Friday 5 May 2017

Vincent Van Gogh: The Artist as Collector

The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, 1857 by Utagawa Hiroshige, part of Van Gogh's collection of prints that inspired his Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige) See below. All prints are courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum. Cover picture: Tree Trunks in the Grass, 1890 by Van Gogh is now on show at the NGV.
Few people know that Dutch Modern master Vincent van Gogh, was an avid collector. More than that, Melbourne academic Dr Vincent Alessi discovered that the painter learnt to draw by studying his own collection of black and white illustrations. We take a look at the  prints in the artist's collection, some of which can now be seen at the new exhibition Van Gogh and the Seasons at the National Gallery of Victoria, Geoffrey Maslen reports

“Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.” ~ Vincent van Gogh writing to his brother Theo van Gogh, The Hague, 3 June 3, 1883

Self-portrait, 1887, by Vincent van Gogh.
Dr Vincent Alessi was only fifteen years old when his older brother showed him a small book containing some of the hundreds of letters van Gogh wrote to Theo. The young Australian Vincent read them, became captivated by the troubled artist who so vividly described his life in the letters and, years later, is still in awe of the Dutch painter. “My brother kindly allowed me to highlight sections in the book and I’d write notes in the margin. I knew little about van Gogh and, because the book had no illustrations, I had no idea what his work was like,” Alessi says. “But the letters were so beautifully written that I began reading more about him and looking at images of his paintings. Then I started reading academic books about his practice as an artist and I became fascinated with him as a person...”

Later, as an honours student at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, this latter-day Vincent wrote a thesis on the sun’s symbolism in van Gogh’s paintings. He took this further in research for his PhD and visited the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. There he was able to study the letters and view the Japanese prints van Gogh had collected as well as 17 folios of 1400 black and white woodblock prints by English artists that had been published in newspapers such as the Illustrated London News and The Graphic in the latter half of the 19th century. Until he saw them, Alessi had not known how large van Gogh’s print collection was and, realising how influential they must have been in his development as an artist, he decided to focus on this little researched aspect of his life. Back in Melbourne, he pored over van Gogh’s letters to locate where he had mentioned hundreds of other prints that had been lost from the collection, then he began painstakingly searching for them in Melbourne’s State Library which holds copies of both newspapers from the time.

 The Potato Harvest, 1885 Clement Edouard Bellenger.
“Using his letters I was able to identify the prints by either the title or van Gogh’s descriptions. It meant flipping through 10 years of the newspapers to match the images with the text in the letters and, even though the search was really tedious, it was fascinating to read so much of Victorian England, a period I knew very little about.” Dr Alessi is now a senior lecturer, Creative Arts at La Trobe University and was formerly curatorial manager Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne University and artistic director at LUMA, La Trobe University Museum of Art. He believes van Gogh collected 2,000 or more of the English illustrations and his search in the State Library identified nearly 600 that museum curators had not known existed. Van Gogh obtained a complete set of The Graphic and the Illustrated London News published in the mid-1860s and continued to buy later ones from a local bookseller. He kept them in folios and this suggested to Alessi they had been used as a teaching aid.

The Sower, 1885 Clement Edouard
Bellenger. Wood-engraving 
“They were filed under workers, farmers, people employed in factories and were stored that way, I think, so when he was doing his own painting, he could refer to them and see how an illustrator might have shown the way someone was working in a field or a factory. He probably started collecting the prints in the early 1880s but, after 1884, there are no further references in his letters to him acquiring anything new. It was no coincidence that this happened at the time he became more confident as an artist and no longer needed the prints.” Alessi says one of the little-known events in van Gogh’s life was that he had not set out to become a great artist but was pressured by his well-to-do family to find a job `so he wouldn’t slip any further down the social scale’. Theo proposed he find work as an illustrator and he studied the woodblock prints to learn how to draw with the idea of going to London and becoming an illustrator himself. It was four years before he picked up a paintbrush and began his short but enormously prolific life as a painter.

Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge,
 1857, Utagawa Hiroshige. Colour wood-cut
“From an aesthetic point of view, the Japanese prints are more beautiful to look at than the English black and white ones but they both had an equal amount of influence on him. He didn’t copy directly from the English prints but I argue his painting style was a result of them,” Alessi says. Another astonishing aspect about the English prints is the fact they survived. Van Gogh left them with his mother when he went to live in Paris and she kept them even after he died. As Alessi says, she must have been a great hoarder because she never thought of him as a great artist and nor did many of those who knew him, yet she kept his prints. They and his Japanese print collection, along with his tool box and his painting box, are still held in the Van Gogh Museum. “I can’t think of too many artists where we’ve had such first-hand knowledge of them as we do of van Gogh,” Alessi says. “Through his letters and what he collected we can piece together almost his whole life. The prints held by the Van Gogh Museum are in storage and they don’t get seen very often because they are fragile but also not very exciting to look at. Yet they are really important and underpin almost everything the artist did. He said himself that the really great artists were the English black and white illustrators.”

New Print of Insects & Small Creatures
 1883, Utagawa Yoshimara. Wood-cut
The new Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, curated by Sjraar van Heugten, former Head of Collections at theVan Gogh Museum, has the first two rooms of the show devoted to the artist's collection of prints and works of Japanese artists that inspired him such as Utagawa Hiroshige. Speaking about Van Gogh's collection, Sjraar van Heugten says the prints from illustrated magazines were a continuous source of inspiration for the artist. "Scenes from daily life, a great variety of them. What you will see [at the NGV] is a selection of motifs about the landscapes and seasons. The first room has some sixteen prints from his own collection.

"The second room is devoted to Japanese prints ~ these were a huge influence on Van Gogh while he was in Paris. Van Gogh adored Japanese works because of their use of colour and also because of the serenity and harmony he found in them. Of course seasons are important for Japanese artists ~ and you will see in the exhibition a selection of works that are kept at the National Gallery of Victoria."

Orchard in Blossom, 1887, Arles, by Vincent van Gogh 
The images that van Gogh included in his print collection were carefully chosen, Dr Alessi says, and they had a major influence in shaping his view of what it meant to be an artist. He didn’t collect illustrations of royalty but of ordinary working people, especially the poor. “If you look at the way he actually paints, there's a strong drawing quality and quite often they have really dark outlines. That, I would argue, comes from the prints. Because of the way they were made, they needed to have strong outlines and that boldness is evident in his paintings. You only have to look at his 40 or so self-portraits to see they were definitely shaped by his prints.”

Portrait of Pere Tanguy, 1887, Paris.
By Vincent van Gogh
Japanese printmaking was one of Van Gogh’s main sources of inspiration and he was an enthusiastic collector. The prints acted as a catalyst: they taught him a new way of looking at the world. He admired Japanese art and has written that it made him feel happy and cheerful. The artist's collection of prints and his Japanese paintings evoke van Gogh's search for tranquillity. In a letter to his brother Theo in September ,1888, he wrote: “We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.” His Portrait of Père Tanguy, painted in 1887, is one of three paintings of sympathetic art supplier and dealer Julien Tanguy. Van Gogh's last version of the portait is full of vibrant colour and incorporates several of the Japanese prints from his collection. The seated, calm figure of Tanguy has a joyous, Zen like calm that Van Gogh sought and found in his Japanese works.

Actor in the Role of the courtesan
Takao of the Miuraya House, 1861
 by Utagawa Kunisada
Japanese ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige continued to influence van Gogh in style and subject matter. He did three paintings after Japanese prints from his own collection. This gave him a chance to explore the Japanese printmakers' style and use of colour. While the print in his collection Actor in the Role of the courtesan Takao of the Miuraya House,1861, by Utagawa Kunisada (see at right) was used in the background of his Portrait of Père Tanguy, other more literal uses of the prints included one based on Hiroshige's Plum Garden in Kameido (see main picture and below). Van Gogh accurately reproduced the composition but made the colour more intense and changed the black and grey of Hiroshige's tree trunk with red and blue tones. Van Gogh liked Japanese woodcuts for their bright colours and strong compositions. Another painting Bridge in the Rain, After Hirogshige (see below), was based on a print by Hiroshige but Van Gogh again made the colours more vivid than the Japanese master's original.

Geoffrey Maslen is a Melbourne writer. His two latest books ~ An Uncertain Future: Australian birds in danger and Too Late: How we lost the battle against climate change are published by Hardie Grant Books (July 2017).

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces 2017: Van Gogh and the Seasons is at the National Gallery of Victoria from 28 April until 9 July 2017.

Flowering Plum Orchard (After Hiroshige) 1887, Paris, by Vincent van Gogh. See main picture above for original print in Van Gogh's own collection.

Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) 1887, Paris, by Vincent van Gogh. (See Hiroshige print above).

Subscribe to support our independent and original journalism, photography, artwork and film.