Seven themes of 'Vincent. The Van Gogh Museum in Hermitage Amsterdam'

Van Gogh’s development as an artist runs through the presentation in seven themes, including the techniques of painting and the many styles that he encountered. Discover the reasons for his fascination with these themes and the messages he incorporated in his works.

Enjoy the videos in which curator of paintings Leo Jansen explains these themes.

Theme 1: Practice makes perfect

Van Gogh usually called his paintings ‘studies’ to indicate that they were attempts to master a particular technique or become familiar with a certain theme. For example, he made a series of drawings of farmers' hands in preparation for the famous painting that was to prove his mastery: The potato eaters (1885). He also experimented with new techniques during his years in France. Right up to the final month of his life, he was painting studies like Ears of wheat (1890), an exploration of a possible background motif for a portrait. Practice and experiment remained important to Van Gogh, because he believed an artist’s education was never complete: ‘I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.’

Theme 2: A style of his own

During his brief artistic career, Van Gogh experimented with a wide range of styles before arriving at a style and brushstroke that were entirely his own, and which would eventually make him world-famous. In every stage of his artistic development, he drew inspiration from other artists. In Paris, for instance, he was influenced by the style of the Impressionists and Pointillists, but Montmartre: behind the Moulin de la Galette (1887) clearly shows that he ultimately found his own way of painting.

Theme 3: The effect of colour

Van Gogh was always thinking about the effects of colour in his work. In paintings such as Quinces, lemons, pears and grapes (1887) and Sunflowers (1889), he explored the many gradations of a single colour. At other times, he brought colours into dialogue to make his paintings more compelling and eloquent; two striking examples are Gauguin’s chair (1888) and Irises (1890). Van Gogh became increasingly convinced that colours in themselves had expressive power. For him, colour was the ideal means of conveying an atmosphere or an emotion.

Theme 4: Peasant painter

For Van Gogh, peasant life was associated with simplicity, constancy, and rebirth. This theme played a central role throughout his life as an artist, especially during his periods in Nuenen and Provence. In 1885 he wrote to his brother Theo, ‘When I say that I’m a peasant painter, that is really so.’ He thus followed in the footsteps of Jean-François Millet, the master of the peasant genre.

Theme 5: Looking to Japan

Japanese art had an enormous influence on Van Gogh. Both its subject matter and its compositional and stylistic principles formed a major source of inspiration for him. In 1888 he wrote to Theo from Arles, ‘All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.’ When first becoming acquainted with Japanese art, he made copies of famous prints such as Hiroshige’s Bridge in the rain (1887), but he soon began to enrich his own style with distinctively Japanese elements, such as the approach to perspective and colour. We can see this clearly in paintings such as The harvest (1888) and The Langlois bridge (1888).

Thema 6: The modern portrait

In Auvers, Van Gogh wrote, ‘What I’m most passionate about, much much more than all the rest in my profession – is the portrait, the modern portrait.’ His portraits strive to express the spirit of his age and are executed in his uniquely expressive style. Early in his career, Van Gogh was mainly interested in how to depict people’s heads, as we can see in the many studies of heads that he made. Slowly but surely, his ideas about portraiture changed. In Arles, he wanted to paint ‘modern portraits’ that did justice to the temperament of the model. Examples include The Zouave (1888) and Portrait of Camille Roulin (1888).

Theme 7: The wealth of nature

In Van Gogh’s personal life and in his art, nature played a crucial role. In nature, he found great peace and strength. Because Van Gogh took a broad view of nature, he could always find it close by.  He painted overgrown gardens, blossoming orchards, and endless cornfields. And in these pictures, people are never far away. Van Gogh pursued his own, deeply personal vision of nature, sometimes profound and nearly religious, sometimes light-hearted and cheerful. 

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