John Peter Russell. Part 1. Van Gogh and portraiture

John Peter Russell
John Peter Russell

Last week I watched a documentary on television about the death of Vincent van Gogh.  You have probably seen something similar or read a book on his somewhat mysterious death.   Did he commit suicide?  Was it an accident?  Was he murdered?  Why was the gun never found?  What, if anything, did Doctor Gachet have to do with his death?  Why did both Doctor Gachet and Vincent’s brother Theo allow Vincent to lie in agony for three days at his lodgings with the bullet still in his body rather than rush him to hospital to have it removed?  However the subject of my blog today is not about Van Gogh’s death.  During the documentary it showed a portrait of the great artist and said that it was Van Gogh’s favourite depiction of himself.   What really stimulated my curiosity was to hear that the portrait was completed by a friend of his, an Australian painter by the name of John Peter Russell.  I had never heard of this artist and I could not comprehend how an Australian artist could feature in the Dutchman’s life and so I decided to find out more about him.  In this first of my two part blog on Russell I want to look at his early life and a couple of his portraits including the one of van Gogh.   So come with me on a voyage of discovery and learn about how a former foundry worker in Australia came to paint a portrait of the great Dutch Master.

The story begins at the beginning of the 19th century in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.  It was here that John Peter Russell’s grandfather, Robert Russell, had his foundry and engineering works. Robert and his wife Janet Russell (née Nicol) had eleven children, one of whom, John, was our featured artist’s father.   In 1830 Robert’s business hit financial problems due to a downturn in demand and he decided to immigrate to Canada.  His intended destination changed on the advice of a friend and instead of heading west to Canada he and his family took the steamer Anne Jamieson and sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and arrived in the port of Hobart in June 1832.  Robert Russell along with his sons, Robert, Peter and John started up an engineering works in Tasmania which proved very successful.  In 1838 in order to expand the business the family moved to Sydney and established the firm, Russell Brothers with an engineering works and a foundry on the banks of the Tank Stream, a tributary of Sydney Cove. 

John Russell married and English girl, Charlotte Elizabeth Nichol, and they went on to have four children of which John Peter Russell, the subject of today’s blog, was the eldest.   He was born in June 1858 in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst.  John Peter was educated at the Goulburn School in Garrooriagang, a private boarding school for the “sons of gentlemen”.  After completing his education in 1876, the eighteen year old travelled to England and was apprenticed at the engineering company, Robey & Co. of Lincoln and eventually became a qualified engineer.   It was also around this time that he began to take an interest in sketching and painting.   In 1879 John Peter Russell’s father died and left his children a sizeable inheritance. 

In 1881, John Peter Russell who thanks to his inheritance was financially sound and did not need to continue as an engineer.   He decided to pursue his love of art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University College of London.  Whilst at the Slade he studied under the Dijon-born French painter and sculptor, Alphonse Legros.  Legros would delight his students by showing them his quick preliminary oil sketches (known as ébauches) of the head portraits he had done and it was this type of painting which grabbed Russell’s interest. 

In August 1883, after completing his art course at the Slade, Russell decided to set off on his travels.  His fellow travellers were his brother Percy, an architect, Tom Roberts, a fellow aspiring artist who would later become a leading figure of the Australian Heidelberg School of Impressionism and who, like Russell, had emigrated with his family from the UK to Australia when he was fourteen years of age.  Tom Roberts had returned to his birthplace, London, to study art at the Royal Academy Schools.  Another person in the travel party was the physician and friend William Maloney who would later become a Labour MP.    Their first port of call was Spain where they encountered two Spanish art students Laureano Barrau, who would become a leading Spanish Impressionist painter and the Catalan painter Ramon Casas who would later be known for his paintings depicting crowd scenes. 

In 1885 Russell went to live in Paris and for the next eighteen months studied at the Atelier Cormon, which was run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon.  It was an “academic” studio in which Cormon endeavoured to instil in his students the necessary artistic “rules” which would ensure that their paintings found favour with the Paris Salon jurists.  Many great painters, such as Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Toulouse Lautrec studied under Cormon during Russell’s tenure.  Russell who had studied portraiture at the Slade School of Art was still interested in portraiture and would often paint portraits of his friends and fellow students.    In March 1886 whilst Russell was attending the Atelier Cormon another student enrolled – Vincent van Gogh.  Vincent had moved to Paris and went to live with his brother Theo in his apartment in rue Laval on Montmartre in order to study at Cormon’s studio.   A great and long-lasting friendship developed between Van Gogh and Russell.  In October 1886, Russell finally persuaded Van Gogh to sit for him.  The resulting work was the beautiful crafted portrait of the Dutchman which I spoke about at the beginning of the blog. 

Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell, 1886
Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell, 1886

Although Russell had painted portraits of his friends it is believed that he wanted to paint Van Gogh’s portrait as the depiction of the Dutchman’s face would be a challenge with its craggy and somewhat haggard appearance.     Russell had seen some of Van Gogh’s own head and shoulder portraits and self portraits and liked the way the Dutchman had used an academic style in his portraiture, incorporating darkened background as a contrast to the lighter skin tones and so decided to use this same technique on his own depiction of van Gogh.  He has given Van Gogh such a penetrating gaze as he stares out at us which in some ways makes us feel slightly uncomfortable.  It is almost a censorious gaze as if he is questioning our presence.    What I think adds to the beauty of this portrait is how Russell has got van Gogh to look over his shoulder for the pose and of course to remind every one of the sitter’s profession he had the Dutchman hold a paintbrush.  Vincent van Gogh was delighted with Russell’s finished portrait.   On September 6th 1889, ten months before his death, Vincent wrote to Theo and in it he mentioned the Russell portrait: 

“……….Afterwards, what are we beginning to glimpse timidly at the moment that is original and lasting – the portrait. That’s something old, one might say – but it’s also brand new. We’ll talk more about this – but let’s still continue to seek out portraits, above all of artists, like the Guillaumin and Guillaumin’s portrait of a young girl, and take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.….”

The painting, which is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has itself darkened over the years as on a recent microscopic examination it was discovered that, above the head of van Gogh, there had been inscribed in red the words:

 

                                       VINCENT

                                                                      AMITIÉ

 

                                      J.P.RUSSELL  PINTOR

 Paris 1886

 

Also according to the Museum curators, a friend of John Peter Russell and van Gogh, the British artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, had seen the original portrait soon after it had been completed and he said that Vincent was depicted in the portrait wearing a striped blue suit !   According to the museum curators there is a hint of blue near the mid base of the work.

Russell and Van Gogh were great friends for the short time they were together and after they went their separate ways they continued to correspond.  One of the last letters Vincent wrote to Russell on February 1st 1890 just five months before his death and when he was in the mental hospital in St Rémy.

My dear friend Russell

Today I’m sending you a little roll of photographs after Millet  which perhaps you may not know.  In any event, it’s to recall us, my brother and myself, to your good memory. Do you know that my brother has since married and that any day now he’s expecting his first-born? May it go well – he has a very nice Dutch wife.  How it pleases me to write to you after a long silence.   Do you remember the time when, almost simultaneously, you I think first and I afterwards, met our friend Gaugin?    He’s still struggling on – and alone, or almost alone, like the good fellow he is. Am sure, though, that you don’t forget him.  He and I are still friends, I can assure you, but perhaps you’re not unaware that I myself am ill, and have more than once had serious nervous crises and delirium. This was why, having had to go into an asylum for the insane, he and I separated. But prior to that, how many times we talked about you together!   Gaugin  is currently still with one of my fellow-countrymen called De Haan, and De Haan praises him a great deal and doesn’t find it at all bad to be with him.  You will find article on canvases of mine at the Vingtistes.   I assure you that I myself owe a lot to things that  Gaugin told me as regards drawing, and hold his way of loving nature in high, very high esteem. For in my opinion he’s worth even more as a man than as an artist. Are things going well with you? And are you still working a lot?  Although being ill isn’t a cause for joy, I nevertheless have no right to complain about it, for it seems to me that nature sees to it that illness is a means of getting us back on our feet, of healing us, rather than an absolute evil.  If you ever come to Paris,  take one of my canvases from my brother’s place if you wish, if you still have the idea of making a collection for your native country one day.  You’ll remember that I’ve already spoken to you about it, that it was my great desire to give you one for this purpose. How is our friend  MacKnight?   If he’s still with you, or if there are others with you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, give them my warm regards. Above all, please remember me to Mrs Russell and believe me, with a handshake in thought,

Yours truly,

Vincent van Gogh

c/o Doctor Peyron

St-Rémy en Provence.

Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) by Auguste Rodin
Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) by Auguste Rodin

Whilst living in Paris, Russell had become very friendly with two Parisian sculptors, Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet and it was whilst visiting their studios that he encountered one of Rodin and Frémiet’s’ favourite models, Marianna Mattiocco della Torre. Rodin had, in 1888, encapsulated her beauty in a bronze bust entitled  Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) and Frémiet had used Marianna as the model for his bronze life-sized Jeanne d’Arc statue which is at the Place des Pyramides in Paris. 

Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet (1899)
Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet (1899)

Marianne who was born in Cassino, Italy was in her early twenties when she met Russell in 1885 and three years later, on a cold Parisian day in February 1888, John Peter Russell and Marianna Mattiocco became husband and wife.  By the end of the year the happy couple had left Paris and set up home at Belle Isle, the largest of the Breton islands, off the west coast of Brittany.  It was here that Russell had their home built and because he was the first non-Frenchman to settle on the island his house was known as Le Chateau Anglais. 

Dadone by John Peter Russell (1900)
Dadone by John Peter Russell (1900)

The second portrait by John Peter Russell I want to show you is entitled Dadone and was completed around 1900.  The question is who or what is Dadone?  The word “dadone” I believe, but I am by no means certain, is an old fashioned Italian slang for “ancestor” or literally “old one” and therefore indicates that the subject has some sort of family relationship with Russell. 

Les deux Mattiocco by John Peter Russell (1902)
Les deux Mattiocco by John Peter Russell (1902)

The answer to the question can be found in a double portrait which was painted by Russell a few years later, entitled Les deux Mattiocco which has, at the top of the work, the inscription ‘Maria Peppa-Y-Pascal Mattiocco’.  The painting, which depicts an elderly couple, is of Russell’s father and mother-in-law, Pasquale and Maria Mattiocco.   

The date of the Dadone painting is thought to be 1900 as there is a preliminary sketch for the work in existence, inscribed, ‘JPR 00’ dating it at 1900 and it is thought that the final painting was completed shortly afterwards.

In the painting, Dadone, we see an inscription in the top right corner of the work:

Dadone

        J R

                Fecit

The inscription indicates the title of the work, the initials of the artist and the word “fecit” meaning he or she made it and the word is used formerly on works of art next to the artist’s name. 

This beautifully crafted portrait by Russell is an affectionate and personal depiction of his wife’s father.  The main colours used by Russell in this work are white, blue and greys profile.  The bony structure of his head is framed by the imperious greying hair and beard, which along with dark bushy eyebrows give his father-in-law such a distinguished appearance.  His eyes are dark and there is a hint of tiredness about them, which has been brought on by age. 

In my next blog, the second part of my look at the life and work of John Peter Russell, I will examine his newly found interest in seascapes and landscapes once he had moved out of Paris and went to live on the Breton island of Belle-Ile where he met with many artists such as Monet and Matisse. 

For further information regarding Russell’s friendship with Vincent van Gogh there is a book you may like to read.  As yet I haven’t read it but I am sure it would be fascinating.  It is:

A Remarkable Friendship:  Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell by Anne Galbally

There is also an interesting short video on YouTube about the Van Gogh portrait and the inscriptions that were originally on it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6z46c93SXQ

Vincent van Gogh, the Copyist. Part 2 – Delacroix’s Pietà

Pieta (after Delacroix)  by van Gogh (1889)
Pieta (after Delacroix) by van Gogh (1889)

In my last blog I looked at how Vincent van Gogh had copied three Japanese woodcut prints and had incorporated his own inimitable style to his versions.  In my blog today I want to look at the versions he painted of a painting by one of his favourite European artists –Eugène Delacroix.

In February 1888, Vincent, tired and disillusioned with life in the French capital, moved to Arles and went to live at No. 2 Place Lamartine in the Yellow House which he had rented.   He invited Paul Gaugin to join him but the latter was rather reluctant.   Vincent’s brother, Theo, was worried about Vincent living alone and so in October pays Paul Gaugin to visit his brother and stay with him.   For the next two months, Gauguin and Van Gogh worked harmoniously together, spending all their time painting and discussing art.

However personal tensions grew between the two men and two days before Christmas Day, Van Gogh experienced what was termed a psychotic episode in which he threatens Gauguin with a razor.  Gaugin fearful for his life left the house but was followed by Vincent.  When Gauguin turned around he saw Van Gogh holding a razor in his hand.  Hours later, Van Gogh went to the local brothel and paid for a prostitute named Rachel. With blood pouring from his hand, he offered her his ear, asking her to “keep this object carefully.” The police found him in his room the next morning, and admitted him to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.  Gaugin was horrified by the incident and immediately returned to Paris. Vincent’s brother arrived on Christmas Day to see Van Gogh, who was weak from blood loss and having violent seizures. The doctors assured Theo that his brother would live and would be taken good care of, and on January 7, 1889, Van Gogh was released from the hospital.  He was now alone and became very depressed and only his painting relieved the dark moods he was experiencing.   He would paint at the yellow house during the day and return to the hospital at night.  However, the local people of Arles viewed Vincent as somebody mentally disturbed and a risk to the people of the community and petitioned him to leave the town.  Reluctantly he decided to move from Arles and go to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, a former monastery, in the town. Whilst there, he completed numerous oil paintings and drawings.

Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)National Museum of Oslo
Pieta by, Eugene Delacroix (1850)
National Museum of Oslo

It was whilst Van Gogh was confined to the asylum at Saint-Rémy that he decided to work on a painting based on the Piétà by Eugène Delacroix.   Van Gogh loved the work of Delacroix.  He loved how the French artist used bold and vibrant colours in his works.  In numerous letters to his brother, Theo, he would extol the virtues of Delacroix’s works asking him to buy lithograph prints of Delacroix’s works.   Vincent had in his possession a lithograph by Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf of Delacroix’s  Pietà.  Célestine Nanteuil was a 19th century French painter, engraver and illustrator closely tied to the Romantic Movement in France.  It is believed that the reason Van Gogh decided to paint his own Pietà was because of an accident he had with his copy of the lithograph.  He wrote a letter to Theo in which he says:

“…The Delacroix lithograph La Piétà, as well as several others, fell into my oils and paints and was damaged. This upset me terribly, and I am now busy making a painting of it, as you will see…”

Van Gogh decided that his Pietà was not going to be an exact copy of Delacroix’s work but more of a variation of the French artist’s painting.   Van Gogh described Delacroix’s Piétà in a letter, dated September 19th 1889, to his sister Willemien.  Vincent van Gogh talked about his copying of other artists’ works and describes the Delacroix’s Pietà:

“…I’ve painted a few for myself, too, these past few weeks – I don’t much like seeing my own paintings in my bedroom, so I’ve copied one by Delacroix  and a few by Millet.  The Delacroix is a Pietà, i.e. a dead Christ with the Mater Dolorosa. The exhausted corpse lies bent forward on its left side at the entrance to a cave, its hands outstretched, and the woman stands behind. It’s an evening after the storm, and this desolate, blue-clad figure stands out – its flowing clothes blown about by the wind – against a sky in which violet clouds fringed with gold are floating. In a great gesture of despair she too is stretching out her empty arms, and one can see her hands, a working woman’s good, solid hands.  With its flowing clothes this figure is almost as wide in extent as it’s tall. And as the dead man’s face is in shadow, the woman’s pale head stands out brightly against a cloud – an opposition which makes these two heads appear to be a dark flower with a pale flower, arranged expressly to bring them out better…”

Van Gogh’s positioning and the demeanour of the Virgin Mary, cradling her dead son, as well as the background in his version remain the same as in the lithograph but Van Gogh has added his own colours and “swirling” style.   We see before us the tortured body of Christ after the crucifixion but look at the way Van Gogh has given him red hair and a red beard.  Some art historians believe that the dead Christ in Van Gogh’s Pietà is actually a self-portrait.  It could well be that Van Gogh empathized with the sufferings of Christ and how Christ had been misunderstood.  He could probably see a similarity between the latter days of Christ’s life and his own final years.  It should be remembered that Van Gogh was creating his Piétà from studying the black and white print of Célestine Nanteuil lithograph and so he was free to choose his own colour scheme.  He used bold blues which contrasted strongly with the golden yellows of the background.  Look how he has decide to emphasize lines and curves and we see the outline of the slumping Christ follows the curvature of the rock on which Christ’s body rests.

I wonder if Van Gogh believed that like Christ, he would be reincarnated, in as much as he believed that he would eventually recover from his bouts of mental illness.

This painting is unusual in another way for Van Gogh was not known for his religious works.  However the asylum at Saint-Rémy was once a monastery and was run by an order of nuns and this could have been another reason for Van Gogh to embark on this religious painting.  In a letter to his brother on September 10th 1889 he talks about his mental problems, of Delacroix and why he decided to turn to religion for the subject of his painting:

“…Work is going very well, I’m finding things that I’ve sought in vain for years, and feeling that I always think of those words of Delacroix that you know, that he found painting when he had neither breath nor teeth left.  Ah well, I myself with the mental illness I have, I think of so many other artists suffering mentally, and I tell myself that this doesn’t prevent one from practising the role of painter as if nothing had gone wrong. 

When I see that crises here tend to take an absurd religious turn, I would almost dare believe that this even necessitates a return to the north. Don’t speak too much about this to the doctor when you see him [Doctor Peyron then director of the asylum was due to meet Theo in Paris] but I don’t know if this comes from living for so many months both at the hospital in Arles and here in these old cloisters.  Anyway I ought not to live in surroundings like that, the street would be better then. I am not indifferent, and in the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal. Thus this time during my illness a misfortune happened to me – that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled…”

Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s  Pietà
Célestine François Nanteuil-Leboeuf lithograph of Delacroix’s Pietà

Vincent van Gogh was never apologetic for “copying” the works of other artists, such as, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, Jacob Jordaens, Émile Bernard, Gustave Doré , Eugène Delacroix and some of the Japanese printmakers.   He would compare his copying to that of a musical performance with the original artists as the composers and himself as a simple musician interpreting the instructions of the composer.   He made two copies of the Piétà.  The one which belonged to the Van Gogh family hangs in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the other is part of the Vatican Museum of Modern Art collection.  The latter copy was donated to the Catholic Church by a New York parishioner in the 1930’s.  This Vatican copy is much smaller than the one held at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and much darker in colour but this could be the result of poor restoration and cleaning.   Van Gogh’s lithograph print which was damaged can also be found in the Van Gogh museum.

Van Gogh liked his finished “copies” of the Delacroix Piétà and took it with him when he finally left the asylum, against doctor’s orders, in May 1890 to go and live in Auvers-sur-Oise.  It was one of the few works he kept with him and remained with him until his death, two months later, in July 1890.  The rest of his large collection he had painted over those last twelve months at the asylum were parcelled up and sent to his brother.

Vincent van Gogh, the copyist – Part 1 – Japonisme

The Courtesan (after Eisen) by van Gogh
The Courtesan (after Eisen) by van Gogh

“…good artists copy but great artists steal…”

This was a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso and one supposes that his utterance referred to the fact that every artist is influenced by what has been done before or during their lifetime. I suppose in some way we all borrow because it has all been done before and we are not the originators but to make an artistic element your own, you have to interpret it your own way with your own approach and in my next two blogs I am looking at an artist who did just that.

My Daily Art Display today looks at three works by Vincent van Gogh which he completed during the latter years of his life.   When we think of van Gogh we think of his Sunflower series or works depicting life at Arles but my blog today looks at some of his works which were based on paintings by Japanese artists.   They are not exact copies of the actual paintings but they are his versions of them and the likeness between Vincent’s works and the originals is clearly observable and in the title he gives them he always attributes them to the Japanese printmaker.  In a way the copies were his translation of the originals.  Through his use of colour and technique, which often incorporated his trademark “swirls”, he made them his own and for many, including his brother Theo, they were his finest works.  So why did Van Gogh decide to make his own copies of other artists’ works?  I suppose to find the answer to this question one has to understand what was happening at the time and the situation Vincent found himself when he made these “copies”.

Around the time Van Gogh was born there was a fashion known as Japonisme emerging in Western Europe.  The term Japonisme, or Japonism, was a French term that was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais en 1872, and it referred to the influence of Japanese art on Western art.   The Japonisme trend became very popular in France and the Netherlands.  One has to remember that up until the mid nineteenth century there was no trade between Europe and Japan as the political and military power of Japan was in the hands of the shoguns, and the country was virtually isolated from the rest of the world.  It was not until 1854 that the Japanese rulers sanctioned trade with the West and it was then that Japanese art with its woodcuts, ornamental fans, and delicately painted screens became available to the people in the likes of France and the Netherlands.  This love of Japanese artwork became even more fashionable following the great World’s Fair in 1862, which was held in London, where such Japanese art was on display.  At around this time the Japanese woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e became popular.  They featured many motifs from those of landscapes and the Japanese love of nature to those illustrating the pleasures of city life such as theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans and were often simply used as posters advertising theatre performances and brothels.  Sometimes they featured portraits of popular actors and beautiful teahouse girls. They became very popular in Europe and a source of artistic inspiration for the artists of the time, whether they were Impressionists, Post Impressionists or Cubists.

Vincent van Gogh loved Japanese art.  His brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre and it was here that Vincent first came into contact with ukiyo-e.   He was also fortunate that his apartment was situated next to the Bing Gallery where the German owner Samuel Bing, an art dealer and importer of Japanese artworks, had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh would spend hours there studying and admiring this “new” form of art and he soon became an avid collector of ukiyo-e and built up a collection of hundreds of prints.  He even organized an exhibition of his own collection in the spring of 1887 at the Café du Tambourin, a popular meeting place of artists.

Left: Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge by HiroshigeRight:The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by van Gogh
Left: Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge by Hiroshige
Right:The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by van Gogh

Van Gogh especially liked the works by Utagawa Hiroshige and in 1887 completed his version of Hiroshige’s Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge, which was part of his collection.   Van Gogh simply entitled his work The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige).  With his version, van Gogh filled the border of his painting with a number of calligraphic figures which he had copied from other prints in his collection.  In van Gogh’s version, he used different colours which were far brighter than those used by Hiroshige and van Gogh spent more attention to colour contrasts which he used to enhance his version.

Hiroshige's-Plum-Tree
Left: Plum Park in Kameido by Hiroshige
Right: Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).by van Gogh

Another of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints which van Gogh copied as a painting was 亀戸梅屋舗 Kameido Umeyashiki (Plum Park in Kameido), which was published in November 1857.  It was number 30 in a series of 119 ukiyo-e prints made by Utagawa Hiroshige and Hiroshige II.  Hiroshige II was Utagawa’s student and adopted son.   Utagawa Hiroshige died in 1858 and his adopted son completed the series.  This series of woodcut prints was published in serialized form between May 1856 and April 1859 and was entitled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.   Edo was the former name of Tokyo, and it was a series of depictions of famous sights around the Japanese city.  In 1887, Van Gogh rendered his own version of this print under the title Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige).

Title page of Paris Illustré (May 1886)
Title page of Paris Illustré (May 1886)

My final example of Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodcut prints and his desire to produce his own version is his copying of Keisai Eisen’s print entitled A Courtesan, Nishiki-e,  which was made around 1820.  Van Gogh probably came across this print when it appeared on the front cover of the May 1886 special edition of the Paris Illustré with the front page title of Le Japon.  It was this print which Van Gogh used for his painting entitled The Courtesan (after Eisen).  Vincent’s painting is another fine example of his interest and love of Japanese art.

Van Gogh's tracing for The Courtesan(Van Gogh Museum)
Van Gogh’s tracing for The Courtesan
(Van Gogh Museum)

To produce a copy of Eisen’s work van Gogh actually traced the picture on the magazine’s front cover and then enlarged it.  He then set about giving the courtesan Nishiki a colourful kimono and placed her against a framed bright yellow background.  The framed painting of the woman is then surrounded by a watery landscape along with water lilies, a frog on a lily pad and a pair of cranes wading in the water and in the centre top of the background we can just make out two men in a boat.  It is not unusual to have frogs depicted sitting serenely on lily pads or wading birds such as cranes in watery scenes but van Gogh’s choice of these two types of creatures was not purely accidental as in France, during his time, prostitutes were often referred to as grues which is the French word for cranes, and grenouilles, which is French for frogs, and therefore van Gogh could be reminding us that Nishiki was a courtesan, an escort or mistress of a wealthy client, a euphemistic term for a prostitute.

In my next blog I will look at some of the European painters whose work inspired van Gogh to render his own version of their paintings.

I suppose you may wonder why I should choose van Gogh for the Christmas edition of my blog when a more seasonal painting by Thomas Kincaid would have been more appropriate.  Actually there is a connection between van Gogh and this Christmas and that is because for my Christmas present to myself.   I bought myself the six-volume edition of Van Gogh’s letters.  Very expensive, totally inexcusable but then, maybe I deserved the present!!!!!

 Happy Christmas to you all.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885)

In past blogs I have featured Dutch and Flemish paintings depicting jolly peasants as they happily amuse themselves at work or at play.  I can think of many paintings by the likes of the Bruegels, Jan Steen and Adriaen van Ostade which gave us the rosy cheeks of the well-fed peasants and maybe we were lulled into the thought that a peasant’s life wasn’t too bad and maybe one which may have suited us.  Today I am going to feature a painting which looks at the reality of peasant life.  It is a fine example of naturalism in art, which was a type of art that depicts realistic objects and people in their natural settings.  In most cases, naturalism depicts characters in situations over which they have little or no control and where they appear to be at the mercy of powers outside themselves.  Artists who practiced naturalism in their art wanted to ensure that their depictions of life were done with absolute honesty.  Their artwork was to have almost photographic accuracy rather than simply an artist’s interpretation of what was before them.  Naturalist painters often concentrated on the life of the lower working classes and in many works of art we see that the people portrayed have little or no control of their destiny.

My painting today is not from an artist who is famous for his depiction of peasant life, nor is it an artist who is renowned for his somber-coloured works which categorises today’s featured work.  In fact, quite the contrary, today’s artist is known for his bright yellows and blues and the magical swirls of his brush-strokes, none of which can be seen in today’s painting.   Today’s artist is Vincent van Gogh and My Daily Art Display featured work today is entitled The Potato Eaters which he completed in 1885.  This painting by Van Gogh is now looked upon as his first masterpiece and it was his hope that it would establish his status as an artist.

One should remember that as far as art was concerned van Gogh was a late starter.  When he was young, like most children, he would enjoy drawing but he never seriously considered taking up painting as a career.  However, through some of his uncles who were art dealers, Vincent became immersed in the world of art.  However it was not until 1879, when he was almost twenty-seven years old, and living in the village of Cuesmes, in the coal mining district of the Borinage that he became progressively more interested in the people and scenes around him and began to create a pictorial record of his time there and it was around this time that his brother Theo’s encouraged him to take up art in earnest.

A peasant woman by van Gogh

Five years on, at the age of thirty-two, he painted today’s featured picture and this was at a time when he had only just mastered the art of painting.   It makes it all the more amazing that he would take on such a large project so early on in his artistic career.   Just remember what he had to achieve.  He had to paint five figures and make each one look natural and because he had decided the light source was to be central he had the difficult task of achieving the effect such light would have on the room and the figures.

Preliminary sketch for The Potato Eaters

As a prelude to this painting he made many studies of each of the peasants, some in charcoal, and others in oil.

The painting is naturalistic.  It depicts a truthful representation of the peasants and where they live.  It is both realistic and naturalistic.  The peasants are as they are.  This painting highlights the sad reality of a peasant existence.  There has been no exaggeration by the artist in the way he has painted them in order to gain certain effects although it is said that he carefully chose the people to model for his painting so as to illustrate them at their purest and most primitive, as representing the ancient, traditional values of rural life.  Of his choice of models, he wrote to his brother Theo:

“..I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned…”

The painting before us depicts a dark room which is only illuminated by the oil lamp which is hanging from the beams of the ceiling.   It is a very dark painting which has been achieved by the artist’s use of murky colours.   The ceiling is low and one imagines that it allows little headroom for the peasants.  It is a tiny space and van Gogh’s use of colour has highlighted its shabbiness.  The murkiness allows us to understand the oppressive nature of their life.     It is not hard to imagine the sort of life the peasants lead in these damp and clammy squalid surroundings.

The whole of the painting is monochromatic, in other words van Gogh has just used shades of a limited number of colours.  The colours he has used are mainly dark and dull such as black and brown and this adds to the morose and moody feel to the painting.   In contrast to the dark room the faces of the peasants sitting around the table are illuminated by the oil lamp and shine out brightly enabling us to explore their emotions.  There is symmetry about the way van Gogh has arranged the people around the table.  A man and a woman sit on either side of the table framing another man and woman who are seated behind the table

The faces of the peasants are sunburnt from the hours they have worked in the fields under the unforgiving sun during the summer months.  Five people sit around a square table eating potatoes; three are men, two are women.      We look at them eating baked potatoes from a potato tray as the woman on the far right of the painting is pouring a black liquid, maybe coffee, from a teapot into the cups on the table.   They are clothed in thick garments to keep the cold out, once the sun has gone down and the wind scurries across the low-lying fields.  Their heads are all covered with either caps or kerchiefs.

Look at the way van Gogh has depicted their facial features.  They have thick lips, protruding cheekbones and low, flat foreheads. Their mouths and cheekbones look almost larger than life.   The male and the female on the left of the painting have bulging eyes and this gives them a look of people lacking intelligence.  Their eyes, in some way, are blank and unseeing and it is difficult to imagine what is going on in their minds.  Look at their faces.  How would you describe their expressions?  To me they are solemn expressions.  The people do not exude an air of happiness or contentment.  Their facial expressions look almost as if they are very wary of each other.  There does not seem to be a close and loving connection between those who are sharing a meal.  There is no sense of communication between the diners.  They are wide-eyed and their thoughts seem to be in a place far from the dingy room.

When we look at this painting we are not seeing the fat ruddy faced peasants of the Bruegels.  These are not the jolly peasants we are used to seeing in paintings such as The Peasant Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (My Daily Art Display, March 27th 2011).  Look carefully at the physical characteristics of the people we see before us.  They have protruding features.  Observe the way Van Gogh has clearly depicted their hands and fingers.  They are gnarled and wizened.  These are coarse working hands and these very fingers will have scratched and dug at the soil to free-up the potatoes they now hold and eat.  This is naturalism at its best.  In this painting, Van Gogh has cleverly and effectively portrayed the poor and harsh lives the peasants had to endure.  Van Gogh defended the way in which he depicted the peasants saying:

“…..if people prefer to see them with a sugar coating, let them. I personally believe that it is better in the long run to paint them vulgar as they are than to give them a conventional charm…”

The artist again defended his depiction of the people in the painting saying that it was a “real peasant painting” and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:

“…I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land that they have toiled with their hands – that they have earned their food by honest means. One sees a kind of wild animal, male and female, all over the countryside, black, drab and scorched by the sun, bound to the soil which they dig and work with obstinate resolve; they speak with a single voice, and when they rise to their feet they reveal human faces, and they are indeed human. At night they retreat into caves where they live on black bread, water and roots; they spare others the effort of sowing, tilling and harvesting in order to live, and should therefore not want of the bread they have sown…”

To my mind although this may not be considered as a loving portrayal of peasants, it is probably a true one.  Gone are the smiling ruddy faced people one saw in many of the 16th and 17th century Dutch genre scenes.  There is nothing in this painting to suggest there is much fun in the life of these peasant workers.  A contemporary of van Gogh was the French painter Jean-François Millet, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France and he was noted for his scenes of peasant farmers and was part of the naturalism and realism movements in France.  Millet had studied the peasant classes and would often depict them as coarse-looking, uncultivated people who led a feral existence.

Van Gogh defended his portrayal of the peasants insisting that he had never intended to malign them. As far as he was concerned he was simply painting them as typical of country people but maybe this notion should be questioned as a friend of van Gogh asserted that when the artist came to choose his models, he made a point of selecting ‘the ugliest of them’.

Vincent sent the painting to his brother to be exhibited at the Salon but Theo never did put it forward to the Salon juries, nor did he show it to the very influential art dealer of the time, Paul Durand-Rule, as Vincent had hoped.  Later Vincent sent a lithographic version of the painting to his good and close friend, the aristocratic artist, Anthon van Rappard.    Vincent was horrified and angered when he received a letter back from van Rappard, in which he declared the painting “a violence to nature”.  Those harsh words were to end their five year friendship and van Gogh and van Rappard never spoke to each other again.

The Potato Eaters now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background by Vincent van Gogh

Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background (1888)

For all of us in the northern hemisphere we are in the midst of winter.  The days are short, the skies are grey and the rain is plentiful.  It is truly a depressing time of the year and one knows only too well that there is nothing more likely to lift one’s spirits than the presence of blue skies, coupled with long hours of sunshine and feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s back.  So what has all this to do with My Daily Art Display’s featured painting and the famous artist who painted it?  Well, just maybe Vincent felt the same as he looked out the window of his Parisian apartment in February 1888.  Today my featured artist is Vincent Willem van Gogh and my featured painting is entitled Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background which he completed this work in 1888 and can now be found in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh had come to Paris from Antwerp in March 1886 to live with his brother Théo, who was the manager at the Goupil Gallery in the Boulevard Montmartre.  He studied for a time at the Atelier Cormon under the tutelage of Femand Cormon, the French painter and art teacher.  Whilst in Paris, Van Gogh met up with many of the Impressionists, such as Camille Pissarro, Emile Bernard and Claude Monet and became firm friends with Paul Gaugin who only arrived in the French capital in late 1887.  Van Gogh also witnessed the infancy of Neo-Impressionism and the works of the Neo-Impressionists Signac and Seurat.  Van Gogh quickly abandoned the dark colors he had used to create his earlier paintings and began to he embrace the brighter more vibrant colors and the techniques of the Impressionists.   Life in the French capital for van Gogh with his painting during the day and his socialising with his fellow artists at night soon began to affect his health and after almost two years he began to tire of the cliquish Parisian art scene.   Whether it was for this reason or for health reasons or even the simple desire to leave the drab and cold capital city we will probably never be sure but there was no doubt that he hankered for the warmer sunny climate and the vibrant colours of the southern countryside.,  Van Gogh decided to move south to Arles and take advantage of the special Provencal climate  with its many uninterrupted hours of sunlight and by doing so also absorb the beauty of the French countryside.  It was his fervent hope that he could persuade some of his newly found artist friends to join him there and together they could set up a school of art,  maybe even an artists’ colony and together he believed they could resurrect the purity of the arts.  This was to be van Gogh’s  Studio of the South.  He left Paris in February 1888, a month before his thirty-fifth birthday, and headed south for Provence.

It was during his sojourn in Provence that he painted today’s featured painting Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background.  Van Gogh loved this region of Provence with the rocky outcrop of Montmajour and the Montmajour abbey.  This was thought to be one of the happiest times of his troubled life.   For a short period he seemed very content with his way of life.  He made many pen and ink sketches of the Benedictine abbey at Montmajour and the spectacular views from it of the surrounding area.   Van Gogh spent much time producing sketches with his reed pen and rather less time painting.  The reasons for this were probably two-fold.  Painting and the acquiring of paints was quite costly and it was almost impossible to paint when the Mistral wind was at full strength.   In a letter which he wrote to his brother Théo in July 1888, he described the pleasure he derived from this area, despite the problem with mosquitos and the strong cold northerly Mistral wind which made his canvases shake on the easel andmade en plein air painting almost impossible.  He wrote:

“….But now I’ve been to Montmajour 50 times to see that view over the plain, if a view can make one forget such small displeasures, then it must have something…”

In this painting, the pride of place does not go to the abbey which can be seen in the background.   The painting is all about the yellow and green patchwork quilt fields of La Crau which lay between Montmajour and Arles.  The fields are interspersed with small farm buildings with their red-topped roofs, the colour of which not only acts as a contrast to but seems to enhance the colour of the surrounding fields.  In the middle ground we can see a blue cart which is often cited as a secondary title to the painting.  He painted the scene in June 1888 and he believed it to be his best work to date.  It was at a time when the summer heat was beginning to intensify and the life-restoring radiance of the Mediterranean sun was his constant companion.  He once described this light  in a letter to his brother:

“….a light that for want of a better word I shall call yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron!  How lovely yellow is!  And how much better I shall see the North!….”

Preliminary sketch of Harvest at La Crau (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University)

Van Gogh made two preliminary drawings of the work and the provenance of one shows that on the death of her brothers Vincent and Théo in 1890, it came into the possession of Willemina van Gogh, their younger sister.  It is now at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, a bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop.  If one compares this preliminary sketch with the finished painting one can see that the space in the finished painting has been expanded and the viewpoint is much higher.  There is a much more gradual retreating of the plain as it runs off towards the towers of the Montmajour Abbey, which can be seen in the left background, and further back to the distant hills.

A later drawing of the scene (NGA Washington)

After he completed the painting he made two further drawings of the scene.  One of which is entitled Harvest – The Plain of La Crau, which he gave to his friend, John Peter Russell, an Australian artist and which can now be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington where it is part of the Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon collection.

I love this painting.  It is a truly inspiring painting.  Inspiring?  As I look out of my window at the falling rain and the dark grey rain-laden clouds, it inspires me to return to Provence and bask once again in the warm sunlight, take in the golden colours of the plains, interspersed occasionally with the blue and violet colours of the fields of lavender and of course be in awe of the azure colour of the nearby Mediterranean.

Oh, for the winter to end so that I can travel again!