At dinner last night the textile artist Carole Sabiston posed a question to our party: “How do you account for the remarkable popularity and love for the work among average people of someone like Vincent van Gogh?” Her question was accompanied by her usual wink, as if there might be a reason not to love Vincent’s paintings. We all blurted our off-the-top-of-the-head answers. After my wine-enriched blurt, I took her question to bed. More considered pillow punching spun some reasons why the work of any of us might become popular and loved:
A unique and recognizable style: In Vincent’s case, thickly applied pure pigment was laid brick-like with a compulsive sincerity. His style, at first the butt of jokes and swift elimination from juried shows, stood out for its amateur crudeness and naiveté. After all the polished works of the Salon, Vincent’s efforts couldn’t be missed. In his novelty, Vincent was one of the artists to herald “the cult of the new.”
A range of subject matter within a style: Landscapes, florals, boats, dreams, visions, struggle, appreciation of nature and narrative angst. Something for everyone.
An epic life story: Innocently, and by default, Vincent pioneered the benefits of poverty, failure, suffering and mental illness. Disorder, in the psychology of the new enlightenment, was now acceptable and could be packaged and sold. Vincent’s life had filmic potential.
The presence of “early adopters”: A band of contrarian dealers and critics who promoted Vincent to a new breed of entrepreneurial collector — those who would go on to found great collections and public museums. Vincent’s work crossed the pond.
An early death ensuring a finite opus: It’s good for a young artist to die. A small, interrupted supply of art insures rarity, dealer control and the potential for recognizable prints, posters, books, potholders, key-chains and mugs. Vincent was granted the sort of familiarity average people can get their heads around.
PS: “I do not know myself how I paint it. I sit down with a white board before the spot that strikes me. I look at what is before my eyes, and say to myself, that white board must become something.” (Vincent van Gogh)
Esoterica: A Mugg’s Jury. Imagine, if you will, a juried art show held in Muggsville, Saskatchewan, where a few of Vincent’s middling (not the worst and not the best) originals were included. And imagine that not one of the Muggsville jurors had ever heard of Vincent or knew what his work looked like. Difficult, I know, in the age of mass media, unless you happen to be a recently landed Martian. Do you think Vincent’s work would get into the Muggsville Salon? What do you think jurors might say? “Crude?” “Try again next year?” Do you think young Vincent might just pick up a few blue ribbons?
by Joy Hanser, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I think Robert’s pillow forgot to tell him about one essential element of Vincent’s work which captivates almost universally — passion. It’s there to feel plainly, even more so when you stand in front of the real canvases, and it inspires awe and a kind of longing in the viewer. There is also a certain oddness, especially in the portraits, that leads to open-mouthed wonder. His creative path with strokes and colours is plain to see and understand, and his energy is amazingly forever embedded there.
Astute marketing manager
by Sharon McKenna, Ottawa, ON, Canada
His popularity was in a large measure due to the astute management of his painting sales by his sister-in-law after his death. She had his whole oeuvre in her control; she avoided flooding the market with too many at a time and marketed his works very cleverly. It would be nice if we all had a marketing manager who was so committed to our work and smart at getting it noticed and collected and if we didn’t have to die before we were collected.
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by Scott Kahn, NY, USA
Transcending all reasons Robert has mentioned is Van Gogh’s gift of expressing feeling! And he did this in a most powerful way. It is a gift and cannot be analyzed. It is the primary reason we seek any creative, artistic expression. What is so astounding about van Gogh’s gift to express feeling is the purity, honesty, and truthfulness of that feeling. Nothing stands in the way between his soul and the painting. It is direct and clear. This is his appeal because everyone, consciously or unconsciously, is seeking understanding of our human condition and the profound questions of life and death. This is the very substance of van Gogh’s work; it is why he painted.
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The jury system
by Richard Mason, Howell, NJ, USA
I love Vincent’s work. Maybe because I can identify with him. The jury system and I don’t get along either. In answer to your question I doubt if his work would be given a blue ribbon by someone judging a show in Muggsville who didn’t know who he was. I believe the perseverance of his sister-in-law brought his paintings into the light. He truly was one of the “new” painters.
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Stamp of approval
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
To address your friend’s question seriously, I fear a major element is that “the public” has been told to like van Gogh. He’s been given the Good Housekeeping Stamp of Approval by the art world — museums, books, and enormous prices. But that’s only the door opener. It worked for Monet and Warhol, but not so much for Pollock or Mondrian.
Once that door is open, it’s easy to become comfortable with the likes of van Gogh, Monet or Warhol. Although their interpretation is striking, their subject matter is recognizable and friendly. There may even be a touch of “I could do that” in the viewer’s response.
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Rebels against the establishment
by Michael Fenton, New Jersey, USA
Had I lived in Europe at the time of Van Gogh, I would have gravitated toward him because he was not boring! So much of the classical work of the Academy, at the time, was corporate and politically correct. Van Gogh and most of the Impressionists rebelled (consciously or not) against the stodgy establishment. I think Van Gogh helped set the tone we see today which is more accepting of all kinds of art — even the weird and distasteful. Van Gogh and the Impressionists helped me understand how the establishment, even in art, is not to be entirely trusted in its judgment about art. Van Gogh didn’t sell during his lifetime because the establishment ruled, so I guess he was ahead of his time. Van Gogh had vision and emotion and raw talent and he did what he had to do.
Why is this here?
by Deb Lacativa, GA, USA
I wondered the same thing myself when I recently visited the High Museum in Atlanta for the exhibit of Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond on loan from MOMA. I spent a good deal of time in the room studying the work and watching the other viewers’ reactions. There were a lot of furrowed brows, mine included. I wondered if MOMA slipped us provincials a few rolls of old wall paper and were having a snicker over pulling a fast one on us. At 42 feet wide, it was impressive but my overall impression was “and?” His Houses of Parliament was much more compelling.
Later, I was sitting on a bench in front another artist’s work, another large but more contemporary canvas. In a nutshell — a mess. It looked as if several warring clans of taggers had competed to a messy stand off for this several square yards of canvas. A security guard stood by his post nearby. After a few minutes I looked at his bemused expression with the unspoken question on my face “Why is this popular? Why is this here?” In a murmur, he wondered aloud “Who’s zoomin’ who?” and we both had a chuckle.
Unique for all time
by Sharon Lynn Williams, BC, Canada
I just came back from Paris where I had the wonderful opportunity to interact up close and personal with Vincent’s work. His lively brushwork and colour just jumped off the walls — it was the most startling thing I have ever experienced. Of all the art I saw in France, nothing even remotely touched it. Not only was he unique for his time, his is unique for all time! But it was rather sad to see this brilliant work flatly repeated on posters and mugs at every tourist trap in France. I wonder what he would have thought of that.
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by Nancy Taylor, Porter Ridge, CA, USA
Vincent Van Gogh had a way of using symbols to represent elements in nature. There is real beauty in his work. I refer to his drawings and paintings where strokes and dots do convince the viewer it is nature we are seeing. Fields of grass and some wild iris with a house in the far distance charmed me when I first studied his work, a train in the distance moving slowly along between fields of crops, a solitary tree covered with ivy, or a garden filled with tall blooming bushes. So many of his works expressed things we recognize and he made those images convincing with just short strokes of a pen, or a paintbrush, accompanied with brief curved lines, dots, or other symbolic strokes. There is much to admire in his work, and much that many could not achieve as he did.
The portrait of Dr. Gachet, his psychiatrist, expresses the gloom and sorrow that man held in his inner thoughts as he sat posing for his patient. Vincent’s early drawings in ink are worth studying. Not as one would study the drawings of Guido Reni, Titian, or other masters of realism, but as a way of learning how that one man drew as he tried to record the culture and dwellings of the poor people and cities around him.
A bucket of oats
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Vincent would be appalled by the marketing methods used to make him a household word. Part of his phenomenon is that he is, in fact, dead and gone and can make no complaints or modifications to the reams of hype and hyperbole churned out about him. To get a true reading all you have to do is read his letters to saintly brother Theo. There you will see an intelligent but difficult man, a tireless lover of art and painting, who lived in fear of his uncontrolled mental illness. When will he be struck down with another seizure? What will he do then? His artistic life was short and terrifying.
Mentally ill people live even today at the margins of society. There is no hope of being popular or fitting in. The daily struggle within the brain usually takes all of a person’s energy. People who have studied Vincent’s life sympathize with his plight and find it remarkable that such a man had the creative force to make thousands of enduring works of art in a career in under a decade.
You reproduce millions upon millions of images of Vincent’s paintings and saturate the world with them. It makes me remember a quote attributed to Degas when one of his pastels was sold for over a million dollars. By then old and blind and unable to paint, Degas was still full of the same acidic wit. When asked how such an event made him feel he said he felt like the thoroughbred race horse that just won the big derby and still got the same bucket of oats! Nothing could be more far removed from the legend of Vincent Van Gogh than the man himself.
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The Coming of Fall
oil painting by Julie Houck
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jim Cowan of New Westminster, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Perhaps those unwashed masses recognize the honesty of the work. No catering to whim or fashion but rejoicing in the orgy of light and colour?”
And also Linda Hicks of Belmont, MA, USA, who wrote, “Vincent’s paintings were fresh and original, in all respects, not formulaic, and that was enough, I believe.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The causes of popularity…