Van Gogh and Britain
Experts and curators usually tell Van Gogh’s story by describing his artistic journey through France, mostly his stay in Arles and later in Auvers-sur-Oise, his relationship with his brother and his fight with Gauguin. The exhibition “Van Gogh and Britain” at the Tate Britain explores the relationship between Van Gogh and Britain, how he was stimulated by British artists and how he inspired them.
Despite the fact that Van Gogh nearly spent 3 years in England between 1873 and 1876, this exhibition is the first time that the relationship between the Dutch painter and his British counterparts has been explored. The exhibition is split in two parts; the first focusing on Van Gogh’s experience in London and what influenced him here and the second about the British artists influenced by Van Gogh’s art and life.
Van Gogh fell in love with Britain when he was very young. He settled on Hackford Road in Brixton, South London in 1873 at the age of twenty to work for the art dealer Goupil. There he began reading English literature and became fascinated by the novels of Charles Dickens, which remained an inspiration for the rest of his life. He was not a painter at this point but he immersed himself in British culture, visiting museums and galleries where he discovered and studied the work of Constable and Millais, both featured in the exhibition. The impression made by the skies, the lonely paths and the lighting of these artists were of great influence when Van Gogh started painting a few years later, revealed in the beautiful and silent painting Autumn Landscape at Dusk displayed in the exhibition. Van Gogh would spend his time walking through the streets of London, seduced by the modernity of the city but upset by the misery of the working-class, which reflected in his willingness to start a career as preacher in 1876 after having being dismissed from Goupil.
The exhibition also presents “Black and Whites” as Van Gogh himself called them: prints and art reproductions, the trade of which was then expanding in the UK and were a large part of Goupils trade during this time. Van Gogh later collected up to two thousand prints, but above all he studied them a great deal, learning from the lighting and the modern subjects depicted in order to develop his own recognizable style. For example, he bought a set of Gustave Doré’s etchings of London and copied the print depicting prisoners forced to walk in circle at Newgate Prison, this would become the beautiful painting Prisoners Exercising lent to the exhibition by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and painted in Arles a few years before Van Gogh’s death. However, one can only admit that apart from the subject, the vivacity of that painting, its brightness and the use of colours aren’t related to any of Van Gogh’s British influences and rely on his supreme originality, as most of the works displayed in the exhibition.
This exhibition is also of personal interest for our gallery, as Gladwell & Patterson’s history played a key part in Van Gogh’s numerous stays in London. Harry Gladwell, who was to succeed to his father Henry William Gladwell at the head of Gladwell and Company, met Van Gogh in Paris at Goupils, where he soon started to work himself. They became very close and even shared an apartment in Montmartre along with their passion for art. Van Gogh often mentioned Gladwell in his correspondence with his brother Theo and during Van Gogh’s stays in England, the Gladwells hosted him many times: he visited the gallery and the family home, and took part in the events of the family life for a long time. Van Gogh shared his experience with Harry Gladwell, helping him to start a collection of prints. He had many English friends, and especially kept in touch with a group of British artists displayed in the exhibition, mostly thanks to his brother Theo who was an art dealer.
The second part of the exhibition presents the influence of Van Gogh over British artists, starting with the 1910 London exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists twenty years after Van Gogh’s death. Even if the works displayed were shocking for the British eye not used to such a modern style, the exhibition was a success and introduced Van Gogh to Britain. The comments were mostly regarding his mental illness, justifying either the genius or the foolishness of his work. In the following years, many British artists became familiar with his work and were influenced by his subjects as well as his way of painting. A room within the exhibition presents the Sunflowers of the National Gallery, painted in 1888 by Van Gogh and displays alongside still lives of British artists inspired by this famous work. Their adaptation of the brilliant colouring and the recognisable brushstroke of Van Gogh illustrates the great influence Van Gogh had over British artists. Still, comparing the Sunflowers of Van Gogh to the other works of the room only makes you experience even more the supremacy of the Dutch master’s genius over his British followers.
Along with Van Gogh’s growing recognition in England, the myth of his tormented life took a greater part in his story, with people linking it strongly to his art. His latest works were seen as reflections of his mental illness, especially his self-portraits, as the one lent by the National Gallery where the painter depicts himself with sunken cheeks, staring into space as everything around him seems to be moving. After the Second World War, the excitement about Van Gogh didn’t disappear and Britain hosted exhibitions, films and published books honouring the memory of the painter and the impact he had in making British art modern. A series of three monumental paintings by Francis Bacon completed in 1957 closes the exhibition by paying tribute to the master, his landscapes and his eternal straw hat.
As a French native freshly settled in London, I really enjoyed seeing British culture through Van Gogh’s eyes, admiring masterpieces that I already knew such as the Starry night along the Rhone from the Musée d’Orsay alongside the British works of art that inspired him and those in turn he inspired. Despite the disappointment one could feel at the end of the exhibition due to the low number of Van Gogh’s original paintings compared to the overall amount of works on display, this is a really interesting and well-documented show to attend in order to get an insight of Van Gogh’s early life and the inspirations that made him become the great painter we all know.