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Life on the end of a brush – Van Gogh review

Stuart Bush Studio Blog Van Gogh

Life on the end of a brush – Van Gogh review

London in the 1870s was an exciting place to obverse people and places. It was overtly brimming with life.  Van Gogh arrived in London in 1873 at 20 years old and spent just under three years as an art dealer’s assistant. Although he didn’t start painting until four years after he left, this exhibition at Tate Britain proposes that London had a significant impact on his art and influenced many of his works. I went along to take a closer look at Van Gogh’s paintings and to see what I thought of the exhibition claims and see life on the end of a brush.

Van Gogh regularly made drawings of London on his way home from work from Covent Garden to Brixton.  Seeing the sooty scenes across the Thames, rowdy drunken men laughing in the pubs and women having bitter quarrels in the streets was an enriching experience for an artist.  Nevertheless, it created a stark contrast to the rich and opulence life he also saw.  Charles Dickens, who was one of Van Gogh’s favourite writers, wrote, “[the] streets and courts [of London] dart in all directions until they are lost in the wholesome vapour which hangs over the house-top and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.”


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When Van Gogh started painting, he knew what he wanted to portray; an equivalent of the way that Dickens wrote.  Along with building a personal collection of black and white prints, that Van Gogh also sold as an art dealers assistant, like Gustave Doré’s drawings, From London: A Pilgrimage, (1872), Van Gogh knew he wanted to be a social documenter; a painter of working people’s lives.



Stuart Bush Studio Blog Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) Path in the Garden of the Asylum, 1889 Oil paint on canvas 614 x 504 mm Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

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It is perhaps not surprising that Van Gogh is mainly a self-taught artist.  This exhibition clearly shows he was a natural genius by the end of the 1880s with many paintings dated 1888-9.  For example, ‘Path in the garden if the asylum Saint Remy,’ (1889) and ‘The Prison Courtyard Saint-Remy’ (1890).

I’m sure the advice Van Gogh received from teachers would have been, although well intended, however very stifling for Van Gogh.  Van Gogh even ignored his brother Theo’s advice.  After a short term of concise art training, nothing stopped him from painting in rippling flows of paint on a springy canvas. Van Gogh was able to be at one with what he felt was important and move past the traditional conventions of the time. He moved artistically to where he was entirely at one with his inspirations and to be able to create a strong presence in his paintings.


Life on the end of a brush – Van Gogh review

As he broke new ground in his work Van Gogh didn’t know what was right or wrong; he didn’t have any judgemental glasses to take off. While in the flow of painting, his actions in front of the canvas unlocked a process of natural development without self-criticism. Van Gogh’s paintings are like a controlled explosion; an exhilarating performance where he was intensely aware of every stroke.

The confidence Van Gogh shows is in stark contrast to the self-doubt that Van Gogh suffered from. After-all it is believed that he cut his ear off and later committed suicide due to his mental illness at age 37. However, to achieve what he did on a canvas I suspect that when Van Gogh was in front of a canvas with a brush in his hand, he had the ability to keep his awareness on one thing for an extended period of time. In the moment of conception, Van Gogh had a strong and deep urge to communicate his emotional feelings come what may.

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Van Gogh In Britain, Tate Britain, March 2019

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Van Gogh used a carefully chosen palette of colour which was intentionally contrasting. His technique stopped the pigment getting muddy because he put his full attention and observation into what he was doing; nothing more, nothing less. He was always fully aware of what was on the end of is brush.

If ten people saw an identical view and were asked to paint that view, every painting would be different. We each bring our own unique mix of life, history, judgement and experiences forward when we do anything. Everyone has their baggage and subjective view of the world. We all notice that what we feel is essential. Van Gogh didn’t look at things as they were. He looked deeper, not to what they looked like, but to what he felt about the situation he was observing.

He went to great lengths to use a thick impasto style that captured emotions more than any painting had achieved before. Feelings and emotions were directed into the process of applying paint. The paintings could not have been made without a relaxed clarity in every moment in front of the canvas above all else.

Life on the end of a brush – Van Gogh review link

Van Gogh Museum


Stuart Bush Studio Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) The Prison Courtyard, 1890 Oil paint on canvas 800 x 640 mm © The Pushkin State, Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

One of the highlights of the show is ‘Hospital at Saint-Remy‘ (1889).   Van Gogh made the painting while admitted to hospital.  His swirling impasto technique with a loaded brush of buttery paint is a delight. He is at one with every stroke, and natural ability to record his feelings.


Reproductions, photos and film, as well as words, do little to explain the shivering and whirling marks.  The crackling and rippling glints of light and the downcast feeling Van Gogh made with his palette of colours.  The warm colours at the top of canvas play against the cold shades of greens, blues and purples in the bottom of the painting.  Causing the expressive brush marks to come alive.


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The influence of Dickens gave Van Gogh an opportunity to capture life. I’m sure London had an impact on his life, however, at the end of the show, I was only partly convinced that London was responsible for inspiring Van Gogh’s expressive work. Nevertheless, I am thrilled to have a Van Gogh exhibition in London. I have had the chance to digest and appreciate a genius at work.

Van Gogh wasn’t trying to depict what most people see while looking at the world. Instead, he conjured up his strong emotion and genius in the paint. Van Gogh’s spirit is on his canvases. He shows us a profound truth about the human condition, in a full and proud statement, so thick it creates a three-dimension effect. Van Gogh made painting so much more than what came before his time. If you want to see a picture with a brush that is load with life in every stroke, this exhibition is a must-see as Van Gogh completely puts himself in peril for his art.


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Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) Olive Trees, 1889, Oil paint on canvas, 510 x 652 mm, National Galleries of Scotland

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