Van Gogh 125

Van Gogh 125

The Starry Night, 1889, by Vincent van Gogh. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Wikimedia Commons)

One hundred and twenty five years ago, in a cornfield of raucous crows, Vincent van Gogh shot himself. On 15 October I am exploring the Van Gogh phenomenon in a public lecture, ‘Starry, starry night: looking at Vincent van Gogh’, Soundings Theatre, 6 pm. This is being presented on behalf of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as part of the anniversary commemmorations. I won’t spoil what I say for anyone who plans to be there, but here are seven points to help us understand the Van Gogh phenomenon:

    • Van Gogh was an artist’s artist, a hero figure to early 20th century modernists. Picasso said: ‘The individual adventure always goes back to the one which is the archetype of our times: that is Van Gogh – a solitary and tragic adventure’. He even impressed older artists who outlived him. Camille Pissarro recalled predicting ‘this man will either go mad or outpace us all. That he would do both, I did not foresee’. Expressionism and Fauvism wouldn’t have happened when they did and how they did without Van Gogh.
    • Van Gogh was (and is) the people’s painter. We don’t call him ‘Van Gogh’ but ‘Vincent’. Do we call Bacon ‘Francis’ or Picasso ‘Pablo’? No way. Vincent changed minds, hearts and lives. Over 80 years after his death, he provided the inspiration for folk-rock singer Don McLean’s million-selling record ‘Vincent’, whose unforgettable opening line is ‘Starry, starry night…’
    • Art historical pedants, take note. It shouldn’t be ‘Starry, Starry Night’ but ‘The Starry Night’; no, he didn’t cut his ear off; no, he wasn’t poverty-stricken (think of all that paint and canvas he devoured!); no, he wasn’t critically ignored and derided (especially not in his final years); and no, he wasn’t shot by naughty boys who later confessed all.
Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe, 1889, by Vincent van Gogh. Private Collection. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • In his time, he was a complete embarrassment. You’d cross the road to avoid him. He boozed, shouted, smoked and smelled. He was a freeloader. And he had little or no sex appeal. To call him ‘beautiful’, as Don McLean does, is soppy hippie sentimentality. What emerges from any life of Van Gogh is the kindness of those who had to put up with him, especially his brother Theo, Dr Paul Gachet, Emile Bernard, Camille and Lucien Pissarro (Paul Gauguin considerably less so but that’s another story).
  • He was a late developer. His early efforts at conventional art aren’t that great. But then, out of seemingly nowhere – whaam! (to quote Roy Lichtenstein). No great academic art historian can satisfactorily explain what happened even if they try.
  • His art says ‘Look at me!’ You don’t forget it in a hurry. It isn’t particularly intellectual, deep or theoretical: it doesn’t need to be. Every brushstroke and every colour counts. Van Gogh ‘discovered’ sunflowers and the starry sky, like no-one else before him. And just look at that Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (above). That’s just got to be a mid-20th century Mark Rothko painting immediately behind him, and yet the painting pre-dates the transcendent American’s birth by fourteen years! Is there nothing Vincent can’t do? 
  • His art shows how exciting art really was in the late 19th century, more so than 100 years later (but as Curator Historical International Art, I would say that!) We can relate Van Gogh to French and Dutch Social Realists including our own Van der Velden, to Seurat’s and Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism, to Japanese woodblock prints, and to Art Nouveau. Van Gogh used and shaped all of these ingredients to create something uniquely his own. To quote the late Robert Hughes, ‘In the four years from 1886 to 1890 he had changed the history of art’.


  1. Clear and refreshing Mark – enjoyed reading these points. Good contribution to serious art in 21st century.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Marijke. I think it’s important to make Van Gogh accessible to a wide audience, and that’s what he himself wanted so much.

  2. Hi Mark. Another enjoyable read. Made me think of the Robert Altman directed movie “Vincent and Theo”from 1990. Altman had Tim Roth play Van Gogh somewhere between a cross of Johnny Rotten and one of the angry young men from a Alan Sillitoe novel (anyone one of them possibly).

    Perhaps New Zealand’s best Van Gogh imitator was the under-rated Wellingtonian artist Sam Cairncross. Be good to see him up on the walls again at some stage in Te Papa … you think?

    On a lighter note the Don Mclean song you reference aint all bad. Nice melody and he sings like an angel. Perhaps dear old Rotten could do a primal punk version of it in a duet with dear old Roth. Drag Phil Spector out of the clink to produce it..or is that going too far?

    Hope the talk goes well.

    1. Thank you for these interesting references, Buzz. I agree with you about Don Mclean, a wonderfully heartfelt song and beautifully sung. Sam Cairncross – yes someone who looked as if he was going to be big in the immediate post-war years but didn’t have the sustained critical weight behind him nor perhaps the hunger to be a major artist, but whose works I have always liked. I will refer the matter to my curatorial colleagues; we have many very good competing claims!

  3. I’ve Just Read Your Points.
    ‘Complete Embarassment’.
    To You ?
    ‘Little Or No Sex Appeal.’
    This Is Such Incredibly Superficial Prattling.
    Go Away,
    You Discredit Serious Art History.

  4. I Thought The Boy Shot Him By Accident,
    But You Are Still Working The Suicide Line.


    1. Thank you for your comment, I am indeed. The ‘I shot Van Gogh’ claims were challenged by two scholars from the Van Gogh Museum in an article in the Burlington Magazine (July 2013), and I find them more credible. Go to:

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