In Van Gogh’s letters, again and again we find the names of his great models: Rembrandt, Millet, Delacroix, and Mauve. When he discovered Japanese prints and the Impressionists in Paris, they too established an enduring hold on his imagination. Van Gogh was also keenly interested in literature and often discussed ideas suggested by his reading.
Van Gogh admired farmers and idealized their simple lives close to nature. For instance, he wrote, “I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world. Not in all respects, because what do they know of art and many other things?” [letter 497]
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In his surviving letters, Van Gogh makes some 800 references to books and articles he has read by more than 150 authors. He read French, Dutch, and English literature and drew a great deal of inspiration from it.
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Like many other painters of his period, Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese prints. He envied the clean precision of their draughtsmanship: “Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat.” [letter 686]
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The renowned Hague School painter Anton Mauve was Van Gogh’s cousin by marriage and instructed him for a time in 1881. At first they were both happy with the arrangement, but tensions soon arose, and they had a decisive falling-out. Nevertheless, Van Gogh often mentioned Mauve and saw his work as a model.
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It was Van Gogh’s dream to work with Paul Gauguin, whose art he greatly admired. He convinced Gauguin to come to Arles, and for nine weeks the two artists lived and worked together in the Yellow House. Unfortunately, things went wrong, and Gauguin left after Van Gogh, in a moment of derangement, cut off part of his ear.
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While still living in Holland, Vincent encountered the work and colour theories of the French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). He tested Delacroix’s theories of complementary colours in his paintings. His passion for Delacroix’s work endured, and he looked to the earlier artist as a model on many occasions.
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The French artist Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) had a profound impact on Van Gogh’s art and his outlook on life. In many letters, Van Gogh discusses his reverence for this painter of rural life.
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“Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words,” Van Gogh once wrote to Theo. [letter 534] He was familiar with many of Rembrandt’s paintings through reproductions, and had also seen some of the originals. Though Van Gogh’s own palette grew more and more colourful, the old Dutch master’s command of light and shadow remained in his thoughts.
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Van Gogh’s exposure to Impressionism in Paris came as a shock to him. It made him realize that his painting The potato eaters, which he viewed with some pride as a modern masterpiece, was not nearly as modern as he had thought. He started experimenting with colours and styles of brushstroke that were new to him and soon considered himself to be an impressionist too.
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