Happy 159th Birthday to one of the most recognizable artists of modern times, Vincent van Gogh. While his artwork is revered by more than just art lovers, his depression is equally as famous. Van Gogh's constant self-loathing, due in part to the lackluster response to his work, would come to embody the "tortured artist" archetype.
Van Gogh's use of heavy brush strokes and layers upon layers of thick oil paint was constantly at odds with critics in the wake of the soft-spoken Impressionist movement. The artist completed most of his most well-known paintings in the last two years of his life, and committed suicide when he was 37, though this has come under dispute recently.
Part of Van Gogh's mystique is attributed to his frequent struggles with mental illness and self-imposed isolation that left many of his thoughts and feelings a mystery except for an extended correspondence with his younger brother, Theo Van Gogh. Due to debilitating bouts of epilepsy and attempts to counteract his seizures with absinthe, Van Gogh would jump between anxiety, hopelessness, and stubborn determination at the drop of a hat.
Van Gogh was quite aware of his uncontrollable mental state, acknowledging that sustaining such a life would be difficult, even impossible. In a letter, Van Gogh wrote to Theo that, "because I have a need to speak frankly, I can't hide from you that I'm overcome by a feeling of great anxiety, dejection, a 'je ne sais quoi' of discouragement and even despair, too much to express. And that if I can find no consolation for it, it might all too easily overwhelm me unbearably."
After Van Gogh cut off his ear, he committed himself to an asylum where he found solace in the support. It was at Saint Paul-de-Mausole that Van Gogh produced his finest work, including "Irises" -- he finally found some relief in the structure of the hospital. However, as Richard Cork notes in an article for Yale Press, "Irises" may appear joyous at first, but upon closer inspection Van Gogh's ongoing troubles are revealed. Cork writes, "The irises and their blaring green leaves fill the canvas with insistent movement, as if jostling for room in the confined picture-space. They crowd round the solitary white flower in their midst, provoking the suspicion that Vincent equated their clamorous behaviour with the more disturbed patients confined inside the asylum's walls."
Despite the possible gloomy interpretation of "Irises," it is also one of the prime examples of Van Gogh's innovative approach to perspective outlined in Cornelia Homburg's new book, "Van Gogh Up Close." The artist's magnified point of view displayed in paintings later in life show that he had an appreciation for what had come before, but was unafraid to put his own twist on tradition.
Regardless of his troubled life, Van Gogh was an artist who not only created beautiful, memorable work, but one who strived to push the boundaries of painting. Although "Starry Night" is probably seen more frequently on postcards than in a museum, Van Gogh's profound affect on modern art still reverberates.
Happy Birthday, Vincent Willem van Gogh!