In the ages leading up to the mid-nineteenth century, painting was expected to follow certain rules. Subjects were expected to fall under certain categories: classical, religious, historical and aristocratic. Aristocrats were often patrons of the arts, and so portraits of them were expected, but it was the classical, religious and historical paintings that were accorded the most respect. The mid-nineteenth century, however, saw a rejection of such constraints and other themes were pursued, such as landscapes, in the case of many Impressionists. Such expansion of subject matter was not limited to landscapes, and whilst the aristocrats enjoyed a tyranny of sorts over the art world for centuries, artists slowly began to recognize the merit in painting subjects of humbler origins. Such was the case with Vincent van Gogh.
Early in his painting career, van Gogh lived in Etten, Neinen and Antwerp (among other places), where few aristocratic subjects to paint could be found, and none who wished to be the subjects for van Gogh. But eager to put brush to canvas, van Gogh found inspiration with the denizens of the farming communities in which he lived. One of his earliest works is ‘The Potato Eaters’. The image is one of a humble abode. A crowded table is peopled with faces that are almost cartoonish, and not dissimilar to caricatures. Colour is almost absent from the painting. Instead, it seems as though van Gogh used dark hues with hints of brown. The clothes are dirty and tattered and the meal is meager: potatoes (as the title states). This is a far cry from what paintings were expected to look like. There is no grandeur, and no hint of religion or history or classical subject matter is present. The subject is working class people. Van Gogh may not have thought of himself as brave in painting these people; it may have simply been a matter of pragmatics and proximity for him, but in this painting, he uplifts the experience of the working class. He asserts, merely by putting brush to canvas, that the working class perspective is one worth of sharing, one that is worth recording, and one that is as important as the subjects commonly accepted by the art world.
These people were farmers, and it was likewise important for van Gogh to depict them doing their work, which he does in ‘The Sower’, ‘Farmers Planting Potatoes’ and ‘Weaver Facing Right’. Each of these paintings, as is the case with ‘The Potato Eaters’, represents a theme. Van Gogh did not simply paint these images once and move on. He thought them worthy of repetition. He thought their day-to-day experiences unique enough to warrant being recorded over and over again. For Jacques Louis David, the heroes of his paintings were the likes of Napoleon, riding on a horse as he conquers, but for van Gogh, there was a different class of heroes. ‘Weaver Facing Right’ is a far cry from Napoleon, but van Gogh sees that person as equally worthy of a place in posterity. The pomp and circumstance of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ ‘Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne’ is utterly absent from van Gogh’s work, but van Gogh still sees the subject as worthy of celebration.
‘The Sower’ and ‘Farmers Planting Potatoes’ are two works among many of similar theme and content for van Gogh. Like ‘Weaver Facing Right’, they celebrate the working class. There are no courtly halls or manicured gardens in these scenes. No fancy dress nor delicate figures. Instead, we see working class people engaged in their daily routines, dressed rudely with figures not presented romantically. There is something more to these two pieces, though, that differentiate them from the series of weavers van Gogh painted. There is a harmonious relationship between these people and the land. Nature and humanity are at one in these images. In ‘The Sower’, the sower is planting the seeds of life in the earth. He is putting something into the earth. This is not an act of consumption. In portraits of the aristocrats we often see evidence of ‘conspicuous consumption’, be it in the forms of fancy dress with expensive fabrics or embroideries; luxurious make-up or lavish jewelry. The settings often feature costly furniture. This is not a scene of consumption, but one of replenishment. The human world is giving to the natural world and creating life.
‘Farmers Planting Potatoes’ works much in the same way. The workers are outside. They are working class people. Their dress is simple. They are not consuming, but rather planting. They are instilling life in the earth. This painting works in concert with ‘The Potato Eaters’ because it shows that the same people who take from the earth give back to it as well. Side by each, these painting enhance each other. In Contrast, there are no paintings of aristocrats sowing seeds or putting back into the earth. There are no scenes where military leaders are at one with nature, but rather conquering it in some fashion. The paintings that filled The Salon were paintings that often celebrated consumerism and uplifted the parasites of the world. Van Gogh’s work, however, displays a symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature. The protagonists of his paintings do not ask to be romanticized. They lead by example, in harmony with the world around them.
The antithesis of this symbiotic relationship can be found in van Gogh’s ‘Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette’. The image is perhaps the most potent of all of van Gogh’s work and seems ideal for appropriation into an anti-smoking ad. But what does it say? For me it is obvious. This, in my eyes, is van Gogh’s sole portrait of the aristocracy. The consumption is very much present here via the cigarette. What sustenance does the cigarette provide? None. There is consumption without purpose and the result is death. The natural world is represented by the tobacco and the human world is doing nothing productive with it, only burning it and destroying it. The human realm here has no respect for the natural world and is exploiting the natural world, not to supply vital needs, but rather to fulfill idle desires. This idle consumption of nature serves no purpose and drains the natural world. As a result, the human world is responsible for its own death. It is unfair to suggest that van Gogh knew the impact that pollution would have; the burning of fossil fuels was unheard of in his time. It would also be a mistake to suggest that van Gogh knew about the health issues related to smoking, but still, this image seems to speak to this concern, whether van Gogh was conscious of this or not.
Van Gogh not only saw the value of working class people who worked with the land, but also in other segments of the working class. ‘Joseph Roulin (The Postman)’, is a perfect example. This is van Gogh’s equivalent of the military portrait. It was not uncommon for officers of the time to have portraits done. Indeed, many artists were conscripted into or enlisted in the military during their lifetime, and used to ingratiate themselves to their superior officers by painting portraits of them (Monet and Degas are among some of the more famous among such artists). Van Gogh, however, never served in the military and so never had the opportunity to paint a ‘man in uniform’. The only man in uniform he had the opportunity to paint was Joseph Roulin, whom he depicted several times in his postman’s uniform. This is fitting as positions in the mail service were often awarded to soldiers returning from war (though this was a practice common after WWI and WWII and so may not have been common during van Gogh’s time). The postman then is an extension of the solider, but unlike the soldier, the services he offers are constructive rather than destructive. Joseph Roulin afforded van Gogh the agency to paint a man in uniform, but to challenge the preconceptions of a man in uniform at the same time. It is not necessary to get into a debate on the validity of war or whether or not one should support troops, but it is important to note that there is a divergence of opinion on the matter and that van Gogh’s portraits of Joseph Roulin serve to commemorate a different sort of man in uniform, one whose role in the working class is far less controversial than that of a soldier, and one which focuses on the working class, rather than the aristocrats of the officer class in the military. Whereas most established painters would paint military officers, van Gogh instead paints a man who is more likely to be a private, again uplifting the working classes as the subjects of his paintings rather than the ruling class.
This approach is extended to women as well, as can be seen in several painting completed during van Gogh’s work with weavers and farmers, such as with ‘Head of Woman’ and ‘Head of Woman With White Cap’ (there are dozens of similar paintings), but is perhaps best captured in his painting ‘Head of Woman With Loose Hair’. Ingres was famous for his portrait of women during his life time, and there is perhaps no 19th-century artist who portraits of women stand in starker contrast to Ingres than van Gogh. Ingres’ portrait: ‘Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville’, for example, is a beautiful work featuring Louise de Broglie. Her dress is impeccable, she herself is gorgeous, an expensive table and mirror are placed behind her. Her wealth is apparent. Her occupation? Wife. In ‘Head of Woman With Loose’ hair, there are no frills. No head pieces. No jewelry. No bureau. No mirror. None of these things are present. She does not even have a name. Everything that is present n Ingres’ painting is absent in van Gogh’s. Her occupation? Unknown. It is presumed by some that she may have been a sex worker, or perhaps more likely simply a farmer. Van Gogh though, who was engaged in a long term relationship with a sex worker, and afterwards frequented brothels, no doubt made sex workers the subject of at least some of his paintings, even if this is not one of them. So what does this say? Ingres paints a wife; van Gogh paints a sex worker. Is there a difference between the two outside of setting and dress? Are they both commodified by the society they live in? I do not believe van Gogh was trying to suggest that all women are ‘whores’, but rather that patriarchy promotes such a view. Whatever the intent may have been, the contrast between Ingres and van Gogh is sharp and it is clear that van Gogh’s work casts appreciative gaze upon the women of the working class, regardless of their presumed profession.
Some of my favorite works of van Gogh’s though are his paintings of shoes. In ‘A Pair of Shoes’, we see what seems to be a simple painting with a simple subject. A typical still-life? No, this is not a typical still-life. Where most painters would spend their time on flowers or fruits, which van Gogh did do, here van Gogh focuses on a pair of shoes. There are several other paintings like this. The shoes are a dilapidated wreck. One cannot imagine finding comfort in such shoes. They are dark and dirty and worn and torn. These shoes, though, are the shoes of the working class. When one stops to consider that these are the shoes that will be put on before the peasant goes to work in the field for 12-14 hours (or more likely the factory as in Holland most farmers wore clogs into the field), the implications become clear. Likewise, the fact that the shoes are alone suggests that there is not a second pair. These are shoes of utility. They will be worn to work, as they will be worn to church, as they will be worn any where the owner will have to go. It offers the viewer insight into the poverty and pain of the working class whose life is spent, more often than not, in these shoes. It challenges the viewer to recognize and appreciate the experience of the working class.
Van Gogh is perhaps most famous for ‘The Starry Night’ and paintings such as ‘Cafe Terrence at Night’, as well as his self portraits and ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’. These are beautiful paintings no doubt, and among my favorite works of van Gogh’s. Aesthetically they are perhaps more appealing than much of his early work, but for me, though the dark hues and sombre tone of van Gogh’s early works may not elicit the same kind of magical response which ‘The Starry Night’ pulls from viewers, the works are easily, for me, his most important.