Vincent van gogh

A celebration of natural wonders: the best of the year’s art books

If one of the purposes of art is to help us see the world around us, then Sebastião Salgado’s photographs in Amazônia (Taschen, £100) does so in the most spectacular way imaginable. Not only are they ravishing in themselves; they show us sights that very few have ever seen. To take these shots, Salgado trekked deep into the rainforest, sailed the rivers, visited remote tribes and flew over the vast terrain in the helicopters of the Brazilian air force. During those flights he saw immense vistas over trees, billowing cloudscapes and snaking rivers covering an area larger than the EU. The resulting pictures, all the more powerful for being in

Pilferer, paedophile and true great: Gauguin Portraits at the National Gallery reviewed

On 25 November 1895, Camille Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien. He described how he had bumped into his erstwhile protégé, Paul Gauguin, who had explained to him how artists in the future would ‘find salvation by replenishing themselves’ from the works of remote peoples and places. Pissarro was not convinced. Gauguin, he grumbled, was always ‘poaching’ from someone. Once it had been Pissarro and his fellow impressionists, now it was the native peoples of Oceania. Plus ça change… Over the succeeding century and a quarter, Gauguin (1848–1903) has frequently been condemned. The magnificent new exhibition at the National Gallery, Gauguin Portraits, is a treat for the eye, full of

Why don’t we talk about Van Gogh’s Christian faith?

Vincent Van Gogh has been airbrushed by the secular arts media. I have not yet seen the new exhibition at Tate Britain about his London years, so I can only comment on the publicity I have read and heard. This arts chatter downplays, or even ignores, the central feature of his life at this time: his religious zeal. It gives the impression that he was dedicating himself to art, gearing up to be the archetypal creative genius. In reality he did not take art fully seriously in the mid 1870s: though he worked for an art dealer, his real passion was religion. This is not mentioned in the articles about

On Van Gogh and Rembrandt

Being in the south of France obviously gave Vincent an enormous joy, which visibly comes out in the paintings. That’s what people feel when they look at them. They are so incredibly direct. I remember in some of his letters Vincent saying that he was aware he saw more clearly than other people. It was an intense vision… [H]e must have been doing some very concentrated looking. My God! After working for a long time, I get very tired eyes. I just have to close them… Photographs of those fields around Arles that Van Gogh painted wouldn’t interest us much. It’s a rather boring, flat landscape. Vincent makes us see

Outpourings of love and loss

The deserved success of Shaun Usher’s marvellous anthology Letters of Note has inspired several imitators, and Caroline Atkins’s sparkling collection makes an ideal companion volume. Here are missives both literary and otherwise, all of them destined never to be read by their intended recipients. Some are grave, some are tender; some are funny, several are vengeful or self-justifying. It’s a great idea for a book. A letter which goes missing is of course a standard tragedy-inducing device in fiction.  Romeo could have lived had he received Juliet’s letter; but perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is poor Tess Durbeyfield’s to Angel Clare. Never was a flap of carpet responsible for

Occupational hazards

A conservator at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum was recently astonished to find a tiny grasshopper stuck in the paint of Van Gogh’s ‘Olive Trees’ (1889). The discovery would not have surprised Van Gogh, who complained to his brother Theo in 1885: ‘I must have picked up a good hundred flies or more off the four canvases that you’ll be getting.’ On the evidence of a new exhibition of drawings on the theme of Artists at Work at the Courtauld Gallery, insects are the least of the plein-air painter’s problems: the 19th-century protagonist of Eduard Gehbe’s ‘The startled painter’ has been sent flying by a passing roebuck. Animals aside, there’s the

Silent films

On 15 September 1888 Vincent van Gogh was intrigued to read an account of an up-to-date artist’s house in the literary supplement of Le Figaro. This described a purple house in the middle of a garden, the paths of which were made of yellow sand. The walls were glass bricks ‘in the shape of purple eggs’. Such aesthetic dwellings were all the rage; Van Gogh dreamed of having one himself in Arles. But as one learns from an exhibition at Leighton House, it was another 19th-century Dutch artist, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who actually inhabited two such establishments — one off Regent’s Park, the other in St John’s Wood. On paper, Van

Will the real Van Gogh please stand up

Vincent van Gogh spent a remarkably short span of time in the southern French town of Arles. The interval between him stepping off the train from Paris on 20 February 1888 and his departure for the asylum at Saint-Rémy on 8 May the following year was a scant 14-and-a-half months. For some of this time the painter was hospitalised and seriously ill, yet in this brief period he produced not just one, but several of the greatest pictures in the history of art. It might be thought that there was nothing more to discover about Vincent in Arles, a subject that has been so discussed, investigated, dramatised and filmed over

Low life | 10 November 2016

I didn’t fancy the hotel breakfast, so I wandered into Arles old town looking for a café. The weather and the season had changed overnight. The day before had been hot, golden and still. This morning an icy wind was yanking the last of the dying leaves from the plane trees and my thin canvas jacket was no defence against it. Choosing a café at random on the Place du Forum, I pushed through the glass door and took a seat in the warmth of the café’s conservatory. Three other customers were inside, lingering over their coffee. I chose a bench seat, from where I could look south across the

First impressions | 21 July 2016

The last boat I saw in the galleries on the Mound was a canoe that the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen had been using to explore viewpoints around the waterways of London. Now another vessel has sailed in, a full-scale recreation of the studio boat built in 1857 by the French painter Charles-François Daubigny, from the bow of which he ushered in the movement that would come to be known as impressionism. Daubigny, a now sorely neglected artist, established an entirely novel approach to landscape painting that was to influence Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne and also, quite explicitly, Van Gogh. Inspiring Impressionism has an admirably clear narrative and it places Daubigny

Wild at heart | 21 January 2016

At the Louvre the other day there was a small crowd permanently gathered in front of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. They constantly took photographs of the picture itself, and sometimes of themselves standing in front of it. No such attention was given to the other masterpieces of French painting hanging nearby, including many by Delacroix. This painting from 1830 — with its glamorous, bare-breasted personification of liberté, Tricolore in hand, followed by heroic representatives of the working and middle classes — has become an international shorthand for France itself. Whether or not this is a valid symbol of the country, it is a misleading guide to Delacroix’s own feelings

Why would a dissolute rebel like Paul Gauguin paint a nativity?

A young Polynesian woman lies outstretched on sheets of a soft lemon yellow. She is wrapped in deep blue cloth, decorated with a golden star. Beside her bed sits a hooded figure, apparently an older woman, holding a baby. In the background is a huddle of resting cows, suggesting that the setting is a barn or stable. There is something familiar about the set-up — baby, young mother, farm animals — but it may take a while to notice certain details. The head of the woman on the bed is encircled by an area of darker yellow, which forms a sort of halo, and the baby’s head is similarly ringed

From cave painting to Maggi Hambling: the best Christmas art books

It’s been a memorably productive year for art books (I have published a couple myself), but certain volumes stand out. Chief among the illustrated monographs is Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath by James Cahill (Unicorn Press, £30), a spirited examination of this wonderfully unpredictable artist. The book focuses on her recent paintings and sculptures, many on the theme of war. Art history meets forthright artistic statement, and it’s fascinating to see Cahill’s intellect in dialogue with Hambling’s visceral art. As she says: ‘Real art is the opposite of mere observation or reportage. It takes you to another place.’ Perhaps the greatest living writer on art, and thus the most

Where Van Gogh learned to paint

In December 1878 Vincent Van Gogh arrived in the Borinage, a bleak coal- mining district near Mons. He was 25 years old. He’d failed to become an art dealer. He’d failed to become a schoolteacher. Drawing was just a hobby — an artistic career was the last thing on his mind. He’d come here as a preacher, full of evangelical fervour, yet he proved a failure at that too. The problem was, he was far too pious. He gave away everything he owned. These miners didn’t know what to make of him. They called him ‘the Christ of the coal mines’. After six months, he was fired. With nowhere else

Mr Turner: the gruntiest, snortiest, huffiest film of the year – and the most beautiful too

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Tom Marks, editor of Apollo magazine, talks to Mike Leigh”] Listen [/audioplayer]Mr Turner may be the gruntiest film of the year, possibly the gruntiest film ever. ‘Grunt, grunt, grunt,’ goes Mr Turner (Timothy Spall) as he sketches, paints, gropes his housekeeper, woos a Margate landlady, winds up John Constable something rotten. But what I now know is that when you have Spall doing the grunting, and Mike Leigh at the helm, as both writer and director, such gruntiness can be quite sublime, as can snorting and huffing. This is a biopic of the painter J.M.W. Turner, ‘master of light’, and the greatest painter that ever lived according to

Why everyone loves Rembrandt

Talking of Rembrandt’s ‘The Jewish Bride’ to a friend, Vincent van Gogh went — characteristically — over the top. ‘I should be happy to give ten years of my life,’ he exclaimed, ‘if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.’ Without undergoing such rigours, visitors to Rembrandt: the Late Works at the National Gallery next month will be able to see the picture that drove Vincent to such a paroxysm of enthusiasm, along with many other masterpieces from the artist’s last years. It may be that in recent decades other 17th-century masters — Caravaggio

When Van Gogh lived in London

Eighty-seven Hackford Road, SW9, is unremarkable but for a blue plaque telling the world that Vincent van Gogh once lived there. The building has been empty since 2012 but now the Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wolbers has filled it with voices. ‘Yes, these Eyes are the Windows’ (until 22 June) is an Artangel-commissioned installation that explores the line between fact and fiction by telling the story of this terraced house from when a 19-year-old van Gogh was a tenant there in the 1870s to the present day. As a visitor, you enter a dimly lit hallway. You are held there for what can be only a few minutes but feels

The selfie from Akhenaten to Tracey Emin

If ever there was a time to write a book about self-portraits, this must be it.  ‘Past interest in the genre,’ James Hall tells us in his introduction to this cultural history, ‘is overshadowed by the obsession with self-portraiture during the last 40 years.’ What he could not have foreseen was that self-portraiture would feature in the mainstream news as never before over the last six months or so. Firstly, the Oxford English Dictionary announced that ‘selfie’ was their word of the year for 2013, spawning a noisy debate about photographic self-portraiture. Next, David Cameron, Barack Obama and Helle Thorning-Schmidt were spotted taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service

The Sunflowers Are Mine, by Martin Bailey – review

‘How could a man who has loved light and flowers so much and has rendered them so well, how could he have managed to be so unhappy?’ This was Claude Monet’s comment on seeing Van Gogh’s ‘Three Sunflowers’ (1888). There he put his finger on one of the enigmas of the Dutch painter’s tragic life. The journalist and scholar Martin Bailey has written an admirable new book which tells the story of Van Gogh’s life and posthumous rise to fame through the pictures of sunflowers, Helianthus annuus, which the painter produced at intervals through his brief career. Following Monet’s thought, one might go on to wonder how someone as isolated