Arguably no other artist has captured people's imaginations like Vincent van Gogh. His life and work continue to fascinate, as the overwhelming success of his recent (1999) touring exhibition of portraits testifies. Few other modern artists before Andy Warhol (with the possible exceptions of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp) have created a body of work that is so inseparable from the facts and myths of the artist's life and persona. Van Gogh's unbridled passion and ecstatic contemplation of life, nature, and art, his intense spirituality and religious zeal, his generous, ardent, and sincere disposition, and especially, his violent and enigmatic illnesses and suicide at age thirty-seven have all contributed to powerful and often inaccurate myths that can obscure a clear understanding of the important painter.
Filtering the myths for facts is a serious task, for, although we know more about Van Gogh than we do about most other artists of his (or any) generation–from the almost obsessive exchange of letters between him and his brother and best friend Theo Van Gogh–the wealth of information we have is largely in the form of his own first-person accounts. Van Gogh's letters offer us a poignant and lucid view into the remarkable artist's personal struggles and complex psychology, but little objective information from other parties has been found. These diaristic letters are, in many ways, a response to a world that he embraced and loved fervently but in which he felt isolated due to his unwavering, almost evangelical, artistic mission and his affliction.
Van Gogh was a professional failure during his lifetime. Although enormously respected by fellow artists and exhibited in several shows, in his brief but dynamic ten-year career as an artist, he sold very few paintings to someone other than his brother. The public was almost entirely disinterested in the man who we now consider a genius–outside a small circle of artists, critics, friends, doctors, and family members, he was virtually unknown and unrecognized as anything other than a lonely and ridiculous madman, a failure at every enterprise he pursued so vigorously.
To understand the tremendous impact Van Gogh's work and life have had on art history and the modern cultural conception of "the artist," it is important first to examine the artistic and cultural environment with which he was acquainted and his relation to post-Impressionism, the period with which he is most closely associated. Of all the -isms that populate art history and that pretend to describe, organize, and categorize trends and styles, post- Impressionism certainly ranks among the most vague and least helpful. Coined by English critic Roger Fry in 1910, some twenty-five years after the onset of the very period whose varied styles and divergent circumstances the term claimed to characterize, the term "post-Impressionism" refers loosely to the period beginning in the 1880's and ending before the ascendancy of modernism with Fauvism and Cubism some five to ten years after the turn of the century. Hardly a cohesive movement, artists as disparate (and often at odds) as Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Paul Gauguin (with whom Van Gogh had a devastating, violent relationship), shared very little other than a common training and background in Impressionism and a devotion and respect for their Impressionist mentors. Van Gogh himself had some classical training, but no real formal Impressionist training. The primary stylistic influences of the time were neo-Impressionism, also known as Pointillism or Divisionism, Symbolism, a group of French artists known as the Nabis, and Art Nouveau. Not only do these important movements represent quite different visual and conceptual means and ends that belie any attempt to lump them together as stylistic facets of post-Impressionism, many of the most legendary and influential post-Impressionist artists, including Cezanne and Van Gogh, are singular figures who don't really fit neatly into any of these established post-Impressionist categories. The most overwhelming legacy of post- Impressionism resides primarily in these independent figures along with the formal and conceptual group advances of Symbolism and Art Nouveau.
The contemporaneous development and flourishing of Realism, Impressionism, and early photography in the 1870's ushered in a new rift between the dominant social structure of the times and the radical avant- garde art world. In terms of the plastic arts (i.e. painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, etc.–non-performative arts in physically tangible materials), the roots of modernism lie in the mid-to-late 18th century, when scientism and romanticism overrode Rococo decadence in favor of sobriety and sincerity in painting and sculpture. The French Revolution provided the impetus for avant-garde culture–with the dropout of traditional academic artistic authority, the absolute command and stabilizing (and often stagnating) control that art academies held over the art market gradually dissipated, and the individual artist was presented the option (and sometimes the necessity) of fending for him/herself. The modern archetype (and stereotype) of the starving artist–the rebel, the nonconformist, the outsider, the existentialist–was born, as were a flurry of -isms to describe the groups of artists and the stylistic trends that filled the vacuum left by the academies and their organizing influence. Post-Impressionism augmented and exaggerated this popular conception of the artist that was initially associated with the Impressionists, making possible the very notions of modern art and modern artists that we as a society at large still employ in the often typecast understanding of high art and its strange and tenuous relationship with society, economy, cultural value, and the psychology of creativity and expression. The myths surrounding Van Gogh in particular have shaped this modern archetype of the artist that began with the post-Impressionist period. In effect, modernism proper was made possible by the formal and conceptual progress of post- Impressionism. German and French Expressionism in particular owe much to Van Gogh's influential pictures.
After the French Revolution, Neo-Classicism flourished at the hands of artists like Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and the dramatic classical themes these artists revived influenced Romantic artists like Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Eugene Delacroix, Caspar David Friedrich, and Joseph Mallord William Turner to turn more inward in paintings that explored themes of violence, dreams, madness, and pre-Freudian psychosexual drama. The Romantic concern with the triumph of emotion over intellect shifted subject matter with Realist painters Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet, who scandalized the academy artists with their frank depiction of simple peasant life and nature themes as opposed to the grandeur and epic scope of Romantic painting motifs. However, the Realist painters still maintained strong vestiges of Romanticism and idealization in their work, a trend destroyed with the 1863 Salon des Refuses exhibition of Edouard Manet's groundbreaking Luncheon on the Grass, a painting that outraged with its flat, non- illusionary space and colors and its scandalous depiction of a brightly lit nude woman lunching with clothed men. By 1874, triggered by the influence of advances in photography and optics and the Realist rebellion of Manet's stark new formal approach, Impressionism had taken hold under the leadership of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. Van Gogh was very familiar with and influenced by this period of eighteenth and nineteenth century art from his work at an art dealership early in his life.
The varied and critical period between 1886–the year of the last Impressionist exhibit in Paris at the Independents Salon–and 1905, which marked the beginning of Expressionism with the Fauves, is the period generally lumped together under the moniker of "post-Impressionism." Post-Impressionist artists often had very different aims, styles, and concerns, but artists as different as Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the Pointillist Georges Seurat, Symbolists Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gustav Klimt shared an overwhelming interest in the search for new forms. In most cases, trained as Impressionists, these artists were all resolved to transcend what they saw as the passive optical, perceptual recording of the Impressionist painters with active, emotional and intellectual expression of conceptual (as opposed to purely visual or perceptual) ideas and theories. Although frustratingly disorganized, the post- Impressionist period was an absolutely pivotal time of tremendous flux and change that contains the first real glimmerings of modernist thought–the triumph of conceptualism and antinaturalism over optical observation and rendering, and a reweighing and reconsideration of the dichotomies of intellect and emotion, thought and expression.
Despite the tremendous effect Impressionism had on the structure of the art world, it was still a style based on optical observation and the rendering of light effects through paint. Post-Impressionism is significant primarily for the move beyond optical consideration as a primary vehicle for artistic depiction and expression. The work of pioneers like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Toulouse- Lautrec, Redon, Munch, and Ensor is only outweighed by the extraordinary influence their art had on the founders of modernism proper in the early twentieth century. Modernism as a term describes and encompasses three fundamental changes in artistic attitude, practice, and culture precipitated by wide-ranging socio-cultural, political, and scientific developments: (1.) radical changes and innovation in artistic form and content, (2.) a new conception of the legacy and role of artistic tradition and subsequently, the emergence of a distinct, cohesive, and ideologically persuasive avant-garde culture heavily influenced by non-Western culture, and (3.) a new understanding of physical reality in the wake of significant scientific and technological discoveries. These new attitudes are first recognizable in a real, concrete way during the post-Impressionist period. So if post-Impressionism doesn't exactly make sense in terms of stylistic categories or actual visual output, it can be considered a cohesive movement in terms of its underlying conceptual foundation, especially that of Symbolism, and its opening of issues central to later modernist exploration. Vincent van Gogh is responsible for spearheading many of these formal advances.