Altichiero da Zevio, Portrait of Petrarch, c. 1378, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale (latin 6069 F Fol. A A 93/1326)
Van Gogh and Italy
less important artists, he appreciated Gauguin and Bernard as personal friends, and found it possible to have discussions with them.
All in all, it was not enough to raise his spirits but, after finding his bearings in Arles, he apparently managed to overcome his depression, becoming quite cheerful even. Here, for the first time, nature and the countryside caused him to discover the Italian origins that were to make him regard Provence as a source of inspiration. It would fire his creativity as a painter again, both visually and pictorially. Writing to Theo from Arles, he reported enthusiastically: ‘J'ai lu il y a quelques temps un article sur Dante, Pétrarque, Boccace, Giotto, Botticelli. Oh, mon Dieu, come cela m'a fait de l'impression en lisant les lettres de ces gens-là.’ He then continued, ‘Or Pétrarque était ici tout près à Avignon et je vois les mêmes cypresses et les mêmes lauriers. J'ai cherché à mettre quelque chose de cela dans un des jardins peints en pleine pâte jaune citron et vert citron’ [687/539]. Inspired by the surrounding countryside, the very fact of this evocation of major Italian painters and writers surely has a mental and cultural source of its own. A short time later Van Gogh was to write further: ‘Mais n'est-ce pas vrai que ce jardin a un drôle de style qui fait qu'on peut fort bien se représenter les poètes de la Renaissance, Dante, Pétrarque, Boccace se baladant dans ces buissons sur l'herbe fleurie!’ [692/541].
These fragments of fundamental reactions are easy to gloss over, but certainly merit further analysis - hence the present essay. The customary brevity of Vincent's style of writing has a background that is not immediately obvious. At the same time, it reveals a fresh observation of nature as it appeared to him in Provence. The small parks in Arles were inspiring. He even developed an interpretation of a kind that, in terms of scenery and countryside, had previously aroused in his imagination only - because he had never been to Italy.
Working out-of-doors, he was repeatedly to give his themes - if he had anything to say about them - a link with Italy. Seeing Provence as a French continuation of Italy, both visually and, as a rule, in association with his feelings and emotions, was therefore a discovery that he made there (fig. 3).
The simultaneous creation of a hallucinating image of the above selection of men of the greatest merit in those
Vincent van Gogh, Wheat field with cypresses (F 615 JH 1755), 1889, London, National Gallery
various disciplines of the Italian pre-Renaissance is more difficult, as mentioned above.
The ecstatic power and tone, and, at the same time, the intensity of Van Gogh's inspiration by Italy, is not only visual and pictorial, but also literary. He twice felt the need to inform Theo about all this, and a third letter - to Gauguin - also refers to it [699/544a]. They prove how profound, and also how comprehensive, this creative response was. It was neither superficial nor a mere fancy, not even in his letters. Vincent conveys the impression - convincingly, in my opinion - that he had a greater knowledge of that pre-Renaissance evolution in Italy than was previously known or suspected. As for his modern problems, it made him hanker after a more intense and international atmosphere (London, Paris and, finally, Arles). The books by modern French writers that he had been reading while still in the Netherlands were consistent with those read there at the time and included, for instance, works by Zola, Hugo, Flaubert.
In his letter from Arles, however, Vincent ventured to refer to a selection of Italian cultural elements. This evocation of illustrious personalities from the pre-Renaissance centuries might be considered very general but for the fact that Vincent, whose succinct style of letter-writing rarely included much detail, wanted to tell Theo, to everyone's surprise, that he had a pronounced preference for Giotto.
The first published letter from his days in Brabant in which Vincent mentions Giotto, is of greater value than might appear initially. The undated letter to Theo [479/391], presumably a New Year's Eve letter written in late 1884 (?), was in fact a reply to Theo's interpretation of a modern painting he had acquired. The subject, according to Theo, was ‘Dantesque’ - whom he further characterised as ‘Mephistophelian.’ Vincent promptly disputed this as being a grave misconception. He even mentioned - as a source of his knowledge and understanding of the days of Dante and Giotto - a French publication in his possession, from which he quoted the following line about Giotto: ‘le premier il mit la bonté dans l'expression des têtes humaines.’ Vincent assumed that Theo was familiar with the portrait of Dante painted by Giotto, and drew the following conclusion from it: ‘Dante's expression, however sad and melancholy it may be, is essentially the expression of that which is infinitely good and tender’ (‘[...] de expressie van Dante hoe triest en melancoliek ook is essentieel de uitdrukking van het oneindig goede en tere’).
A brief note on this letter's connection with Vincent's main output during his period in Brabant is required here. The letter was written at the time of his intense preoccupation with notions about rendering more profound his own creativity and visual reactions to the people around him, the peasant families of Brabant in their homes (fig. 4).
The attention Van Gogh devoted to Giotto and Dante was referred to above as unexpected, but in the subsequent repeated references to the painter in the letters his personality, so full of affliction, played a part alongside his talents as an artist. Vincent himself, overcome by his struggle with the suffering that he had to experience - and which constituted a threat to his creativity - felt his admiration for Giotto all the more profoundly because of the latter's ability to let creativity triumph in spite of everything. Van Gogh wrotes: ‘Giotto m'a touché le plus - toujours souffrant et toujours plein de bonté et d'ardeur comme s'il vivait déjà dans un monde autre que celui-ci. Giotto est extraordinaire d'ailleurs et je le sens mieux que les poètes Dante, Pétrarque, Boccace [...]’ [687/539]. It is clear from the occasional remarks in his letters that Van Gogh was not satisfied with a visual, technical and aesthetic experiment, but hoped that his work would include something of the whole
Vincent van Gogh, Study of a peasant woman: Gordina de Groot (F 85 JH 693), 1885, Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum
human being, in a more profound, humane and psychological sense. He wrote further: ‘Ce drôle de Giotto duquel sa biographie disait qu'il était toujours souffrant et toujours plein d'ardeur et d'idées. Voilà, je voudrais pouvoir arriver à cette assurance qui rend heureux et vivant en toute occasion’ [695/543].
Vincent did not, of course, wish to imitate Giotto's style, but it seems justifiable to conclude that Giotto continued to have an effect on his reflections. Furthermore, some self-identification had played a part ever since the remarks made in Brabant. By stressing Giotto's suffering (‘il souffre’), he acknowledged an affinity with the artist. Overcoming resistance was something that Van Gogh recognised as being only too necessary in his own malady.
In Arles, Vincent was also preoccupied with the question of which member of that group associated with
Vincent van Gogh, Public garden with a couple and a blue fir tree (‘Jardin du poète’) (F 479 JH 1601), 1888, Private collection
Dante seemed closest to him. Pondering this, he was left with Giotto and Petrarch. Besides Giotto, whom he wanted to mention first because of his discipline as a painter, it was Petrarch who fascinated him the most, for reasons unrelated to pictorial intentions. There is no doubt that in the case of Petrach, a poet, he probed more widely and profoundly than he could do with painters - no longer visually or technically, but with his efforts directed more towards psychological and spiritual aspects. The question thus remains, how, where and as a result of what, could a creative personality, a poet who never painted and who was not ever involved in discussions on painting - i.e. someone from a different discipline - came so close to Giotto when Vincent made his choice.
It is possible, although there is no evidence for it, that the raptures in Van Gogh's correspondence relate primarily to Petrarch's letter about his far-reaching, comprehensive, and physical victory over the harsh mountain conditions on Mont Ventoux, a mountain that was not far from Avignon and almost inaccessible when the poet climbed it.
Petrarch had faced the demands of the strenuous climb without reservations. It continually brought him to the brink of psychological exhaustion, which he ultimately overcame through his sentiments and state of high mental tension. The view from the heights was so beautiful, emotional and magnificent that it led to an unprecedented enrichment of all his topographical knowledge and to a perception, an ecstasy even, whereby he understood all of space to be an entity.
Yet serious doubts beset Petrarch during the descent, when he suddenly gave way to an irresistible urge to read a text from St Augustine's Confessions. It contains a warning not to succumb to the human passion for the panoramic views provided by mountain peaks, since they distract the spirit from the uphill path to the immensity of eternal space (Book 10, Chapter 8). As he read, Petrarch's doubts about the image of space that he had just experienced were strengthened. His reaction was a mighty silence rather than a defence. He even imposed that dictatorial silence on his brother, who had accompanied him on his climb.
Petrarch did not formulate a reply to these warning texts. He could neither give up his respect for St Augustine nor his newly acquired earthly emotions about nature. Burckhardt, actually biased in his enthusiastic and decisive observations on Petrarch, did not touch upon this psychological aspect.
Petrarch's powerful silence also reveals him to be one of the first modern sceptics! He then sent his letter - which is not without significance - to his former teacher in Paris, Dionigi da Borgo di San Sepolcro, a theologian and an admiring authority on Augustinian doctrine, whose lectures he had attended at the Sorbonne between 1328 and 1332.
The letter is not only a literary account that is still significant today, it is also full of modern self-analysis. Petrarch did not ask any questions about the problem of doubts, but it was not a real confession either. The two religious ways of thinking were to live on together, without a solution, during Petrarch's lifetime.
For Van Gogh in 1888 it was not only absorbing but also deeply moving to discover that vehement inner struggle in which the early-modern and doubting Petrarch had been engaged. It is certainly appropriate, in the context of this essay, to take a specific look at Petrarch's work as a unique source.
The first problem to consider is how Van Gogh learnt about Petrarch while he was in France. Some research was needed to find out the position of published translations during the years that Van Gogh spent there.
Vincent van Gogh, The church in Auvers (F 789 JH 2006), 1890, Paris, Musée d'Orsay
At my request, the Italian specialist Professor Pierre Jodogne of the University of Liège undertook this research at the Biliothèque Nationale in Paris. He discovered that there was a flurry of translations of Italian works into French precisely during this time. Victor Develay in particular published French translations of Petrarch, including the famous letter on the ‘Ascension du Mont Ventoux.’
There are several more indications that Vincent continued to be preoccupied with Petrarch. He felt it was necessary for Theo to know that it had done him good to discover that the poet had lived in the Vaucluse, not far from where he was himself, having moved there in order to be able to work in peace, away from bustling Avignon (which Petrarch mentions as being in many respects an objectionable city). Vincent was convinced that his cherished author had looked at the same laurels and oleanders as he had - a sign of human empathy (fig. 5). He thought this strengthened the affinity. These experiences, however, with their positive Italian slant, did not help the exhausted Van Gogh to overcome his disquiet about his own main problem - how to carry on with his work.
He then created the five ‘Berceuses,’ with ideological intent. The marked difference in quality between them raises the question of whether Vincent himself was in the process of becoming aware of their disappointing unevenness. I am convinced that this was so. For a whole complex of reasons, his continuous state of agitation had an inhibiting effect.
His exuberant enjoyment of Arles lost some of its intensity as the prospect of a return to his native country rather than a technical revolution loomed ahead. France could no longer hold him and Auvers became his final stopping place. His painting speed increased as a result of that obsession with returning home. There is an ominous, logical sequence of themes - still requiring art-historical investigation - that remained hurried, not fully worked out, whilst his Dutch researches suddenly became more active.
It struck me, since I wished to pursue the matter a little further, that even in his original work, Van Gogh abandoned - as no longer usable - his switch in the use of colour, so important at the time, from shades of grey (especially those of Brabant) to the concept of a bright and colourful palette. There was still some kind of an illusion that, once he was back at home with his mother, he would like to review his work.
Everything that he created at Auvers vibrates with doubt, but this tragic and ineluctable destructive process did not prevent him from producing a number of outstanding works. In particular, I have in mind his painting of the small church at Auvers, in which, in deep sorrow, the memory of his father's church played a part (fig. 6). There, expression and memory guided the painter's hand. Largely because of an awareness of his weakened creative talents, Vincent's total existence reached its lowest ebb.
Thus, Auvers rapidly - and visibly in his work - ceased to be the final stop before a considered, if unstable, return. In increasing disquiet, Vincent himself soon became aware that he was reaching the end of the creativity - now more and more erratic - that had previously sustained his existence. It was a catastrophic process brought to an end by himself. The work that he left, matured through tensions, proved to be a revelation.