Tag Archives: light

Vincent van Gogh: Sun, Heat and Vibrant Colours of Arles (from Lust for Life)

17 Mar

“The Arlesian sun smote Vincent between the eyes, and broke him wide open. It was a whirling, liquid ball of lemon-yellow fire, shooting across a hard blue sky and filling the air with blinding light. The terrific heat and intense clarity of the air created a new and unfamiliar world.”

(Irving Stone, Lust for Life)

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers, August 1888

One of my greatest joys in these early spring days is noticing and gazing at the trees in bloom, the same trees which were sad-looking and bare for months, and enjoying the golden rays of sun caressing me and promising ever warmer days. The joy of feeling the warm sun on your skin cannot be put in words! When it comes to art, my mind instantly went to Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers, his delicate almond blossoms and blooming orchards, I need his yellows and blues like I need the air to breathe. I was reading some of his letter again and also I was rereading Irving Stone’s wonderful novel “Lust for Life”, first published in 1934, which is a romanticised biography of Vincent van Gogh. I really recommend the book to everyone because it’s just so beautifully written and it absolutely sweeps you away. Irving Stone was just a great writer, I also read his novel “Agony and Ecstasy” about the life of Michelangelo, and I loved it as well, and I am not even interested in the art of Michelangelo and I think that speaks for the brilliancy of Stone’s writing. So, I decided to share passages from the novel which I found particularly interesting and accompany it with Van Gogh’s paintings and my own thoughts. After spending some time in Paris and living with his brother, Vincent, a man from the drab north, felt an inexplicable aching and longing for sun and in spring of 1888 he arrived to Arles, a small town in Provence, and that is where some of his most exciting, most vibrant paintings were painted. Here is how his arrival and first impressions of Arles are described in “Lust for Life”:

He dropped out of the third-class carriage early in the morning and walked down the winding road that led from the station to the Place Lamartine, a market square bounded on one side by the embankment of the Rhône, on the other by cafés and wretched hotels. Arles lay straight ahead, pasted against the side of a hill with a neat mason’s trowel, drowsing in the hot, tropical sun. When it came to looking for a place to live, Vincent was indifferent. He walked into the first hotel he passed in the Place, the Hotel de la Gare, and rented a room. It contained a blatant brass bed, a cracked pitcher in a washbowl, and an odd chair. The proprietor brought in an unpainted table. There was no room to set up an easel, but Vincent meant to paint out of doors all day.

He threw his valise on the bed and dashed out to see the town. There were two approaches to the heart of Arles from the Place Lamartine. The circular road on the left was for wagons; it skirted the edge of the town and wound slowly to the top of the hill, passing the old Roman forum and amphitheatre on the way. Vincent took the more direct approach, which led through a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets. After a long climb he reached the sun scorched Place de la Mairie. On the way up he passed cold stone courts and quadrangles which looked as though they had come down untouched from the early Roman days. In order to keep out the maddening sun, the alleys had been made so narrow that Vincent could touch both rows of houses with outstretched fingertips. To avoid the torturing mistral, the streets wound about in a hopeless maze on the side of the hill, never going straight for more than ten yards. There was refuse in the streets, dirty children in the doorways, and over everything a sinister, hunted aspect.

Vincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May 1888

Vincent left the Place de la Mairie, walked through a short alley to the main marketing road at the back of the town, strolled through the little park, and then stumbled down the hill to the Roman arena. He leaped from tier to tier like a goat, finally reaching the top. He sat on a block of stone, dangled his legs over a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, lit his pipe, and surveyed the domain of which he had appointed himself lord and master.

The town below him flowed down abruptly to the Rhône like a kaleidoscopic waterfall. The roofs of the houses were fitted into each other in an intricate design. They had all been tiled in what was originally red clay, but the burning, incessant sun had baked them to a maze of every colour, from the lightest lemon and delicate shell pink to a biting lavender and earthy loam-brown.

The wide, rapidly flowing Rhône made a sharp curve at the bottom of the hill on which Arles was plastered, and shot downward to the Mediterranean. There were stone embankments on either side of the river. Trinquetaille glistened like a painted city on the other bank. Behind Vincent were the mountains, huge ranges sticking upward into the clear white light. Spread out before him was a panorama of tilled fields, of orchards in blossom, the rising mound of Montmajour, fertile valleys ploughed into thousands of deep furrows, all converging at some distant point in infinity.

Vincent van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass, 1888

But it was the colour of the country-side that made him run a hand over his bewildered eyes. The sky was so intensely blue, such a hard, relentless, profound blue that it was not blue at all; it was utterly colorless. The green of the fields that stretched below him was the essence of the colour green, gone mad. The burning lemon-yellow of the sun, the blood-red of the soil, the crying whiteness of the lone cloud over Montmajour, the ever reborn rose of the orchards… such colourings were incredible. How could he paint them? How could he ever make anyone believe that they existed, even if he could transfer them to his palette? Lemon, blue, green, red, rose; nature run rampant in five torturing shades of expression.

Vincent took the wagon road to the Place Lamartine, grabbed up his easel, paints, and canvas and struck out along the Rhône. Almond trees were beginning to flower everywhere. The glistening white glare of the sun on the water sent stabs of pain into his eyes. He had left his hat in the hotel. The sun burned through the red of his hair, sucked out all the cold of Paris, all the fatigue, discouragement, and satiety with which city life had glutted his soul.
A kilometre down the river he found a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky. The river was as blue as a well, the banks orange, coloured with green grass. A group of washerwomen in smocks and many-coloured caps were pounding dirty clothes in the shade of a lone tree. Vincent set up his easel, drew a long breath, and shut his eyes. No man could catch such colourings with his eyes open. There fell away from him Seurat’s talk about scientific pointillism, Gauguin’s harangues about primitive decorativeness, Cezanne’s appearances beneath solid surfaces, Lautrec’s lines of colour and lines of splenetic hatred.

John A. Grimshaw – Dreary Victorian Streets

19 Nov

John Atkinson Grimshaw is the painter of the industrialised late Victorian Britain who captured the beauty of wet pavements, rainy cobble streets, gas lamps, hustle of carriages, grey facades and docs under moonlight. His romanticised portrayals of urban cities still possess a slight dose of dreariness, a mood of a cold and gloomy night of November when everything is damp, wet and mist descends.

1881. Shipping on the Clyde, by John Atkinson Grimshaw,John Atkinson Grimshaw, Shipping on the Clyde, 1881

In his painting ‘Shipping on the Clyde’, Grimshaw perfectly captured the atmosphere of a cold and gloomy November twilight. Beautiful night sky that seems to have been woven from teal and sea foam shades of blue and green stretches above the docs of Glasgow, carriages are passing, wet pavements are glistening on the light of gas lamps, vivid sulfate yellow shines through the shop windows, and occasional figures that ventured into this damp night are opening their umbrellas and leaving in a hurry. All of his paintings have an intoxicating nocturnal beauty about them, but I’d dare say this one is my favourite.

Grimshaw is the master of moonlight scenes, portraying cold and wet Autumn eves, and nocturnal townscapes in a style that combines realism and romanticism at once. Subject of his art are mostly grim cities of the North; Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool, whose landscapes had been greatly changed as a result of the Industrial revolution. Some might perceive the appearance of these modern cities as dehumanising, cold and dangerous, but Grimshaw saw a certain beauty in moonlit nights over the docs, grey facades with large and luminous shop windows, damp days and misty mornings, and wet cobble streets of the North. Grimshaw’s townscenes are charmingly lyrical because he portrayed them in a romanticised way, ignoring the dirty and depressive aspects of a late Victorian city; dirt, prostitutes, poor children, thieves, bad working conditions, smog, tall chimneys of many factories.

View of Heath Street by Night 1882 Atkinson Grimshaw 1836-1893 Purchased 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00626

John Atkinson Grimshaw, View of Heath Street by Night, 1882

Same bleak industrial landscape would later inspire a string of Northern bands, most notably Joy Division. Their guitarist, Bernard Sumner admitted he found Manchester ugly, adding: ‘I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine.’ Their song ‘Exercise One‘ has a specially brooding, grim sound which is a pure product of the grey concrete wasteland that surrounded them. Still, Grimshaw’s way of presenting things reminds me more of The Smiths; while Morrissey sang of loneliness and feeling like a misfit, Johnny Marr coated in it whimsical, jolly tunes.

1887-canny-glasgow-john-atkinson-grimshawJohn Atkinson Grimshaw, Canny Glasgow, 1887

Grimshaw (1836-1893) was completely self-taught, having left his regular job as a railway clerk at the age of twenty-four to fully devote himself to painting. His parents weren’t really impressed, but who cares what anyone thinks as long as the world of art benefits. As you can see, his style is vivid in details, almost photographic in quality, and that is all due to the Pre-Raphaelites which were his main inspiration. His early work shows us that he was always fond of moonlight, but initially he portrayed lonely country lanes with a few tall trees whose bare branches remind us of the changing seasons. Still, his reputation rests on his townscapes with gas-lit streets of late Victorian England. Another Victorian artist, Whistler, praised Grimshaw, saying: ‘I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.’

Not much is known about him because he left no letters and documents, so it’s hard to explain why he painted what he painted. I believe his cityscapes weren’t painted to symbolise urban isolation and loneliness, but rather served to indulge his love for painting light which is present in all his paintings, whether it’s the street lamps, the moonlight, light from the carriages or the shops, he was simply fascinated with it. The introduction of gas lamps was surely a life-changing moment for many.