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VINCENT VAN GOGH

At the exhibition of the Indépendants, amid some successful attempts


and, above all, amid much banality and even more shame, shine brightly the
canvases by the greatly lamented Vincent van Gogh. And, in front of them,
before this black crepe that frames them in mourning and draws them to the
attention of the indifferent crowd of passersby, one is struck by great sadness
to think that this painter, so magnificently gifted, so highly sensitive, so
instinctive, so visionary an artist—is no longer among us. The loss of him is a
cruel one, far more painful and irreparable for art than that of M. Meissonier,
even though people were not invited to an ostentatious memorial service, and
even though poor Vincent van Gogh, with whom a beautiful flame of genius
had died, went as unknown and neglected to his death as he had lived his
unjust life.
Moreover, he ought not to be judged by the few paintings currently
exhibited at the Pavillon de la Ville de Paris, despite the fact that they seem
quite superior in intensity of vision, in richness of expression, and in power of
style, to all those surrounding them. Certainly, I am not insensitive to the
researches on light by M. Georges Seurat, whose seascapes, with their
exquisite, profound luminosity, I like very much. I find a very lively electric
atmosphere, the feminine grace, the bright elegance of M. van Rysselberghe. I
am attracted to M. Denis’s small compositions, of so soft a tone, enveloped in
such tender mysticism. I recognize, in M. Armand Guillaumin’s limited and
unimaginative Realism a fine touch, as they say, of honest and sturdy
technical qualities. And despite the blacks with which he unduly soils his
figures, M. de Toulouse-Lautrec shows a real power, spiritual and tragic, in
his study of physiognomies and penetrating character studies. M. Lucien
Pissarro’s engravings have verve, sobriety, and distinction. Even M. Anquetin,
amid obvious derivations, academic conventions, flawed eccentricities,
caricatured uglinesses, at times offers us a nice glimpse of light—as in the
Parisian horizon in the canvas titled Pont des Saint-Pères--and skillful
harmonies of gray, as in one portrait of a woman. But none of these
uncontestable artists—with whom one ought not confuse M. Signac, whose
loud, dry, pretentious incompetence is irritating—captivate me as much as
Vincent van Gogh. In his case I sense that I am in the presence of someone
higher, more masterful, someone who disturbs me, moves me, and compels
recognition.
It is perhaps not yet the time to tell the story of Vincent van Gogh as it
ought to be told. His death is too recent, and it was too tragic. The memories I
would evoke would revive the grief, which still brings tears. Therefore this
study will be necessarily incomplete, for what was great and unexpected as
well as too violent and excessive in the harsh yet delightful talent of Vincent
van Gogh, is intimately bound up with the fatal mental illness that predestined
him, still young, to death.
His life was quite disconcerting. At first he entered the art trade with his
brother, who likewise met an early death, who ran the branch of Goupil’s on
the boulevard Montmartre. He was a restless, tormented spirit, full of vague
yet ardent inspirations, perpetually drawn to the summits where the human
mysteries reveal themselves. No one knew then what stirred to him of the
apostle or the artist; he himself didn’t know. He soon left the trade to study
theology. He had, it seemed, a strong literary background and a natural
tendency toward mysticism. These new studies seemed, for a time, to have
given his soul the direction it craved. He preached. His voice echoed in the
pulpits, among the crowds. But he soon suffered disillusionment. Before long,
preaching seemed to him to be a vain thing. He did not feel close enough to
the souls he wished to convert; his words blazing with love bounced off the
walls of chapels and hearts without penetrating them. He thought that
teaching would be more effective, and, forsaking preaching, he left for
London, where he established himself as a primary-school teacher. For a few
months, he taught the little children the ways of God.
Obviously, this all seems rather strange and disjointed; yet it is easily
explained. The imperious artist within him, of which he was then still
unaware, submerged itself in the apostle, lost itself in the evangelist, and
wandered through dream-forests foreign and obscure to him. He felt that an
invincible force was summoning him somewhere, but where? . . . that a light
would illuminate somewhere at the end of his darkness, but when? There
resulted a moral disequilibrium that drove him to the most incongruous
actions, and the farthest from himself. It was upon his return from London that
his vocation burst forth all of a sudden. He began to paint one day by chance.
And it happened that, straight off, this first canvas was almost a masterpiece.
It revealed an extraordinary painter’s instinct, marvelous and powerful
qualities of vision, a keen sensibility that divined the living and restless form
beneath the rigid appearance of things, and an eloquence and abundance of
imagination that astounded his friends. Then Vincent van Gogh went to work
in earnest. Work, without respite, work with all its obstinacies and all its
raptures, seized hold of him. A need to produce, to create, took over the life,
without stopping, without rest, as though he would make up for lost time. That
lasted for seven years. And death came, tragically, to cut down his beautiful
human flower. He left behind, the poor deceased, with all the hopes that such
an artist could inspire, a considerable body of work, close to four hundred
canvases and an enormous quality of drawings, of which many are absolute
masterpieces.
Van Gogh was of Dutch origin, from the homeland of Rembrandt, whom
he seems to have greatly loved and admired. If one wished to cite an artistic
lineage to this temperament of abundant originality, this ardor, this
hyperaesthetic sensibility that was guided only by his personal impressions,
one could perhaps say that Rembrandt would be his favored ancestor, the one
in whom he most felt himself reborn. One rediscovers in his numerous
drawings not resemblances [to Rembrandt] but a similar exasperated worship
of the same forms and a parallel richness of linear invention. Van Gogh does
not always adhere to the discipline nor to the sobriety of the Dutch master;
but he often equals his eloquence and his prodigious ability to render life. Of
Van Gogh’s unique artistic sensibility we have a very precise and quite
valuable indication: namely, the copies that he executed after various
paintings by Rembrandt, Delacroix, Millet. They are admirable. But they are
not, strictly speaking, copies, these exuberant and imposing restitutions. They
are, rather, interpretations through which the painter manages to recreate the
work of others, to make them his own while preserving their original spirit
and special character. In the Sower, by Millet but rendered with such
superhuman beauty by Van Gogh, the movement is accentuated, the vision is
broadened, the line is amplified to a symbolic significance. That which is
Millet remains in the copy; but Vincent van Gogh has introduced something of
his own through which the painting immediately takes on a look of a new
grandeur. It is quite certain he brought to his observation of nature the same
mental habits and superior creative gifts that he brought to these
masterpieces of art. He could neither forget his personality nor contain it,
whatever the spectacle or materialized dream before him. It overflowed from
him in ardent inspirations over everything he saw, everything he touched,
everything he felt. He was not, however, absorbed in nature; rather he had
absorbed nature within himself: he forced it to become more supple, to mold
itself to the forms of his thought, to follow him in his flights of fancy, to
submit, even, to his characteristic distortions. To a rare degree, Van Gogh
possessed that which distinguishes one man from another: style. In a crowd of
paintings jumbled together, the eye, at a single glimpse, recognizes with
certainty, those of Vincent van Gogh, just as it recognizes those of Corot,
Manet, Degas, Monet, Monticelli, because they have a particular genius which
cannot be otherwise, and which is style—that is, the affirmation of
personality. And everything under the brush of this strange and powerful
creator is animated by a strange life, independent of that of the things he
paints, a life that is in him and that is him. He expends himself totally, on
behalf of the trees, skies, flowers, and fields that he swells to capacity with
the astonishing sap of his being. These forms multiply, run wild, writhe,
extending even to the formidable madness of his skies where drunken
celestial bodies spin and waver, where the stars stretch into disorderly rows
of comets. Yet even in the upheaval of these fantastic flowers that rear up and
tuft their feathers like demented birds, Van Gogh always maintains his
wonderful qualities as a painter and a nobility that is moving, as well as a
tragic grandeur that is terrifying. And, in the moments of calm, what serenity
in the great sunlit plains, in the orchards in bloom, where the plum and the
apple trees snow down joy, where the goodness of life radiates from the earth
in flutters of light and expands into the tender paleness of peaceful skies and
their refreshing breezes. Oh, how he understood the exquisite soul of flowers:
How delicate becomes the hand that had carried such fierce torches into the
dark firmament when it comes to bind these fragrant and fragile bouquets!
And what caresses has he not found to express their inexpressible freshness
and infinite grace?
And how well he also understood the sadness, unknown and divine, in the
eyes of the poor, mad, and sick that were his brethren !