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The influence of Paris upon Van Gogh was not altogether happy; it sought to divide a being who was an absolute unity. He made the acquaintance of the Impressionists, whose analytic art was the antithesis of his own, which aimed, above all things, at concentration, but whose logical deductions forced themselves upon his intelligence. The pictures he painted at this time betray the influence of Pissarro; when he came to know and reverence Seurat, he even attempted division.
The best picture he painted in Paris was the Quatorze Juillet, to which I shall return presently; in others–the medallion, for instance, now belonging to Vollard–his individuality seems entirely obscured. In all we are conscious of an arrest of his powers, the uncertainty the vast city induced in him (he speaks of it in later letters referring to this time). But we must not think of Van Gogh as the peasant, falling under the wheels in the city. Rather did his danger lie in his remarkable instinct for culture, eager to embrace everything, and insistent upon order, where disorder is habitual in all relations of life. Julien Leclerc, who made his acquaintance in 1888, describes him as a nervous, chilly individual, suggestive of Spinoza, and concealing a violent intellectual activity under an exterior reserve.
Vincent breathed freely again, when he found himself once more among peasants at Arles. His letters to Emile Bernard and to his brother, published by the “Mercure de France,” reveal his conception of art, a conception which would only have excited the laughter of the boulevardier. “Christ,” he says, “was the greatest of all artists, because He made immortal men, and not works of art, because His words, which He, as a grand seigneur, disdained to set down in writing, were mightier in their power over others than marbles and pictures, because He knew that they would endure, when the forms of the world in which He lived had long passed away.” Here we have the whole of Van Gogh, the man who believed, even more fervently than in art, in a tremendous pure creative power given to men to make others happy; which urges the individual not to gratify his own vanity by his art, but to find satisfaction in the hard fate of a great artist such as he himself was. He repeatedly lamented to his brother, that pictures and statues were not living things. It depressed him to think “that life is created with less effort than art.”
It was natural that Millet should influence him: Millet, whose attitude to Christianity was akin to his own, and who invented the divine gesture of his Sower to express it. But Millet was made of other stuff. He enjoyed the Nature he painted. The gravity that breathes from his pictures is that of the countryshy; man, familiar with hard work, but confident of its results. Van Gogh is all harsh tragedy; he did not go to Nature; she dragged him to her. To be nearer to her, he, the Dutchman, nourished in the northern calm of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Vermeer, went to the wonderland of France, to Provence, where the sun bathes the earth in pure colour, and men and things are still as simple and as great as when the Romans built their arenas there.
Frans Hals was the Dutch element in Van Gogh, who always retained his peculiar vehement handling. With all the impetuosity Frans Hals employed to give life and colour to his portraits, with all the turbulent vigour Daumier used to kindle his darkest sauce to flames, and with an irresistible impulse towards symbolism, Van Gogh rushed upon the new country, in which all the conditions were sharply opposed to those of his own nation: flame met flame. All his pictures are battle; battle in the literal sense; he painted, buffeted by the mistral; the effects he sought lasted sometimes but a few moments, and had to be got in one sitting. And even more urgently was he driven forward by the frantic fire within, that blazed high under the burning skies above him: creating, creating–”Vite, vite, vite et pressé comme le moissonneur qui se tait sous le soleil ardent, se concentre pour en abattre.”
Van Gogh seemed hardly to paint his pictures, but rather to breathe them on to the canvas, panting and gasping. We may take it that he painted about three-fifths of his pictures at Arles. His stay here lasted from 1887 to the middle of 1889. In this space of a little over two years, he painted several hundred pictures. These were slight superficial manifestations, implying long and exshy; hausting preparation. Van Gogh may aptly be called a Vulcan; the phrase a Romantic writer applied to Delacroix was no less descriptive of him: he carried about a sun in his head and a hurricane in his heart. But in his case, a certain pathological significance must be read into the poetic words.
All that this man undertook was carried to a terrific pitch. It is gruesome to see him paint–a kind of orgy, in which the colours were splashed about like blood. He did not paint with hands, but with naked senses; special organs were given him. He became one with the Nature he created, and painted himself in the flaming clouds, wherein a thousand suns threaten the earth with destruction, in the startled trees that seem to cry aloud to Heaven, in the awful immensity of his plains. He seems sometimes to have made himself a hole in the earth and to have painted from it.
This was how he executed the picture belonging to the younger Bernheim, which so delighted Monet, Les Coquelicots, a landscape without a sky, a kind of microscopic slide, showing a bit of fruitful earth. He ventured upon still-life, the genre in which Cézanne did his best work. Van Gogh’s idea was to calm himself with these essays. He was fond of setting a fruit-basket diagonally across the canvas and filling it with apples. With the great Cézanne these subjects were actually “still-life,” a splendid and grandiose version of the Dutch “nature morte,” the most remarkable creation of a brilliantly selected palette.
With Van Gogh, the term “still-life,” applied to these amazingly vital masses of fruit seems almost an irony. Vallotton owns one of the “sedatives,” as Vincent called them. The apples glow, they seem to be on the point of bursting; the whole essence of their species seems to be concentrated in them; a piece of furious vitality has fallen by chance into this basket. We marvel at the extraordinary and unerring taste that has placed the basket thus and not otherwise, and piled the fruits just in this fashion. We are often surprised at Cézanne’s arbitrariness, his indifference to questions of arrangement in spite of his careful calculation of effects.
In the wildest of Van Gogh’s fantasies one can always trace a strong, methodical hand, co-ordinating images and welding them into pictures, occasionally by an almost superhuman effort, and often achieving extraordinary delicacy the while. M. Maurice Fabre Gipsies with their van, M. Schuffenecker Route de Provence with the mail-coach, and M. Hessel Drawbridge are lyric harmonies full of the most dainty passages, in which the painter’s temperament only serves to make the grace he saw as vital as possible. Of course we must not look for sentimenshy; tal charm in this grace, and we must accept the means of which it makes use.
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