Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life in France, where he died. They include landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, and are characterised by bold colours and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art. His suicide at 37 followed years of mental illness and poverty.
Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime, and was considered a madman and a failure. He became famous after his suicide, and exists in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist “where discourses on madness and creativity converge”. He attained widespread critical, commercial and popular success over the ensuing decades, and is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist.
Van Gogh’s stylistic developments are usually linked to the periods he spent living in different places across Europe. He was inclined to immerse himself in local cultures and lighting conditions, although he maintained a highly individual visual outlook throughout. His evolution as an artist was slow, and he was aware of his painterly limitations. He moved home often, perhaps to expose himself to new visual stimuli, and through exposure develop his technical skill.
On 27 July 1890, aged 37, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. There were no witnesses and he died 30 hours after the incident. The shooting may have taken place in the wheat field in which he had been painting, or a local barn. The bullet was deflected by a rib and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs – probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux, where he was attended to by two doctors, but without a surgeon present the bullet could not be removed. The doctors tended to him as best they could, then left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning Theo rushed to his brother’s side, finding him in good spirits. But within hours Vincent began to fail, suffering from an untreated infection resulting from the wound. He died in the early hours of 29 July. According to Theo, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, commonly known as Auguste Renoir, was a French artist who was a leading painter in the development of the Impressionist style. As a celebrator of beauty and especially feminine sensuality, it has been said that “Renoir is the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau.”
Renoir’s paintings are notable for their vibrant light and saturated color, most often focusing on people in intimate and candid compositions. The female nude was one of his primary subjects. In characteristic Impressionist style, Renoir suggested the details of a scene through freely brushed touches of color, so that his figures softly fuse with one another and their surroundings.
A prolific artist, he created several thousand paintings. The warm sensuality of Renoir’s style made his paintings some of the most well-known and frequently reproduced works in the history of art.
Oscar-Claude Monet was a founder of French Impressionist painting, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to plein-air landscape painting. The term “Impressionism” is derived from the title of his painting Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which was exhibited in 1874 in the first of the independent exhibitions mounted by Monet and his associates as an alternative to the Salon de Paris.
Monet has been described as “the driving force behind Impressionism”. Crucial to the art of the Impressionist painters was the understanding of the effects of light on the local colour of objects, and the effects of the juxtaposition of colours with each other. Monet’s long career as a painter was spent in the pursuit of this aim.
Monet’s ambition of documenting the French countryside led him to adopt a method of painting the same scene many times in order to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons. From 1883 Monet lived in Giverny, where he purchased a house and property and began a vast landscaping project which included lily ponds that would become the subjects of his best-known works. In 1899 he began painting the water lilies, first in vertical views with a Japanese bridge as a central feature, and later in the series of large-scale paintings that was to occupy him continuously for the next 20 years of his life.
Vasily Polenov was a Russian landscape painter associated with the Peredvizhniki movement of realist artists. He was one of the first Russian artists who achieved a plein air freshness of color combined with artistic finish of composition. The principles developed by Polenov had a great impact on the further development of Russian (and especially Soviet) landscape painting.
Polenov’s sketches of the Middle East and Greece (1881–1882) paved the way for his masterpiece an interesting attempt to update the academic style of painting. In his works of the 1880s, Polenov tended to combine New Testament subjects with his penchant for landscape. From the 1870s, Polenov also turned to stage design.
Konstantin Korovin was a leading Russian Impressionist painter. In the best of Korovin’s portraits, man and nature merge together, the beauty of each complementing the other. In the evening twilight or in the morning haze, his colours loose their concreteness and form a system of vibrating patches, and objects become less clearly defined. Yet in Korovin’s best works, as well as conveying an emotional state, he also gives objects an almost tangible material quality.
During the First World War Korovin worked as a camouflage consultant at the headquarters of one of the Russian armies. Despite his poor state of health (an old nervous illness and heart disease) he was often at the front line.
Apart from being incurably ill himself, Korovin had an invalid son who could be treated only in Paris, and on the advice of the People’s Commissar for Education Lunacharsky, he moved to the French capital. Here an exhibition of his works was to have taken place, but his pictures were stolen and the artist was left penniless. He was forced to agree to any kind of work. Under these circumstances Korovin signed various shackling agreements and in a short period, for a negligible fee, painted forty picture of a ‘souvenir’ type—countless ‘Russian Winters’ and ‘Boulevards of Paris’. The rich colours and sweeping style that had marked much of his earlier work now became almost excessive. Indicative of his continuing interest in Russian music and culture was his scenery for a production by the Turin Opera House of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel. In the last years of his life he worked fruitfully in many of the major theatres of Europe, America, Asia and Australia. Konstantin Korovin died in 1939. The artist Konslantin Yuon had this to say about his “Korovin’s painting is the embodiment in imagery of the artist’s happiness and joy of living. All the colours of the world beckoned to him and smiled at him”.