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Impressionism and the City

About February 27, 1886, Van Gogh arrives in Paris. He lives with Theo in Montmartre, an artists' quarter. The move is formative in the development of his painting style. Theo, who manages the Montmartre branch of Goupil's (now called Boussod, Valadon & Cie), acquaints Van Gogh with the works of Claude Monet and other Impressionists. Previously he had known only Dutch painting and the French Realists; now he sees for himself how the Impressionists handle light and color, and treat their original themes from the town and country. For four months Van Gogh studies at the prestigious teaching atelier of Fernand Cormon, and he begins to meet the city's modern artists, including Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, Camille Pissarro, and John Russell. 


New Approaches

Van Gogh's Paris work is an effort to assimilate the influences around him. As he begins to formulate his own artistic idiom, he progresses through the styles and subjects of the Impressionists. His palette becomes brighter, his brushwork more broken. Like the Impressionists, Van Gogh takes his subjects from the city's cafés and boulevards, and the open countryside along the Seine River. Through Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, he discovers the stippling technique of Neoimpressionism, also called Pointillism, and freely experiments with the style. "What is required in art nowadays," he writes, "is something very much alive, very strong in color, very much intensified."

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Interested in portraiture as a source of income, but unable to afford models while perfecting his skills, Van Gogh turns to his own image: "I deliberately bought a good mirror so that if I lacked a model I could work from my own likeness." He paints at least 20 self-portraits in Paris. The range of his experiments in style and color can be read in the series. The earliest are executed in the grays and browns of his Brabant period; these somber colors soon give way to yellows, reds, greens, and blues, and his brushwork takes on the disconnected stroke of the Impressionists. To his sister he writes: "My intention is to show that a variety of very different portraits can be made of the same person." One of the last portraits Van Gogh paints in Paris, Self-Portrait as an Artist, is a dramatic illustration of his personal and artistic identity.

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Experiments in Color

Soon after arriving in Paris, Van Gogh senses how outmoded his dark-hued palette has become. He paints studies of flowers, which Theo describes as "finger exercises"-practice pieces in which he tries to "render intense color and not a gray harmony." Van Gogh keeps balls of wool with threads in different hues-red and orange, blue and yellow, orange and gray-to sample and test the effect of different color combinations. His palette gradually lightens, and his sensitivity to color in the landscape intensifies. Van Gogh regularly paints outdoors in Asnières, a village near Paris where the Impressionists often set up their easels. Later, he writes to his sister Wil: "And when I painted the landscape in Asnières this summer, I saw more colors there than ever before."

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Artists of the Petit Boulevard

Among his new friends Van Gogh counts the painters he refers to as the "artists of the Petit Boulevard" -- Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac, Bernard, and Louis Anquetin-artists who are younger and not as famous as the Impressionists. Van Gogh envisions creating a harmonious artistic community in which they will all live and work together. In 1887 he organizes a group show of his and his friends' paintings at a Paris restaurant. They often gather at Père Tanguy's paint shop, where Van Gogh regularly sees Gauguin. Tanguy, who generously advances supplies to many young artists, occasionally displays Van Gogh's paintings in his store window. Van Gogh buys Japanese prints from the noted art dealer Siegfried Bing and studies them intensively. He arranges an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at a Paris café and makes a few "copies" after Japanese prints. His own work takes on the stylized contours and expressive coloration of his Japanese examples.

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