It is difficult to express Van Gogh in terms of art. It is always absolutely vital, because it is power; and power is always beauty. His harmonies are of a physical order, and therefore outside the melancholy or the delight to which the mind is stirred by other sorrowful or cheerful pictures. The reaction induced by his works is at first a purely physical one. The planes of his canvases, which seem to have been proshy;duced, not by brushes, but by the stonemason’s implements, scream, and we are sometimes tempted to scream in unison, just as we feel inclined during a storm to shout aloud with the thunder.
It is the cry of the human animal, whose blood is quickened by the enigmatic relation of the individual to the cosmos, who yearns to penetrate into his environment, into Nature, and destroys either this or himself if he does not succeed. Van Gogh did not produce his art; it was as much a part of himself as is some material function a part of the body; it was not something external to him, but his closest idiosyncrasy, joy or suffering. To this man, who first turned to art in his later years, and then perhaps only as to a pisaller, it was apparently a thing inherent, with which perforce he had to live and die.
That this pathological phenomenon should have resulted in aesthetic achieveshy;ment is no more remarkable than that Nature, of whatever kind it may be, produces beauty. Van Gogh regarded a striving after perfection as a natural morality. He was a cleanly animal. He owed more to Daumier and to Delacroix than to all the Impressionists. Here the peasant, who regretted that Paris did not possess more “tableaux en sabots,” found a kindred spirit. When he took the group of the three topers with the child at the table, from Daumier Buveurs,† he did Daumier the highest honour in his power and–like Delacroix, when he used Raphael’s composition in the Vatican for his Heliodorus in St. Sulpice–added to his own laurels by producing one of his most individual pictures. He found in Daumier the justification of his own linear exaggerations, the flaming play of his aspiring lines, that seem to crouch in order to strike more surely.
He had also a great admirashy;tion for Cézanne, and an unbounded veneration for Monticelli, to whom he was drawn more closely by that magic South where Cézanne painted his fruits and the old gipsy his marvellous colour fantasies. In a letter to Aurier, containing perhaps the most complete revelation of an artist’s psychology ever penned–it appears in Aurier Œuvres Posthumes–he almost indignantly assigns the praise awarded to himself to Monticelli, even ranking Jeannin’s and the aged Guost’s flower-pieces above his own works. He esteemed Meissonier, because Mauve thought highly of him, and venerated Ziem, because Ziem venerated Delacroix. This naivete does not, however, preclude very delicate appreciations. He speaks of a Monticelli at Lille, “autrement riche et certes non moins français que le Départ pour Cythère de Watteau,” and opines that no other artist has approved himself so directly the heir of Delacroix, though Monticelli received Delacroix’ teaching at secondhand, through Diaz and Ziem…
These few lines also contain all the physiology of Monticelli that was valuable to Van Gogh. He made his start under the spell of the Impressionists. Pissarro had the same influence upon him as upon Gauguin and later upon Bernard. His Quatorze Juillet à Asnières, one of the very best of his pre-Arlesian pictures, is painted very thinly, the colour divided into minute green and yellow particles on a gray ground. At Arles he came to think this technique insufficient. He was temperamentally incapable of consistent work on this system, by which Signac fixed the vapourous quality of Southern landscape; and further, he had not time for it. The exact opposite attracted him in Monticelli: the heavy fabric of loaded colour, with which the old magician produced his thousand accidents. Van Gogh exaggerated this, but at the same time, he simplified it, he rejected what was petty and incidental, reduced the palette to single pure colours, laid on in large, coarse fragments, and added his own temperament as the amalgam.
There are many pictures in a single picture by Van Gogh. His brush strokes not only give things that force themselves upon the eye from a distance with elemental power, but they combine to produce an extraordinary play on the surface, forming a free and varied ornament and giving a mysterious animation to the background, as well as a rare splendour of texture to things that stand out against it in sharply defined contours. Fundamentally it is, of course, nothing but a development of the granulations which give the quality to every surface in painting; a special structure of the brush-strokes, in short, that development of the manual element in brushing which the Venetians began; that which distinguishes the later painting from that of the Primitives; that which, apart from colour and composition in the vulgar sense, delights us in Titian and Tintoretto, Rubens and Watteau, Delacroix and Monet, that on which the majority of contemporary painters base the whole of their art.
But Van Gogh uses it as a means which determines the character of his pictures more clearly than any other element in them, a means whereby he concentrates his material in a colour-extract of all possible materials. Nothing was farther from his purpose than optical illusion; no modelling tempts us to believe in a corporeal presence, his picture is always as flat as a Gobelin tapestry; but it has a richness no textile could approach, even if woven of gold and precious stones, and this richness is so organic, that it affects us like Nature itself. His palette may be told off on the fingers of one hand. Prussian blue, pure yellow to orange, emerald and Veronese green, and red were to him what white, gray, rose-colour and black were to Velazquez, lemon yellow, pale blue, and pearl gray to Vermeer.
The problem of comshy;plementary colours was in his hand, so to speak, rather than in his head; it did not dominate him. He ventured on the most daring combinations, juxtaposed a resonant Prussian blue and a tender red, but chose his quantities so unerringly that his most audacious effects seem the most natural. He never used blue without an accompanying yellow, or his luminous red without orange. M. Aghion’s extra-ordinary picture, the avenue with the Roman tombs at Arles, is a marvellous example of this system. Into the two mighty rows of trees, that stand in front against the blue, and behind run into the pure yellow of the sky, brought to a narrow strip by the perspective, shoot streams of orange tinged with red, forming deep blood-red pools upon the ground. It is a colossal combat of colours, that take on an almost objective significance, so convincing is the manner in which they are used.