The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night by Vincent van Gogh
Modern decorative artists have not been unmoved by Van Gogh. His surfaces have proved helpful to the young Parisian painters, Denis, Ranson, Sérusièr, and Bonnard, and his brush-stroke to the most important of modern ornamentists, Van de Velde. Van Gogh has sifted out from the great epoch of the Impressionists not all, but some highly important results, destined to a far-reaching influence even outside the sphere of abstract painting to which this school confined itself.
If we keep this connection in view and trace the road back from Van Gogh to his greatest exemplar, the beloved master of Barbizon appears in a new light deeply intertwined with all that moves us to-day. Van Gogh drew Millet into the radiant circle of Manet, Monet, and Cézanne, who were in danger of forgetting him, and reminded them what Millet’s great fructifier, Daumier, had possessed of pictorial power.
And at the same time, this last of the great Dutchmen who had drifted to a foreign haven maintained his national tradition. He brought back to it what it had lent to the great French generation of 1830, remaining faithful to its noblest law: that we must follow Nature, and more especially our own nature.
For Van Gogh it was a kind of haven, and I pass over the superfluous question how much he added to Millet, or Millet to him. It was not poverty of invention that drew him to Millet and Delacroix, but rather an excess of productive energy, which he was only able to curb by keeping it within the limits of a prescribed alien form. Let us hear what he says himself in one of his letters:
“Eussé-je eu les forces pour continuer, j’aurais fait des saints et des saintes femmes d’après nature, qui auraient paru d’un autre âge: ç’auraient été des bourgeois d’ à présent, ayant pourtant des rapports avec des chrétiéns fort primitifs. –Les émotions que cela cause sont cependant trop fortes. J’y resterais.
“Mais plus tard, plus tard je ne dis pas que je ne viendrai pas à la charge. . . . Il ne faut pas songer à tout cela, il faut faire, fût-ce des études de choux et de salade pour se calmer, et après avoir été calmé, alors . . . ce dont on sera capable.”
Well, he painted his saints, after all. Every picture he painted was holy ecstasy, even when the theme was a bunch of lettuces.
A primitive in a sense we can hardly conceive nowadays, lived in this creature. For years he had dreams of a great association of artists. He believed that an individual could do nothing of permanent value, and longed for works “that transcend the powers of the individual.” He frequently begged his friends Gauguin and Bernard to come to Arles and collaborate with him. One was to undertake composition, another colour, etc.
The project had also become an idée fixe with his brother. Theodore van Gogh, the younger of the two, who provided for Vincent’s material wants with touching affection, had slowly gained over Boussod et Valadon to the Impressionists; he arranged exhibitions of Pissarros, Seurats, Monets, Renoirs and the rest, and contributed not a little to their con- quest of the public. The brothers wished to found a society which should exhibit the best works of the moderns in the large towns of France and of foreign countries, giving fit representation to recognised painters, and the means of living and working to the others. All that was lacking was a generous banker to provide the funds.
Vincent found in Millet the basis of a primitive popular art, models for portraits of humanity. He made the gravity of Millet graver, I might almost say more Lutheran. The ancient Greek spirit which breathes from many of Millet’s soft pencil drawings like a natural sound, gives place in him to a gigantic, almost a barbaric instinct, in relation to which the Millet form appears only as a softening element.
There is nothing classical about him; he reminds us rather of the early Gothic stonemasons; the technique of his drawings is that of the old wood-carvers; some of his faces look as if they had been cut with a blunt knife in hard wood. The ugliness of his personages, the “mangeurs de pommes de terre,” carries the primitive ruggedness of the older painters to the region of the colossal, where it occasionally resembles materialised phantoms of horror. He projected such things as La Berceuse not for amateurs, but for common folks, and it was one of his–all too natural–disappointments, that no peasant would give himself up to sitting. * In his painted portraits, the hard wood of the drawings seems sometimes to be blent with gleaming metal.
Schuffenecker owns the most masterly of his portraits of himself. No-one who has seen this tremendous head with the square forehead, the staring eyes and despairing jaw can ever forget it. It is so full of a terrible grandeur of line, colour, and psychology, that it takes away one’s breath, and it is hard to know whether one is repelled by its monstrous exaggeration of beauty, or by the lurking madness in the head that conceived it.