At the end of the 19th century, in the years when the fashion for photographic portraits spread, the great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) stubbornly defended the pictorial portrait, arguing that “painted portraits have a life of their own that originates from soul of the painter and that no machine can capture.” It was in Arles, in particular, that Vincent painted his most famous portraits. These paintings, for the colors, backgrounds, settings, appear quite realistic to us; then, if we look at them more carefully, we understand that the apparent tranquility of those characters hides something much deeper: the sensations, the emotions of the artist himself.
The Portrait Of The Postman Roulin
In the Portrait of the postman Roulin, for example, the character is depicted posing, in his beautiful uniform with many shades of blue, enlivened by the gold inserts of the buttons and decorations. More than himself, Roulin seems to want to play a role that Van Gogh had thought for him. The postman was in fact a wise man, calm and reassuring and in some way he took care of the artist; Vincent, in a letter to Theo, compared him to the Greek philosopher Socrates.
About him he wrote to his brother Theo:
“Roulin is certainly not old enough to be a father to me, and yet he shows towards me that particular gravity and tenderness that an old soldier could have towards a young one. [He is not] a man neither bitter, nor sad, nor perfect, nor happy, nor always blamelessly fair. But he is such a good person, so wise and full of soul, and so confident. “
The Portrait of Patience Escalier
In another letter to Theo, Vincent refers to a portrait of him, taking the pretext to express some considerations regarding his own painting. This is the Portrait of Patience Escalier, a former cowherd, later a gardener, whom Van Gogh met in Arles. The work Vincent talks about in the letter is now part of a private collection. A second version is located in Pasadena, California at The Norton Simon Museum of Art.
“My dear Theo, you will soon meet Messer Patience Escalier, a kind of man of the fields, an old Camargue cowherd, currently a gardener in a farm in the Crau. Today I am sending you the drawing I took from that study, as well as the drawing of the portrait of the postman Roulin. […] Now you have changed, but you will see that he has not changed, and it is a real shame that there are no more pictures in clogs in Paris.
I do not think my farmer can disfigure for example with the Lautrec you have, and I even dare to believe that the Lautrec will immediately become even more distinct by contrast, and mine too will gain from the strange combination, because the burnt and tanned skin from the great sun and open air will stand out even more next to the rice dust and elegant dressing table. […] Except that I find that what I learned in Paris goes away and I return to the ideas that came to me in the countryside, before meeting the Impressionists.
I would not be in the least surprised if the Impressionists soon found fault with my way of painting, which was fertilized more by Delacroix’s ideas than by theirs. Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have in front of my eyes, I use color in a more arbitrary way to express myself with intensity.”
The Distancing From The Impressionists
Already in this excerpt of the letter some very interesting data emerge: the distancing from the Impressionists, first of all, although they had played a fundamental role in his discovery of color; the clear perception of belonging more to the great family of romantic artists than to that of realists; the theorization of arbitrary color and the connotation of one’s art as “expressive”.
The Arbitrary Color
To explain to Theo what he meant by arbitrary color, in the same letter Vincent imagined that he wanted to paint the portrait of a dreamer artist, who we do not find it difficult to identify with Van Gogh himself: “Anyway, let’s leave the theory alone, I want to give you an example of this. what I mean. I would like to paint a portrait of an artist friend who dreams big dreams, who works like the nightingale sings, because this is his nature. This man should be blond. And I would like to put in the picture the esteem and love I have for him. So I would portray it as it is, as faithfully as possible, to begin with.
But the picture would not end like this. To finish it I’ll be an arbitrary colorist. I will exaggerate the blond hair, reaching orange tones, chrome yellow, pale lemon. Behind the head, instead of painting the banal wall of the miserable apartment, I will paint the infinite, I will make a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I will be able to obtain; from this simple combination, the blonde head, illuminated on this sumptuous blue, makes a mysterious effect like a star in the deep blue.
In the portrait of the farmer [here he refers to the Portrait of Patience Escalier] I followed the same system. However, without claiming, in this case, to evoke the mysterious splendor of a pale infinity star. But imagining the terrible man I had to do in the middle of the harvest oven, in the middle of noon. Hence the blazing oranges like red-hot iron, hence the tones of bright old gold in the shadows ». Exaggerating colors, according to Van Gogh’s poetics, and therefore moving away from the naturalistic rendering of painting, was functional to go beyond the image itself, to refer to deeper, more intensely existential meanings.
The intense, sometimes painful “feeling” of Van Gogh is perceived above all in his many self-portraits: we know 37 of them. Works in which the artist focuses his eyes on himself, rather than on us, as if to seek proof of his existence or to verify the validity of his illness. In the Self-Portrait with Felt Hat, Vincent drew back three-quarters, very thin, with pursed lips, fixed and restless eyes, a deep look, “firm in his monumental peasant composure” (A. Boatto). He seems to ask himself: “who am I?”. The face, the hat, the dress, the background are obtained by combining dense colored brushstrokes: it is a very original interpretation of the impressionist and neo-impressionist lesson. The blurred, hypnotic and swirling background comes to life with centrifugal waves that seem to be the emanation of his thought.
Another famous self-portrait helps us to get to know Van Gogh’s soul deeply: we understand, observing him, that only a man with an impressive lucidity could have fixed his gaze so directly on his soul. “Crazy Van Gogh? Who, one day, was able to look at a human face, look at Van Gogh’s self-portrait. I don’t know a single psychiatrist capable of scrutinizing a human face with the same force and the same power, of ruthlessly dissecting its irrefutable psychology.”
Thus noted, masterfully, the writer Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). Vincent was a visionary who was all too aware of life, of reality, because he was endowed with «that superior lucidity which allows […] to see infinitely and dangerously beyond reality». And in fact, even in this painting the blue, spiritual and cosmic background seems to move in a wave, unstable and bubbling motion, which the artist himself produces and in which he seems to want to abandon himself. “Behind the head, instead of defining the banal wall of the petty apartment, I paint infinity”: Vincent explained to his brother Theo. An Infinity which, evidently, the painter glimpsed within himself.