If you ask the average man or woman in the street to name a famous painter, they’d probably pick Vincent Van Gogh. He’s one of the most memorable artists who ever lived with his vibrant paintings which strike a powerful emotional chord.
Van Gogh has been immortalised in songs, Hollywood films, posters, advertisements and even on tea towels. He’s quintessentially Dutch, having been born in the Netherlands, but lived for most of his artistic life in France.
But few people know that he also lived in England for three years between 1873-1876. The Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate Britain takes us on his British journey and looks at how he was influenced by his stay in London. But does it tell us anything new about him?
Van Gogh’s Love of Britain
Van Gogh loved Britain – there’s no doubt about that. His enthusiasm for British culture was a lifelong passion. But the Tate Britain’s exhibition takes this idea much further and argues that Britain was a huge influence on his paintings, style and subject matter.
I’m not convinced.
Van Gogh was a true original and one of the most distinctive artists the world has ever seen. He was an expressionist before Expressionism – and it’s hard to pigeon hole him into any single art movement.
The influences on his work were many but he always remained his own person – an artist without parallel. And that’s why everyone loves Van Gogh today.
I’d agree that Van Gogh soaked up British influences, but he also took elements from French Impressionism and Realism, the Dutch masters and Japanese prints in his work.
But the artist’s experience in London did come at an important time in his career when he was juggling careers in teaching, preaching and painting.
He arrived in May 1873 when he was just 20-years-old. For two years he worked at the offices of Goupil, the art dealers in Covent Garden.
“How I love London” he wrote in a letter of 1875.
Van Gogh in London
Van Gogh lived in lodgings in Stockwell and the oval in south London and would often travel along the river by boat or walk through the city, soaking up the sights and sounds.
He loved going to London’s galleries and museums, and these were experiences that he’d carry with him all of his life.
Van Gogh loved Victorian novels, especially Charles Dickens, and admired his work for its “reality more real than reality”. He said, “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes”.
Throughout his career Van Gogh would often paint everyday objects and ordinary people, drawing on reality and bringing out the emotional power of these scenes. Dickens was clearly his soul mate in this respect.
But I don’t entirely buy the exhibition’s thesis that Van Gogh was set off on a new course by London’s cultural scene. He had already seen the daily realities of life for the working man when he was back in Holland.
Later, he worked as a pastor in Belgium in a poor working class community where poverty was an everyday reality. It was here that he produced hard-hitting and dark drawings and sketches of peasants and their gritty lives.
But his London experience may have cemented his interest in ordinary people. In London he would have encountered radical ideas which led him to continue to paint the hardships faced by working folk.
One of the most powerful Van Gogh paintings in the exhibition is ‘Prisoners Exercising’ at Newgate Prison in London. It’s a hard-hitting work which has been brought in from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It’s the first time I’ve seen this picture and it’s one of Van Gogh’s finest.
It’s also a work which reveals Van Gogh’s love of the French illustrator, Gustave Doré’, famous for his dark London engravings including ‘Newgate Prison Exercise Yard’.
Van Gogh deliberately recreated this scene in his oil painting, paying homage to the French artist, but adding vibrant colours and emotional intensity.
The Power of Prints
Van Gogh had become familiar with art reproductions including the ‘British black and white’ print when he was working for the the art dealer Goupil in London,
The exhibition argues that because Van Gogh had little formal art training, this proved to be important for his artistic development.
It was through black and white prints and engravings that he learned more about compositions, light and shade. Whilst this may be true, the Tate show does seem to ram home this point more forcibly than necessary with dozens of examples of British prints.
Van Gogh collected these reproductions and built up a personal collection of over 2,000 prints, some of which are on display in the exhibition.
The strong lines in many of these prints no doubt left an impression on the young Dutch artist – and their influence can be seen in the above work with its strident black wavy lines.
The Tate exhibition tries hard to illustrate Van Gogh’s enthusiasm for British culture including works by John Constable and John Millais as well as his love of British writers from William Shakespeare to Christina Rossetti. and Charles Dickens.
‘L’Arlésienne,’ a portrait Van Gogh created in the last year of his life in the south of France, features a favourite book by Dickens in the foreground.
It’s also clear that Whistler’s influence can be seen in his work. The American artist was renowned for his nocturnal studies of the Thames, and this influence can be seen in Van Gogh’s atmospheric ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’.
But again, Van Gogh reinvented the whole pictorial imagery of a river at night, never slavishly copying Whistler’s version. Instead it’s more a question of him being influence by the mood and abstraction of Whistler’s art.
After being dismissed from his art dealer job in London, Van Gogh tried teaching and preaching in Ramsgate in Kent and Isleworth in London… but failed to find his niche.
It was the end of his British adventure. Van Gogh left London for good in 1876 and returned to Holland. The rest of the story is – of course – history.
He’d certainly soaked up British influences but I’d argue that it’s too simplistic to say that London was his major defining experience.
Van Gogh’s influence as a painter most certainly lived on in London as young British artists discovered his work and tried to emulate his passion for colour, dramatic brush strokes and his decorative style.
Artists such as Walter Sickert, Vanessa Bell and the Camden Town Group were at the forefront of this work – and openly acknowledged the influence of the Dutch artist. The tables had turned.
The artist Harold Gilman admitted that he kept a print of Van Gogh’s self-portrait on his studio wall, Before he painted, he would mutter the words, “Cheers – to you, Van Gogh”.
Van Gogh painted his iconic ‘Sunflowers’ in 1888 to decorate his house in Arles in the south of France. The painting was shown in major exhibitions in London in 1910 and 1923 – and was bought by the National Gallery London in 1924.
It is most definitely the star of the Tate show and its bright colours and radiance continue to shine brightly despite our familiarity with the painting.
During the 1920s, Van Gogh’s still lifes sparked a revival of flower painting among modern artists in Britain. Many of these works are shown in the second part of the Tate exhibition alongside Van Gogh’s masterpiece.
There’s a huge room devoted to British flower painters who tried to riff off Van Gogh with their own images of flowers, including Christopher Wood, Frank Brangwyn and Spencer Gore.
Unfortunately these works look lacklustre when seen in the same room as the great Dutch painter.
Van Gogh gave his flowers an arrogant spirit and power, previously unseen in European art. Before Van Gogh, flower paintings had been seen as sentimental or decorative works. Now they breathed life and had a real presence.
Even a decent stab at a Van Gogh style flower painting by the normally strident David Bomberg looks pale by comparison next to Van Gogh’s masterpiece.
I’m guessing that quite a lot of people who bought the £22 tickets for the show whizzed through this section of the exhibition.
The trouble is that Van Gogh is such a force of nature that everyone else pales alongside his work.
The only artist who comes close to equalling Van Gogh is the great British artist Francis Bacon who has several strong works in the show, each with a nod to Van Gogh’s influence.
But even Bacon’s ‘Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh’ plays homage to the great man with surprising deference and simplicity.
Van Gogh’s Journey
The biggest selling point of the Van Gogh exhibition is that there are more than 50 works by the painter himself including several works rarely seen on wider public display.
Like many art shows in London over the last few years, you can’t help feeling as if there are too many ‘fillers’ to pad out the exhibition.
‘Starry Night’ and ‘Sunflowers’ are the stars of the show but they eclipse lesser works by the British artists which look ordinary.
Looking on the bright side, the Tate show brings together the largest group of Van Gogh paintings shown in the UK for nearly a decade with works from public and private collections around the world.
They include Van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait’ from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, ‘L’Arlésienne’ ‘from the Museum of Art in São Paolo, and ‘Starry Night on the Rhône’ from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The rarely loaned ‘Sunflowers’ from the National Gallery, London is the icing on the cake.
‘Van Gogh and Britain’ proves that the artist did have a lust for London life, but I’m not entirely convinced that the English influence on him was as strong as argued in the exhibition.
Vincent Van Gogh was such a powerful, individualist artist that it’s hard to make a compelling case. But there’s no doubt that his influence on British artists – and the rest of the art world – was huge.
Van Gogh and Britain runs at the Tate Britain from 27 March to 11 August, 2019.
Tickets are £22 with concessions for students, the elderly and unwaged. Open daily. Advance booking is advised.
The nearest Tube station is Pimlico or take the number 88 bus from Trafalgar Square or Regent Street which stops at the rear of the gallery.