funk.) Through his own vast creativity, personal style, and the influence of his own turmoil and mental illness, Vincent van Gogh was able to take the ideas of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods and transform them into works of art that weren't fitting into the typical works of Impressionism or Post-Impressionism.

Vincent Van Gogh, Weaver Arranging Threads
Vincent van Gogh, Interior of a Weaver's Workshop with Baby Chair

    The early part of van Gogh's career was heavily influenced by the Impressionist movement. In looking at his pieces depicting weavers in Brabant, such as Weaver Arranging Threads and Interior of a Weaver's Workshop with Baby Chair, the scene is, in fact, an impression of what a scene actually looked like rather than stylized and abstracted versions of scenes such as those that appear later in his career. In these early works, shadows and dark areas are generally indicated with black paint or ink. However, in keeping with themes of Post-Impressionism, these paintings and sketches showing the weavers had a focus on the social aspect of the work rather than just the surface purpose of being something to look at. (Cothren.) It is inferred, in fact, that because of van Gogh's psychological history, the works may be “an affirmation of Van Gogh's professional self and a displacement of his discomfort in his father's house,” van Gogh's way of “projecting his identity onto images of caged artisans.” (Zemel.) There is also an avant-garde quality to this series of works in particular; the looms and other machines are dominant in the works, and the weavers are subordinate, lesser than the inanimate objects at which they work (Zemel.) This emphasis was very much intentional, a statement on the state of the weavers' situation and personal world.
Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters
     Perhaps his most famous work in the avant-garde realm is his painting The Potato Eaters, free from “academic and naturalist conventions currently in use for the depiction of rural folk” (Pollock.) The painting is of a scene of rural peasants sitting around a table eating potatoes. Rather than glamourizing the scene to make it more aesthetically pleasing, van Gogh kept with the traditions of Impressionism and painted as he saw. This piece came before his days of expressionism, accounting for the lack of his signature abstraction. The scene overall is gloomy, with few colors but great variation upon the colors used. True to Impressionism, the shadows do not appear to be a true black, but rather deep shades of blues and purples. The piece also showcases van Gogh's mastery of light, with the illumination of his subjects by the lantern hanging over the table around which they are seated being indicated by splashes of expertly-places yellow tones in non-shadowed areas of their clothing and faces.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night
Edvard Munch, The Scream

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees With The Alipilles in the Background
     A prime example of van Gogh's unique style can be seen in one of his most famous works, The Starry Night (1889). He had written to his brother and sister numerous times of his desire to capture a starry sky in an emotional way, finally achieving his vision in this piece after two “failed” attempts previously (Soth.) Van Gogh drew influence from Georges Seurat's divisionist technique and utilized impasto, which can also be seen in the many noticeable brush strokes (Cothren). There is very little, if any, true black in this work; rather deep hues of blues and greens can be seen as the “shadows” in the nighttime piece, a technique that is taken directly from Impressionism. In a differentiation from both Impressionism and classic Post-Impressionism, the piece showcases abstract qualities in the swirling pattern of the sky, an opposing technique from the realism seen in previous art. This abstraction reflects van Gogh taking a more emotional approach to the scene he painted, showcasing what he felt more than what he saw; this phenomenon was known as expressionism (Cothren). Qualities of expressionism during the Post-Impressionist movement can be seen in Edvard Munch's Scream, a piece created after van Gogh's death (Cothren.) Like van Gogh's expressionist works, Scream features abstract swirls and distorted figures rather than realistic depictions of what Munch saw, as well as drastic shifts in color rather than careful blending of color to indicate shading. Van Gogh also drew influence from Paul Gauguin, with whom he not only shared a desire for a pre-industrial lifestyle with, but also lived with briefly in southern France near the end of van Gogh's life. A piece from his stay in the asylum, Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background, seems more abstract and expressionistic than many of his others. Although his impasto technique and use of colored shadows is the same, the terrain of the scene is much more chaotic, with the “swelling rhythm of the earth,” the “swirling clouds,” and the “undulating mountains” (Jiyat.)
Hokusai, Plum Orchard, Kameido

Vincent van Gogh, Japonaiserie: Flowering Plum Tree
Van Gogh also drew many aspects of his signature style from his fascination with the works of Japanese artists, as did many French painters during the Japonisme movement. His eventual quick handiwork, in which he could create an oil painting in one sitting, mirrors the fast art of Japanese calligraphers; and his “unduling, pulsating lines” are believed to have been influenced by Japanese artist Hokusai's depiction of moving water (Brower.) He even copied Hiroshige's woodblock print Plum Orchard, Kameido in his painting Japonaiserie: Flowering Plum Tree. Van Gogh's piece shows the same tree and blossoms with the same trees in the middle ground and the same railing and human figures in the background, as well as the general color scheme of Hiroshige's work (Cothren.) However, van Gogh's work looks even more flat, with the trees in the background becoming more blurry than individual, and with more vibrant and true hues than Hiroshige's work.
Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom
Vincent van Gogh, Vase with Twelve Sunflowers

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
      In looking at van Gogh's The Bedroom (1889), there are many characteristics of Impressionism. These include the use of colored shadows rather than simply using shades of blacks and grays to create shadow. Van Gogh's works differ from other Post-Impressionist works, such as Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in the use of impasto rather than the small dotted mosaic of Seurat's piece. In terms of color, The Bedroom utilizes pure colors, paint directly from the tube rather than blended on the palette to a specific color. This can be seen specifically in the view out the window and on the wood furniture, where one shade of a color stops abruptly and a different shade begins without blending. Van Gogh specifically applied paint directly to the canvas from the paint tube itself. (Brower.) The Bedroom was painted near the end of van Gogh's career and life, during a period of emotional turmoil and mental illness. These signature qualities of van Gogh's art appear also in his Vase With Twelve Sunflowers. The colors are not blended on the palette but rather applied to the canvas in his impasto style, and shading is indicated through abrupt shifts between one shade of a color and the next rather than a smooth and gradual shift. Black is not used to indicate shadows, rather darker shades of yellow and green.
Vincent van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun

Vincent van Gogh, Fishing Boats on the Beach
     Van Gogh's art is not only praised for his techniques in color use and his impasta style of putting paint on a canvas, but also in his ability to manipulate patterns to evoke feeling and emotion and add meaning to his work. In observing some of his drawings, such as Sower With Setting Sun and Fishing Boats on the Beach, Marilyn Charles and Karen Telis, a psychoanalyst and a writer, state that the sweeping lines in the pieces create a “kinetic energy” and that the absence of color in his drawings “bares for the eye...the skeleton of his work” (Charles.) The women also described feeling “giddy” upon viewing van Gogh's drawings, feeling that his use of pattern is what incited these emotions in them. This kinetic movement can also be seen in some of his paintings such as The Starry Night, in which the pattern of the sky creates a swirling movement.
Conclusively, while Vincent van Gogh drew his influence heavily from the Impressionist movement and was himself active during the period of Post-Impressionism, his own personal experiences and his mental illness allowed him to develop a specific style unique to him. This personal style, as well as his subject matter and the messages he wished to convey through his work, set him apart from Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists of the time. His use of pure colors and impasto allowed him to portray not only his literal impression but his expressionistic view of a scene in his pieces. Although he did not live to see his art become renowned and hailed as masterpieces, his works are unmistakable as his worldwide.

Works Cited
Brower, Richard. "To Reach A Star: The Creativity Of Vincent Van Gogh." High Ability Studies 11.2 (2000): 179-205. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Charles, Marilyn, and Karen Telis. "Pattern As Inspiration And Mode Of Communication In The Works Of Van Gogh." American Journal Of Psychoanalysis 69.3 (2009): 238-262. MEDLINE with Full Text. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Cothren, Michael W. Art A Brief History, Books a La Carte Edition. By Marilyn Stokstad. 5th ed. N.-p.: Pearson College Div, 2011. 4+. Print.
"GOGH, Vincent Willem Van." (n.d.): Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Jirat-Wasiutynski, Vojtech. "Vincent Van Gogh's Paintings Of Olive Trees And Cypresses From St.-Remy." Art Bulletin 75.4 (1993): 647. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Pollock, Griselda. "Van Gogh And The Poor Slaves: Images Of Ritual Labour As Modern Art." Art History 11.3 (1988): 408-432.Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Soth, Lauren. "Van Gogh's Agony." Art Bulletin 68.2 (1986): 301. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Zemel, Carol. "The 'Spook' In The Machine: Van Gogh's Pictures Of Weavers In Brabant." Art Bulletin 67.1 (1985): 123. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Apr. 2014. 

(I have added the photos of the art for easier viewing for my readers. Photos are from a Google search. Photos were not included in my graded essay.)

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