With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Vincent van Gogh was fanatic about light. "Oh! that beautiful midsummer sun here," he wrote to the painter Émile Bernard in 1888 from the south of France. "It beats down on one's head, and I haven't the slightest doubt that it makes one crazy. But as I was so to begin with, I only enjoy it."
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Van Gogh was also enthralled with night, as he wrote to his brother Theo that same year: "It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day....The problem of painting night scenes and effects on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously."
What van Gogh fixed on, by daylight or at night, gave the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888 Sunflowers, says critic Robert Hughes, "remains much the most popular still life in the history of art, the botanical answer to the Mona Lisa." And van Gogh's visionary landscape The Starry Night, done the next year, has long ranked as the most popular painting at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This inspired the museum, in collaboration with Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, to mount the exhibition "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" (through January 5, 2009). It will then travel to the Van Gogh Museum (February 13-June 7, 2009).
"The van Gogh we usually think of, that painter of the most audacious, crazy, passionate, frenzied, unleashed bursts of brushwork, may be more evident in his daylight paintings," says MoMA's curator for the show, Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro. "But in paintings such as the Arles café at night, his touch is more restrained and you really see his intelligence at work. Despite all the mental anguish and depression he experienced, van Gogh never ceased to enjoy an astonishingly clear self-awareness and consciousness of what he was doing."
In an essay for the exhibition catalog, Pissarro tries to clear up some popular mythology: "Contrary to an enduring misconception of van Gogh as a rough and ready chromomaniac driven by his instincts to render what he saw almost as quickly as he saw it, the artist's twilight and night scenes are actually elaborate constructions that also call on his vast literary knowledge." Van Gogh himself hinted at this in a letter to his sister Wil, written in 1888 as he was painting his first starry night canvas. He was inspired, he said, by imagery in the poems by Walt Whitman he was reading: "He sees...under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God—and eternity in its place above the world."
It seems that van Gogh never dreamed his paintings would become such fixed stars in the art firmament. In 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a pistol shot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic who had praised his work, "It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things." He was then 37 years old, had been painting for less than ten years and had sold next to nothing. In his last letter to Theo, found on the artist at his death, he had written: "Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it, and my reason has half foundered because of it."
Like his paintings, van Gogh's biography has gone into legend. He was born in 1853 in the Netherlands; his father was a minister, his uncles, successful art dealers. He was dismissed while working as a missionary in southwest Belgium for being too zealous and failed as an art salesman by being too honest. When he took up drawing and painting, his originality offended his teachers. One student later described the scene at the Antwerp Academy where van Gogh enrolled: "On that day the pupils had to paint two wrestlers, who were posed on the platform, stripped to the waist. Van Gogh started painting feverishly, furiously, with a rapidity that stupefied his fellow students. He laid on his paint so thickly that his colors literally dripped from his canvas on to the floor." He was promptly kicked out of the class.
But alone in a studio or in the fields, van Gogh's discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with painstaking thoroughness. He copied and recopied lessons from a standard academic treatise on drawing until he could draw like the old masters, before letting his own vision loose in paint. Although he knew he needed the utmost technical skill, he confessed to an artist friend that he aimed to paint with such "expressive force" that people would say, "I have no technique."