Portrait of the Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

December 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: A bedroom – a blossom — a harvest in spring — a field of wheat; the works, themselves, are famous. The man who painted them, Vincent Van Gogh, is a star who’s had crowds lining up at dawn.

WOMAN: I’ve always loved him. I’ve always loved him — for a long time. We came all the way from Pittsburgh today to stand in line.


WOMAN: Because he is Van Gogh.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everyone of all ages seems to know him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you ever heard of Vincent Van Gogh?

EARL POWELL III, Director, National Gallery of Art: He has entered the public consciousness in a way probably no other artist arguably has.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earl Powell is director of Washington’s National Gallery – host this fall to 70 Van Gogh paintings on loan from their permanent home, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

EARL POWELL: His achievement stands uniquely by itself. His life – his personality – the development of his art that the – the whole story of Van Gogh is part legend, part reality, part mythology.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, the reality – Van Gogh is the eldest son of a Dutch pastor; he was an art dealer and schoolteacher, then turned to religion, serving as a missionary to the poor. In his mid twenties religious fervor was replaced by artistic inspiration as Van Gogh painted his way from Holland to Paris to the South of France. In 1890, at age 37, he shot himself in a wheat field and died two days later. Then, there’s the stuff of legend.

WOMAN: A mad painter; that’s what I think of him.


WOMAN: But brilliant.

MAN: A man who’s worked for 10 years and sold one picture.

WOMAN: Here he is. You know, they’re millions of dollars.

CHILD: I know a lot about Van Gogh, so –

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you know?

CHILD: About how he went crazy, and he cut off his ear.

JEFFREY BROWN: The severed ear, the tragic end, the posthumous millions. Van Gogh has become part of the popular imagination — the very model of the artist as mad genius.

JOHN LEIGHTON, Director, Van Gogh Museum: But that’s not all there is to his art and his thinking.

JEFFREY BROWN: To Van Gogh Museum Director John Leighton the model is misleading. The true portrait of the artist is far more complex.

JOHN LEIGHTON: The Van Gogh that we know at the Van Gogh Museum is a different kind of artist. He’s very lucid; he’s very rational; he’s an artist who thinks very carefully about what he’s doing, who has a real sense of artistic purpose. Yes, these are very powerful, emotional pictures. But they’re also very carefully thought out and very carefully constructed.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, passion, yes, lack of control, no. Leighton says Van Gogh’s studied approach was apparent from the start, as in this, one of his first paintings.

JOHN LEIGHTON: He painted it during a storm, and you can really almost feel the spray in your face when you look at this picture. Look at the way, for example, that he’s piled on the paint there to convey the waves, or used a different kind mark to capture the mud and the sand there, and yet, again, different kinds of brush work in the sky.

JEFFREY BROWN: Although he briefly attended an art academy, where this macabre work was painted, Van Gogh was essentially self taught, learning by looking, reading, doing. And this painter of peasant life, as he called himself early on, was also a skilled writer. The well-known letters to Theo, his art dealer brother who provided financial support, a show Van Gogh constantly thinking about how to make art. Excerpts are prominently displayed in exhibition. He wrote of his first major painting, “The Potato Eaters,” “It would be wrong to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasants picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, all right, that’s not unhealthy.

JOHN LEIGHTON: It’s almost a frightening picture — those peasants and those really rather intimidating features – those gnarled hands. You really feel as if you’re in this rather dark, poky, smoke-filled room.

JEFFREY BROWN: But soon heavy brown potatoes gave way to colorful quinces. Van Gogh, eager to learn more of his craft, has joined Theo in Paris. There he came face to face with impressionism – at the time a revolutionary new way of seeing the world.

JOHN LEIGHTON: He knew of it secondhand through his brother, but I don’t think anything that he’d heard in letters from Theo quite prepared him for the confrontation with the real thing, when he came to Paris. His whole means of expression changes

. JEFFREY BROWN: The self-portraits from the Paris years show the transformation. Dark turns bright. The rustic becomes refined. Brush strokes come alive – the artist comes into his own. Of course, these same self-portraits show how hard it is today to separate the real artist from the legend that has grown up around him.

WOMAN: I thought that one of the self-portraits of Van Gogh looked a lot like Kirk Douglas.

WOMAN: He really did look like Van Gogh.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kirk Douglas?

WOMAN: Kirk Douglas, indeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kirk Douglas played Van Gogh in the 1956 film, “Lust for Life,” based on Irving Stone’s best-selling novel of the 30’s. To some, it’s this popular image, the numerous films, books, songs – a very veritable Van Gogh industry – that brings in the crowds today.


RICHARD SCHICKEL, Time Magazine: Well, they want to be part of the myth. Van Gogh is almost perfectly the romantic ideal of what an artist is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Schickel, a movie critic for Time Magazine, is a long-time observer of the way popular culture generates its artistic heroes.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: To quote the great John Ford, “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” I mean, that is to say, in popular culture, almost none of things we think are true of the American Western myth, which is what Ford was talking about, or Van Gogh’s life, or any artist’s life, is dealing with legend; it’s not, you know, the truth. Were I a serious scholar of Van Gogh, I might resent the popular image of him. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for whatever gets people in the shabby culture we live in looking at authentic art. So what’s so terrible about Kirk Douglas helping for that to happen?

JEFFREY BROWN: The real Van Gogh did cut off a piece of his ear in Arles, in the South of France. He had gone south to seek nature in literally a new light, and he found it. “I work even in the middle of the day,” he wrote, “in the full sunshine without any shadow at all – in the wheat fields – and I enjoy it like a secada.”

JOHN LEIGHTON: The sun, itself, begins to become a subject in his paintings. He’s able to use the brightest colors to carry off that – those effects of the southern sun.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is really where we see the color that we think of as Van Gogh.

JOHN LEIGHTON: That’s right. And it is also when he’s perhaps taking the most liberties with color. We look at a picture, such as his famous painting of “The Yellow House.” He’s almost really exaggerated the yellow of the house and then set it against the extraordinarily blue skies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yellow House served as Van Gogh’s home and studio, and he had high hopes that other artists would join him there to form an art colony. He decorated its rooms with his work, including what is surely one of the most famous bedrooms ever painted. He wrote – “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully.” What does he mean by “arbitrarily?” I mean, in other words, that’s not the actual color of the bed?

JOHN LEIGHTON: Well, I think it means not being pinned down to the precise recording of the local color of an object. It means if one – to use what Gogan once said – you see a blue in the landscape, well, use the brightest blue in your palette.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Gogan was the only artist to join Van Gogh at the yellow house in Arles. For nine weeks they painted, drank, and argued, ending in the ear episode. This self-portrait hangs in London. No one knows why it happened, but shortly after, Van Gogh voluntarily entered an asylum at nearby Saint Remy.

JOHN LEIGHTON: We don’t know what his illness was. It was then diagnosed as a form of epilepsy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since then, there have been many theories – none definitive. What is known as that Van Gogh did not paint during his attacks, which began to come more often. In-between bouts, the work continued at a furious pace, sometimes a painting a day. Of “The Reaper,” done at the asylum, he wrote, “I see in him the image of death in the sense that humanity might be the wheat he is reaping.” A year later, Van Gogh, himself, was dead. He had moved back North to a town near Paris. In a local wheat field myth and reality intersect one more time. “They are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies,” he wrote Theo,” and I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” As myth has it, “Wheat Field with Crows” was Van Gogh’s last painting – chock full of signs of a lost mind.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: He’s painting away at it, and the crows are kind of upset with him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Schickel vividly remembers the final scene from “Lust for Life.”

RICHARD SCHICKEL: At some point he cries out, “It’s impossible, it’s impossible.”


KIRK DOUGLAS AS VAN GOGH: It’s impossible! It’s impossible!

RICHARD SCHICKEL: I think that’s what he’s saying; it’s impossible for him to render the visions that he sees. And, you know, shortly thereafter, off camera we hear a shot. And, I mean, that’s a wonderful idealized, romanticized notion of what a painter or any artist is attempting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wonderful but wrong, says Leighton. “Wheat Field with Crows” was probably painted several weeks before Van Gogh’s suicide.

JOHN LEIGHTON: When he uses those thick brush strokes, when he uses that very forceful handling of paint to express really the dynamism of nature. You could make a strong case saying that this is a picture about growth and fertility, rather than just a pessimistic image of death.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the end then, Van Gogh’s paintings – most done in a short but extremely productive five-year period, can be viewed in two strikingly contradictory ways – an affirmation of life by a rational seeker, a cry of despair by a mad genius. More than a century after his death both views are part of the portrait.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Van Gogh exhibition will be in Washington until January 3rd. It opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art January 17th.