A dominant figure in the Post-Impressionist movement, Vincent Van Gogh's influence can still be seen today in countless works by contemporary artists, including my own 2017 oil painting Wildflowers. The most striking similarities can be seen in the color palette, subject selection, and brushwork. Other art approaches seen in my painting, particularly the distinctive application of line and composition, undoubtedly derive from Van Gogh’s specific style. A close examination of Wildflowers and Vincent Van Gogh’s 1890 oil painting Vase with Irises lends a well-rounded understanding of the similarities and differences between Van Gogh’s artistic styles and intentions compared to those of my own (Figure 1 & 2). To begin, let us take a look at the Post-Impressionist master himself.
Figure 1 & 2: Abby Wilfert, Wildflowers, 2017; Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with Irises, 1890
Vincent Van Gogh was a French Post-Impressionist artist during the late 1800s. Encouraged by his father, he tried his hand as a businessman and a minister, but neither proved successful (Helvey, 4-5). Eventually realizing his interest in art, he moved to Paris to study alongside the French avant-garde artists; among them, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Helvey, 6) (Figure 3, 4, & 5).
Figure 3, 4, & 5: Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1888; Paul Gauguin, Les Miserables (Self-Portrait), 1888; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mirror (Self-Portrait), 1880
Surprisingly, Van Gogh's initial paintings contained a much darker and drearier color palette than he is known for today (Figure 6, 7, & 8). These paintings were not well received by the public. He, consequently, decided to incorporate the broken brushstrokes and light, pure colors of the Impressionists, whose style was preferred among art collectors at the time (Helvey, 6). Nevertheless, Van Gogh only sold one piece of art during his life, and to his brother, Theo. Theo played a significant role in Vincent's life, as a close companion and caretaker. Vincent had a tumultuous social life, making it probable that Theo was his only true, lifelong friend. Theo Van Gogh built a career an art dealer in the Netherlands and always adored Vincent's artwork. Theo was the primary contributor in turning Vincent into the international celebrity he is today.
Figure 6, 7, & 8: Vincent Van Gogh: View of the Sea at Scheveningen, 1882; Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen; 1884The Potato Eaters in 1885
Another contribution to Van Gogh’s artistic style was his struggle with mental illness, which was only exacerbated by unfortunate life events. In the hope to improve his health and build friendships with his fellow artists, Van Gogh moved to the south of France and was later accompanied by Gauguin (Helvey, 1, 7). The two quickly became incompatible roommates and Van Gogh’s mental state worsened dramatically. It was at the end of their time together, after only three months of cohabitating, that Van Gogh notoriously cut off part of his ear. The piece of ear was sent as a gift to a prostitute who had rejected Van Gogh's affection. Van Gogh finally realized the severity of his own psychological state and entered himself into Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum near Saint-Remy, France (Figure 9). The young artist spent a year at the asylum, followed by a move to Auvers-sur-Oise, as to be closer to his brother (Helvey, 7). These attempts to heal were not enough to fully remedy his mental health, and he ultimately committed suicide in 1891 (Helvey, 7-8). Despite his suffering, he created some of his most riveting and iconic artworks during the last years of his life.
Figure 9: Vincent Van Gogh, Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, 1889
Among these works was the 1890 oil painting Vase with Irises (Figure 2). The work features a stout yellow vase bursting with bright blue-purple irises and elongated, blue-green leaves. The background is painted in hues of a vibrant, yet earthy yellow ochre. Representative of the Post-Impressionist style, his painting utilizes thick brushwork, solid planes of bright color, and emotive content. Illustrating his understanding of color theory, Van Gogh once said that, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself more forcibly.” The strong yellow, blue, and green palette of Vase with Irises reflects the intensity of the artist’s personality and his feelings while creating the painting. In these ways, Van Gogh responded to the Impressionist movement while simultaneously intertwining his own psychological and emotional state into his artwork.
In 2017, more than a century after Van Gogh painted his Vase with Irises, I created an oil painting titled Wildflowers. I completed the painting during an Impressionist painting course at an art center in my hometown. Our class was encouraged to work in the Impressionist style by using pure colors in broken brushstrokes, mixing paints on the canvas, and taking a loose approach to representation. I chose a bright yellow background, believing it would contrast well with the given blue, purple, and pink flowers. Ironically, the end painting was more representative of Post-Impressionism than Impressionism due to two additions to the latter’s methodology: vivid colors and mild abstraction of form. Although not directly based on works by Van Gogh, there are noticeable similarities which were likely derived from a subconscious influence.
In comparing my painting Wildflowers to Van Gogh’s Vase with Irises, the foremost similarity relates to the color palette of the two pieces. Both feature the bold, pure colors of viridian green, cobalt blue, and saturated yellow. Van Gogh was best known for his luminous colors. In his own words, he described Vase with Irises as a “violet bunch (ranging from carmine to pure Prussian Blue) [that] stands out against a startling citron background, with other yellow tones in the vase and the stand on which it rests, so it is an effect of tremendously disparate complementaries, which strengthen each other by their juxtaposition” (Helvey, 53). Few things excited Van Gogh more than color arrangements. Of all the colors he used, Van Gogh is most notably associated with yellow. My painting features Cadmium yellow, where his Vase with Irises was likely made with Chrome yellow (Lincoln Center Institute). The two paints are extremely similar in appearance. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, Cadmium yellow was phasing out the toxic, less-intense Chrome yellow (Gamblin Colors). The palette for my painting incidentally replicated that of Van Gogh, and, given that Van Gogh is so closely associated with his choice of colors, it is logical that the two works would bear a striking resemblance.
Figure 10 & 11: Vincent Van Gogh: Irises, 1889; Lilacs, 1889
During his journey experimenting with pure colors and strong contrasts, Van Gogh turned to a naturally vibrant subject matter -- flowers. The Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum grounds held multiple flower gardens, where Van Gogh would have taken pleasant strolls during his stay. His time at the asylum provided the scenery needed to produce his exquisitely saturated flower paintings, including Irises, Lilacs, and, of course, Vase with Irises (Figure 10 & 11) (Helvey, 57). His choice of irises was likely due to the fact that they were among the most prominent and most vibrant flowers growing at the asylum. Unlike Van Gogh, my subject choice of flowers was not due to their predominant physical presence in my surroundings, but rather due to my family’s enduring enjoyment of them (Read more about this here!), This multi-generation affinity for flowers has become a symbol in my art. My choice of flowers is also similar to Van Gogh’s because, like him, I enjoy implementing jewel-toned, pure colors in my paintings. By two different paths, Van Gogh and I have come to possess the same motif of richly-colored flowers.
Figure 12 & 13: Vincent Van Gogh, impasto detail of Starry Night, 1889; Abby Wilfert, impasto detail of Wildflowers, 2017
On a micro-level, an up-close look at my oil painting and Van Gogh’s oil painting, reveals a similar brushwork approach. Both the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists deviated from previous painting methods with the addition of impasto, a method of applying thick layers of paint to the canvas. Van Gogh was especially fond of this style, which can be best seen in his famous work Starry Night (Figure 12). Wildflowers has concentrated impasto in the center of the pink rose buds, while Vase with Irises has this thick brushwork over the entire painting – in the background, vase, and flowers (Figure 13). In both instances, impasto gives a second layer of depth to the works.
Figure 14: Vincent Van Gogh, line detail Vase with Irises, 1890
Despite the clear comparisons between Wildflowers and Vase with Irises, there are a handful of features that distinguish my style from Van Gogh’s. The first formal difference rests in our definition of line. Van Gogh is well-known for his sharp edges and thick, dark borders. In Vase with Irises, he clearly outlines the irises, leaves, vase, and table line with black, navy, or deep emerald paint (Figure 14). This technique encloses the various shapes and gives them a geometric quality. My painting, however, takes a looser, painterly approach, in which some edges are crisp, while others meld into the adjacent shapes. The resultant effect is photograph-like, meaning that areas of the painting vary from being in sharp focus to blurred. Although there are multiple similarities between Wildflowers and Vase with Irises, the simple addition or lack of hard edges and outlines begins a divergence between the styles of the two paintings.
The works continue to become distinct from one another when studying their composition. This also lends perspective on their wholistic purpose. Nearly all of Van Gogh’s flower paintings are grounded and contextualized. For example, the flowers in Irises emerge wildly from the red Earth. In Vase with Irises, the bundle of clipped irises pours over the side of a tabletop vase (Figure 2). Conversely, the arranged flowers in Wildflowers does not offer much indication for its setting. There is no reference to a vase or table, suggesting that the flowers may have been splayed over a flat surface or that they may even be floating in space (Figure 1). On an analytical level, Van Gogh’s Vase with Irises possesses a sense of claustrophobia. The irises appear to be trying to escape the confines of the vase, perhaps as Van Gogh desired to escape the confines of his own mind (Helvey, 57). The flowers in my composition are meant to feel free and, hence the title, "wild". The contextual composition of Van Gogh’s work conveys the sensation of a trapped mind, where mine evokes that of a freed one.
A formal analysis of Wildflowers and Vase with Irises sheds light on the ways my personal artwork draws on and deviates from Post-Impressionism. Both Van Gogh and I tend to gravitate toward vibrant, high-contrast scenes of flowers. We also share the occasional impasto brushwork. However, our styles are often dissimilar in that he consistently included hard lines and edges where my edges vary from sharp to soft. As well, Van Gogh grounds his subjects in a clear contextual composition, where I leave the context of my painting up to interpretation. Although Van Gogh has had a clear influence on my art, personal background uniquely shapes my artwork, style, and purpose, as Van Gogh’s life did for his.
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Don't stop there! Learn more about our friend Vincent Van Gogh from the following remarkable sources:
Charles, Victoria. Vincent Van Gogh. Parkstone International, 2014.
A decent overview of Van Gogh's life and artwork.
Gamblin Colors. “Yellows.” Gamblin Artists Colors, https://gamblincolors.com/yellows/.
Artists will enjoy reading about the pigments in Van Gogh's original palette.
Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette.
I find it fascinating how certain pigments have been replaced by less toxic, more vibrant alternatives, while others have remained the same since the time of cavemen. Victoria Finlay expertly delves into this topic with her book Color. It is most stunning art history book I have yet to read. The first link above is a coffee-table-style book -- heavy on beautiful pictures, with the minimal amount of text. The opposite is true for the second link, for the traditional book. This goes in depth on the each color -- its origins and affiliations. Super insightful!
Helvey, Jennifer. Irises: Vincent Van Gogh in the Garden. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.
As you could see from my in-text citations in this blog post, this book provides extensive information about Van Gogh.
Lincoln Center Institute. “Van Gogh's use of Colors. Pigments and Palette.” VanGoghReproductions.com, http://www.vangoghreproductions.com/art-techniques/palette.html.
Again, a helpful source for understanding Van Gogh's exact pigments, organized by color.
Walther, Ingo F., and Rainer Metzger. Vincent Van Gogh: the Complete Paintings. Benedikt Taschen, 1993.
Another comprehensive collection of Van Gogh's paintings. If you have ever wanted to see all of Van Gogh's works in one place, this is the book for you.
Thank you for reading! Let me know your take on Van Gogh in the comments below!