The featured quote, “I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people,” shows what art means to Vincent Van Gogh. For him, art is an expression of feeling. Whether the feeling be love, happiness, instability, or tortured pain, Van Gogh strove to convey his emotional and spiritual state in each of his artworks. His personal expression is brought to life in paint through a sense of movement in his works. He used impulsive, gestural applications of paint and colors to express subjective emotions. The visible brushstrokes in his paintings illuminate how Van Gogh viewed each scene, interpreted through his eyes, mind, and heart.
For Van Gogh, art is catharsis, a process of releasing and providing relief from strong or repressed emotions. Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes and delusions deemed him a madman and a failure in his lifetime. His mental instability influenced the emotional representations of his surroundings, which led him to infuse each painting with a deep psychological reflection and resonance of the world around him. Over time, he came to believe that the effect of color went beyond the descriptive and could be used to express something in itself.1 He said, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.”2 This is seen in The Night Café, a work in which he wanted to express the terrible passions of humanity. To him, the color yellow symbolized emotional truth, sunlight, life, and God. In this painting, he tried to “express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.”3
One of Van Gogh’s main themes in his artworks is the articulation of the inner spirituality of man and nature. This led to a fusion of style and content that resulted in dramatic, imaginative, rhythmic, and emotional artworks that conveyed a deeper meaning than the mere appearance of the subject. In a sense, Van Gogh believe in a similar sort of divine inspiration as Plato did. According to Hughes, “[Van Gogh’s] belief that a power existed behind the natural led him to try to capture a sense of that power, or the essence of nature in his art, sometimes through the use of symbols.”4 This can be seen in his collection of self-portraits. His self-portraits reflect a high degree of self-inspection and physiognomical representations. At times, he may have painted these as a form healing or it may have been the result of a lack of models.
Ultimately, art for Van Gogh was an expression of feeling and emotions. Art acted as an outlet for his unstable emotional state and his personal experience. Today, his emotionally evocative style continues to inspire artists and movements, immortalizing his importance in the twentieth century. His methods and practices came to define many subsequent modern movements from Fauvism to Abstract Expressionism.
1. Van Gogh (2009), Letter 537. Vincent to Theo, Nuenen, on or about Wednesday, 28 October 1885.
2. Vincent Van Gogh Style and Technique. (2015, May 07). Retrieved February 19, 2017, from http://www.artble.com/artists/vincent_van_gogh/more_information/style_and_technique
3. Tralbaut (1981), 266.
4. Hughes (2002), 8–9.