Van Gogh’s Drawings: A Precise Draftsman, Emotional Cauldron

Fame hasn’t always been kind to the reputation of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose drawings are now featured in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s owing to his fame, after all, that van Gogh is still so often described as a deranged genius—the man who cut off his ear in a fit of paranoid rage. Yet the artist’s drawings often tell a different story.

For while it’s true that in these drawings every dot, squiggle and stroke of van Gogh’s emphatic pen is charged with an uncommon emotional weight, it’s also true that his draftsmanship is just as often governed by a sustained feat of pictorial precision and control. Complex spatial perspectives are strictly observed even in drawings that are overcrowded with visual detail, and every image—including the artist’s self-portraits—is rendered with a faithful depiction of its observed subject.

There’s a significant difference, however, between the portrait drawings and the landscape drawings. In such portrait drawings as Old Man with a Top Hat and Girl with Pinafore, realist depiction remains uncompromised by expressive distortion, whereas in the landscape drawings of wheat fields and gardens, nature itself is often seen to be in a state of emotional eruption. Van Gogh may indeed be said to have invented Expressionist landscape drawing as a modernist convention.

For the most part, the landscape drawings are not studies for paintings (as one might expect them to be) but, on the contrary, are derived from a close analysis of paintings already completed. Hence the term répétitions, which was coined to identify this portion of van Gogh’s graphic oeuvre. To these répétitions van Gogh devoted an immense amount of time and labor, for he treated them not only as works of art but as a medium of communication and solidarity with his brother Theo and their circle of artist-friends. In her authoritative essay in the Met’s catalog of the exhibition, Susan Alyson Stein writes:

“Over a three-week period between mid-July and early August 1888, van Gogh made thirty-two drawings after his paintings, which he sent to two artist friends, Émile Bernard and John Russell, and to his brother Theo. The activity of making these répétitions was fueled along the way by the fresh impetus that van Gogh found for producing the successive suites of drawings. He selected each set of images with the recipient and a set agenda in mind: to elicit an exchange from Bernard, to win over the recalcitrant Russell as a prospective patron for Gauguin, and to report his progress to Theo.”

Gauguin, with his insistent talk about the importance of “abstraction” in art, became a figure of some authority for van Gogh, and so in turn did Seurat and Signac with their advocacy of Pointillism (or Neo-Impressionism, as it was also called). About this sometimes confused mingling of influences on van Gogh, Ms. Stein observes:

“Nonpartisan in his friendships and in his artistic borrowings, van Gogh exploited dotting in his own répétitions and to an ever increasing extent, apparently disregarding the fact that neither Bernard nor Russell—who mocked the ‘darn fools spotting canvas with points of pure color’ as being as ‘fashionable as gull’s wings for hats’—was a fan of Pointillism.”

What has to be understood about this combination of vacillation, opportunism and genuine creative ambition is the situation of a greatly gifted and desperately insecure artist, still in his 30’s, who was determined, above all, not to be left behind by the whirligig of avant-garde innovation that was sweeping his generation into unexplored artistic territory. The transition from a hectic Expressionism to the febrile subtleties of Pointillist construction could not have been easy for a man of van Gogh’s temperament to traverse, but he was nonetheless determined to remain in what he believed to be the vanguard of the art of his time.

Artists, like other men and women possessed of high ambition and abundant talent, often harbor a morbid fear of missing the express train of history. Van Gogh was no different in this regard from many of the painters we observed in more recent times in their struggles to adjust first to the radical innovations of the Abstract Expressionists and then to the void left by the movement’s decline.

Van Gogh was clearly possessed of the requisite talent and ambition to succeed in his endeavors. It was his tragedy, however, that he commanded neither the emotional resources nor the intellectual stamina to resist disaster. At an age when he should have achieved artistic success and critical acclaim, he chose suicide instead.

Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Dec. 31, and is accompanied by an excellent catalog.

Van Gogh’s Drawings: A Precise Draftsman, Emotional Cauldron