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What's the big deal with Van Gogh?


If you are a human being on Earth, and not an extremely intelligent dog reading this article, then you've probably heard of Vincent Van Gogh. Even if you haven't, you most likely recognize some of his paintings, which are among the most famous pieces in all of art history. But while everyone can identify a Van Gogh, the average person might think - "What's the big deal, anyway?" In this era of Instagram and Photoshop, any shmuck can take a selfie or a picture of some sunflowers. So what is it that makes his work so enduring and well-loved?

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night.

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night.

The life, times, and psyche of Van Gogh

To begin with, it helps to know a little bit about Van Gogh's life and personality. He was born in the Netherlands in 1853 and had quite a varied career - working as a school-teacher in England, then a missionary in Belgium, amongst other things - before moving to France and devoting himself to painting. His was a wild, emotionally tormented existence - he sympathized with the poor, fell in and out of love, struggled with depression, and became increasingly drawn into religion and spirituality. Van Gogh was a man who felt all things deeply, swinging from soul-crushing despair at the state of humanity to transcendental joy at the beauty of nature and God. These themes are reflected in his paintings: his honest portrayals of peasant life, his frowning self-portraits, and perhaps most famously of all, his lush, riotously colorful depictions of flowers, landscapes, and starlit skies.

Van Gogh and Expressionism

The popular school of painting in Van Gogh's time was Impressionism, which you may gather was about capturing the impression of life - fleeting moments of light playing on water, passersby in the park, or the pose of a dancer. Van Gogh, however, could be more accurately described as an expressionist*. For him, painting was an act of catharsis. Look closely at a Van Gogh painting and you'll see that the paint is applied with a generous hand - not so much delicate brushstrokes as globs of paint spread and carved to his liking. You can almost imagine him dashing on the paint in a frenzy of genius, his hand barely able to keep up with the visions in his mind's eye. This imperfect, even messy style gives his paintings a unique warmth and vibrancy that resonate with art lovers to this day.

This approach to painting was in fact pretty revolutionary for the time. Most of his contemporaries were painting with the goal of creating a pleasing or striking image, often by experimenting with technique and color, but not necessarily conveying a feeling or message about their subject matter. Van Gogh, on the other hand, painted emotion into every brushstroke - whether it was love, reverence, or anxiety. Art as a form of self-expression seems pretty obvious today, but in his time, it was a fairly uncommon concept.

*Technically Van Gogh is classified as a Post-Impressionist and not an Expressionist, which is most usually associated with the later eponymous German school of art. Principally, however, his art can be defined as Expressionist.

A close-up of a Van Gogh painting. Notice how the paint is thick and sticks up from the surface in ridges and bumps.

A close-up of a Van Gogh painting. Notice how the paint is thick and sticks up from the surface in ridges and bumps.

Death and legacy

Sadly, despite the joy Van Gogh took in painting and the beauty of rural France, his mental health continued to deteriorate. He took his own life in 1890, at just 37 years of age. During his lifetime, his paintings received little acclaim. Only some years after his death did they gain popular notice and begin to have a significant influence on art. His work helped give rise to the school of Expressionism and later abstract art, which can be said to have defined the 20th century. Van Gogh's legacy cannot be understated.

Millions of people continue to derive joy from his paintings. One can have no understanding of art history or technique whatsoever, but appreciate the beauty and love inherent in his work. The perspective in his paintings is illuminating - where others looked up and saw a black canvas with the occasional dim star, he saw a sky awash in swirling, ethereal light. He transformed the mundane - a tuft of grass, or an empty bedroom - into images that burst with life. Perhaps we're also enamored by the man behind the canvas, the eccentric genius who struggled - as we all do - to find meaning and goodness in life. Though his life was tragically short, his paintings serve as a lasting window into his brilliant, troubled, and fascinating mind.

"If one loves nature one finds beauty everywhere.” - Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers


Diana Abrahamson on February 26, 2016:

I have always admired the paintings of Van Gogh. Love the exaggerated brush work, as you depicted on your hub.

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