Skulls and Sunflowers: Van Gogh in Paris

In February 1886, the thirty-three year old Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris with nothing but a cheap suitcase and a letter. The letter was for his younger brother Theo, the artist’s closest confidante and lifetime patron. In it, Vincent pleaded for somewhere to stay.  “Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden,” it read. “Will be at the Louvre from midday, or earlier if you like…” Theo was enjoying some success as a Montmartre-based art dealer, and had spent the previous six years funding his brother’s creative enterprises in England and Holland with no hope of being repaid; but, unusually for a businessman working in Paris, he was also a man of loyalty and kindness. With what must have been a deep sigh, he took Vincent in, and for the next two years the brothers lived together, initially on Rue Victor Massé and then on Rue Lepic, at the foot of the Butte Montmartre. It would be an understatement to say that van Gogh tended to suffer from bad luck throughout his life, but he was at least lucky enough to have a brother like this one; not only was the penniless artist allowed to stay rent-free, but he was soon personally introduced to many of the more interesting avant-garde artists of the day. On top of that, Theo used his position to endorse his brother’s efforts (although he never actually managed to sell anything). The generosity he shows on this occasion, and many others besides, reminds us of Theo’s quietly heroic place in the famous van Gogh story; only Stanislaus Joyce can match him for such saintly devotion to a brilliant but irresponsible brother. Without the usual financial constraints, Vincent was able to immerse himself completely in this heady new world, and to become, in the most meaningful sense, a real artist. If a line of progress were to be drawn from Antwerp to Arles, from the noble but dull attempts of his early years to the Provence masterpieces and all their lavish, dissonant visual music, that line would run directly through Paris, more specifically through the salons and garrets of Montmartre.


For any fledgling artist of the time, a trip to Paris was essential. Paris was the quintessentially modern city: liberal, vulgar, cosmopolitan, image-hungry, self-obsessed, and rich. Van Gogh was never one for the high life, but the opportunity to live and work in what Victor Hugo called “the microcosm of general history” was impossible to ignore. Antwerp had been his previous spot, a pretty but gloomy port town. His time there had been spent drawing and painting, writing letters, studying Japanese woodblock prints and the Old Masters of the Netherlands, and drinking absinthe in dismal shipyard cafés. He had been enrolled in the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, but he rarely attended classes; following an argument with his teacher, he had managed to get himself kicked out. By the time his January rent was due, Vincent was in despair. He was as down-and-out as he’d ever been. His tobacco-stained teeth were falling out; he was weak, filthy, depressed, and completely broke – and still he hadn’t sold a single painting. He had fallen under bad influences, too, in art as well as in life: his highest admiration was for figures like Corot and Daubigny, both of whom were important members of the Barbizon school, a group of mostly French artists from the previous generation who placed great emphasis on nature and outdoor labour. His work of the period is dominated by the motif, pinched from Millet’s The Gleaners, 1857, of peasants bent over a field. But van Gogh had neither the intimate understanding of agricultural ritual that was of such use to the famer’s son Millet, nor had he Daubigny’s technical competence (though he may still have drawn comfort from the latter’s maxim that “the best pictures do not sell”). Only one picture from Antwerp, among the last he produced before he left for France, demonstrates that the artist was breaking away from this muddy traditionalism in favour of new subjects and a more personal style. Skull with Cigarette, 1885, a dark, gothic and supercool image of a smoking skeleton, poised at an angle against a wall of death-like black, is utterly unlike anything he had done before. Playful and surreal, and shockingly contemporary to twenty-first century eyes – it looks like something you’d find on the cover of a prog-rock album, or adorning a sullen teenager’s bedroom wall – the piece can be seen either as a parody of the anatomy-obsessed practices of Antwerp’s conservative tutors or as a portrait of the artist as a sickly, chain-smoking young man. Rendered in thick, swift brushstrokes, the lunar-pale skull at the centre smiles devilishly from atop its edifice of bones and ligaments, a handrolled cigarette stabbed between its exposed incisors. A vision of the dead, of death itself, as stylized and satirical and suave as this one seems to suggest – even more acutely than the tome’s worth of miserable letters he sent to his brother – that van Gogh was ready for a change of scenery, both inner and outer, before he’d ever arrived in Paris.

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And Paris, it turned out, was everything he’d hoped it would be. Though his decision to move there was actuated by financial desperation more than anything else, he nevertheless embraced the city, and was immediately fascinated by the tumbled beauty of the skyline and the energy and music of the streets and above all by the atmosphere of continuous upheaval in the salons and cafés. As soon as he arrived he began posting himself to various beauty spots around town – the Luxembourg Gardens, the old wooden Pont du Carrousel, the banks of the Seine at Asniéres – where he drew sketches and painted, inspired by the en pleine air method pioneered by the Impressionists. The great majority of his landscapes, however, were produced in his own quartier of Montmartre. To a middle-class country boy whose cast of childhood characters included millworkers and farmers as well as teachers, pastors and salesmen, who had lived among painters and diplomats in The Hague, and had furthermore spent time with the luckless workers of Neunen, the enchanting but schizophrenic mini-society of Montmartre, with its assortment of peasant-like grape growers and gardeners atop the butte, and its coterie of prostitutes, pimps, can-can dancers, avant-garde painters and bohemian poets at the bottom, represented the ideal union between his two physical and mental worlds; the rural and provincial on one side, and the urban and thrillingly cosmopolitan on the other. Exposure to personalities of this kind, and to the variously foreign and familiar landmarks of North Paris (the windmills, vineyards, nightclubs, tenement blocks and so on) provided van Gogh with a plethora of reasons to reconsider the unremittingly bleak and humourless vision he had carried with him from the Netherlands.

His early, socially-conscious, brown-on-black miseryscapes had won few admirers – even his ever-agreeable brother found them overly pious and didactic. The Potato Eaters is certainly great, but it reflects the conventional nature of his tastes at the time – what Robert Hughes called the “I-share-your-suffering” school, with its typically “ground-down peasant women and Dutch cloggies grouped around the sacramental potato.” Piety, filth, noble suffering: such things were out of style in late 19th century Paris. Technology above all was the great source of wonder and anxiety, and it followed that the central challenge for the radical artist was to register the impact of that technology; to work into the ancient figurative order these new gods of information and image, of iron and steel and smoke and electricity. In a city defined by empire, capital, and fashion, a city whose coelum was already punctured by the partially-completed Eiffel Tower, it didn’t require more than a casual stroll to feel the future was assembling itself before you, begging to be interpreted.

1886, the year of Vincent’s arrival in the city, was also the year of the eighth ,and final Impressionist exhibition, which featured veterans of the movement like Degas alongside the more striking and provocative work of up-and-comers such as Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, whose immensely famous (thanks in part to the memorable reaction it provoked from Cameron Frye) A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was making its debut. These artists were exponents of what was then called “Neo-Impressionism” and what we now call Pointillism, the method whereby light is broken down and atomised into miniscule dots of contrasting colour. Van Gogh arrived in Paris at the perfect moment, so to speak: just as Impressionism was becoming a received form, and those sparkling green waters and pink misted boulevards that were so radical in Monet’s time – a generation whose regard for the hurried and the nebulous was reflective of the Industrial Revolution’s noisy encroachments, the total destruction and reconstruction of the city by Napoléon III, and the Commune of 1871 – were becoming a little too tired and mannered now that a new, hypermodern century was approaching. Van Gogh could hence acquaint himself with a recent legacy of untold beauty, at the very time it was being disavowed as just that: a legacy. A mind as elevated as his could not make it through the machine of fin de siècle Paris without assimilating the best bits of these connected styles – the flat surfaces and exaggerated bodies of Gauguin, the necklaces of sparkling dots and spots used by the Pointillists, the wash of dusky colours employed by Louis Anquetin – into a beautiful hybrid or synthesis of his elders and betters. Throughout his life he constantly acknowledged his debt, not only to the great masters of decades and centuries before, but to these young visionaries, most of whom now exist, in an art-historical sense, under the great shadow his reputation has cast backwards in time. The nature of his intelligence was, like Leonardo’s, distinguished by its desire for total artistic assimilation. In order to develop a spiritual methodology of his own he understood the need to register everything, to repudiate nothing. The pastor’s son identified his mind’s restlessness with the longing brought on by feelings of love: “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”


Along with his Starry Night, Van Gogh is probably most famous today for the series of sunflower paintings he produced in the final years of his life, especially Sunflowers, 1889, now held in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The razorish shapes of the petals; the vibrancy of the flower-heads whose “faces” point in every direction and weigh down their stems; the stems themselves, whether bent, erect or softly curving, as writhingly alive as any in the history of art; the orgiastic wildness of all that febrile yellow and gold – these factors contribute to the picture’s emotional power, and together with the familiar stories that surround it (the usual stuff about madness, poverty, Gauguin, and the severed ear) suggest the reasons for its continuing celebrity. It is probably the most iconic still-life in the world, and it is certainly one of the artist’s very greatest masterpieces; the finest, most enduring example of his messy fusions of nature and psychology. A painting like this transcends technique; it carries a ghostly surplus value that only ambiguous and abstract and poetic words can account for: heart, soul, spirit, genius, and so on. That surplus, whatever it was, is not present in the sunflowers he painted two years earlier in Paris, when he was still deeply under the influence of Monticelli and his contemporaries, nor is it quite there, for the most part, in the many other pictures of carnations, roses, poppies and Chinese astors he produced at a rapid rate in 1886-7. Often we find glimpses of earlier tendencies, such as in Self-Portrait With Pipe, 1886 – a sombre study of the brooding artist, glaring at us with tragic black eyes (and looking not unlike his smoking skeleton, with added clothes and skin and beard) – and occasionally we are even offered a scintilla of what will later characterize his genius: twenty-something attempts at self-portraiture later, the sharp dashes and slashes that comprise the face in Self-Portrait With Grey Felt Hat, 1887, give us a brilliant, tremulous glance of a mind in motion, not to mention that swirling blue halo which would find a later, more charming expression in Provence’s ethereal dusk. We don’t, however, find the full extent of his particular genius entirely on any Paris canvas – sometimes we find a little of it, but never all.

And this is why studying van Gogh’s Paris period is simultaneously fascinating and disappointing. Between the dusty, nocturnal gloom of his Barbizon-obsessed, Rembrandt-worshiping early career, and the cyclonic force of his late work, the Paris paintings represent a period of maddening inconsistency, however necessary and wilful that inconsistency might have been. For, whatever else he was during these years, he was always the consummate apprentice; humble, open-minded, willing to observe and to learn. It is thrilling to watch him collect influences, then drop them, and then pick them up again in subtler ways. To illustrate this, one needn’t look any further than the view from his apartment on Rue Lepic. “With the various effects produced by variation of the sky, it is a subject for I don’t know how many paintings,” wrote Theo, “and if you were to see it you would even add that it lends itself to making verses.” Vincent evidently agreed with his brother. He painted it once, soon after moving there in the middle of 1886, with manurish oils typical of those he employed in Neunen and Antwerp, and then twice more the following year, this time following his embrace of Signac and Seurat. In the lattermost painting the sky swarms with blues and creamy whites, and the daubs of green that cover the uneven expanse of buildings and their roofs lend an oddly pastoral quality to this most urban of settings, as if these are houses of grass, moss and flowers, ready to collapse at any moment. Van Gogh, however, was no more a Signac than he was a Millet. His dotted view of Paris is pretty, and better than most of the idealized city-scenes that were becoming popular, but it lacks the atmospheric magic of, say, Signac’s Golfe-Juan, 1896. It is certainly interesting to search through the generally unexceptional contents of these years and discover indications of greatness (greatness here referring to the urgent full-body impact we get from Sunflowers, Starry Night, Wheat Field with Crows) but, in the end, van Gogh’s time in Paris was mostly defined by the people he met, the books he read, the methods and ideas he picked up. It was, above all, a period of acquisition, not of composition.

Late in 1887, towards the end of his time in Paris, van Gogh revisited the skull theme for the last time. The dramatic change that had occurred over his two years is nowhere more evident than in this unique image, Skull, 1887. Inevitably recalling the philosophically-loaded cranium of Yorick (we know van Gogh saw at least one production of Hamlet, though it was in Dutch), this Paris skull is as far from its Antwerp prototype as the Arles sunflowers are from his filthy Dutch potatoes; it hisses and howls and screams at us, cackles at us in a nightmarish defiance with which the prince’s term “infinite jest” only begins to cover. It is more radiant, more colourful, yet somehow more unnerving than its ancestor; whereas the Antwerp skull’s dome was a kind of moon, silvery and reflective, the Paris skull is a livid, convulsive, yellow-hot sun. It blazes. It is spiritually and maybe literally on fire. Here, I think, with this image, van Gogh made his most profound breakthrough, the one that would define him forever after. The idea that colour lends itself more purely to horror, to madness, to every kind of suffering, than darkness does; the idea that light contained its own demons; that the perfect expression of these demons could be found in vivid and ecstatic colours more effectively than in sepulchral gloom – these epiphanies freed him up to explore and reproduce the existential, creative and religious despair that had haunted him since he was a boy, despair which no amount of Montmartre windmills or petticoated ladies could beatify out of existence, while still utilizing every gorgeous, glittering modern technique he had picked up and worked with in Paris. From here on, until his death three years later, every image would become a kind of self-portrait, informed by the subtle power observation casts upon the world. The road to Arles, the road that led to the wheat fields and peach trees, the starry nights and sunflowers that we all adore today, had its origins on Rue Lepic, where van Gogh underwent a process of unlearning the nebulous notions he had previously assigned to life and art – picking up some new ones on the way.


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