Van Gogh and Nature

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten

Looking at my previous post, I realize I may have been looking for discussions about style in a book that focuses on technique. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can discuss a person’s style without reducing it to an artist’s technique or without resorting to another approach.

For Van Gogh, I am inclined to look through the lens of psychology. Van Gogh’s father was a pastor and Van Gogh himself wanted to join the clergy for a short time, and knowing this, I cannot help but interpret his drawings as being imbued with religious or spiritual connotations.1 

He may have also suffered from manic-depressive disorder, and maybe I’m letting this color my view of him as well, but I think it’s thus fitting that he personified his surroundings. When he described the fields in Drenthe at sunset, he was rather poetic.

“… ‘when a poor little figure is moving through the twilight — when that vast sun-scorched earth stands out darkly against the lilac hues of the evening sky, and the very last little dark-blue line at the horizon separates the earth from the sky — that same irritatingly monotonous spot can be as sublime as a Jules Dupre.’”2 (47)

Everything is animated and I think how he saw the world informed him of how he conveyed the beauty of it to his audience.

When looking at his drawing, Pollard Birches (1884), I was inclined to look too closely at the details and glossed over how the lines work in concert, how they move the eye up from the ground to the sky. He struck a very neat or ‘perfect’ balance between the horizontal lines keeping one’s view of the trees steady and their branches reaching vertically above and between the horizontal line of the horizon and the lines of the grass guiding one’s eyes away from the base of the drawing toward the branches of the trees.

Meanwhile, there are two human figures standing apart from each other while among the trees. The trees are more than them, while they and the trees are all apart of their greater, natural surroundings.

Heugten describes Pollard Birches as “one of the best examples of the soulful character Van Gogh was capable of injecting into his landscapes…; he felt a great sympathy for these pruned trees with their striking, somewhat melancholy appearance.” (61)

It’s hard to say what is “soulful,” visually, and what is melancholy, but if I do not think of the work in a way that leads me back to thinking about people or the artist himself or myself, I lose sight of a major part of what’s beautiful about the work .

When we are in nature, we can see that aesthetic appreciation need not be in terms of oneself or ourselves. It can be about our natural habitat, about the ‘other’ beyond oneself, beyond human civilization. When looking at Van Gogh’s drawings, however, I am not appreciating nature but what the artist wanted to express with his depictions of nature. Maybe how he felt about the trees or his relationship to them or maybe how he saw himself vis a vis his own life.

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1 I wish I could compare this to a less biased view but I had known this about him before seeing his drawings for the first time.

2 This is from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, but I’m quoting it second hand from Heugten’s book. Heugten in turn took quotes from De brievan van Vincent van Gogh, ed Han van Crimpen and Monique Berends-Albert, 4 vols., The Hague 1990; and The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 3 vols., Greenwich (Conn.), 1958

Heugten, Sjraar, et al. Van Gogh: master Draughtsman. Harry N Abrams, Inc, 2005, pp 47, 61