Vincent van Gogh: letters, art, and context > Masterpieces

Van Gogh often described the paintings and drawings on which he was working. This makes it possible for us to read what he thought about the paintings that we now consider his masterpieces. For instance, there is a whole series of letters showing how carefully he prepared before painting The potato eaters. Likewise, he repeatedly discussed his Sunflowers series.


The potato eaters, 1885

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The potato eaters was Van Gogh’s first masterpiece and it was very important to him. He had only been a painter for two years and wanted to prove that he could handle a complex composition with multiple figures. His letters to his brother Theo and the artist Anthon van Rappard go into this topic in great detail.
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Self-portrait as an artist, 1888

In a long letter to his sister Willemien, Vincent mentions his Self-portrait as an artist, describing the colours and the expression on his face: “wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad”. [letter 626]
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The Langlois bridge, 1888

In the southern French town of Arles, Van Gogh made several paintings of the same drawbridge. Dissatisfied with the first version, he immediately made a second one of the same scene, but in entirely different colours. A letter to Theo gives the reason: he adapted his colour palette because the weather had changed, making everything look different.
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The yellow house, 1888

In Arles, Van Gogh rented rooms in “the Yellow House”. He put a great deal of effort into decorating the interior, making a series of paintings for the walls. Several times, he invited his fellow artists Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard to come live and work with him at the Yellow House. Eventually Gauguin spent nine weeks there.
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The bedroom, 1888

Van Gogh completed a painting of his bedroom at the Yellow House in Arles in just two days. He wrote to Theo that “the colour has to do the job here, and . . . be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general.” [letter 705] A year later, he made two more versions of the painting.
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The sower, 1888

Van Gogh was a great admirer of Jean-François Millet’s masterwork The sower. This theme intrigued him throughout his artistic career, and he painted and drew a number of sowers. His letters describe some of these works; a small version of one of them is present at the Van Gogh Museum.
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Sunflowers, 1889

Zonnebloemen, 1889

In August 1888, Van Gogh began painting sunflowers: “I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go.” [letter 666] Sunflowers form the subject of eleven of his works, including one in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum.
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Almond blossom, 1890

Theo and Jo van Gogh named their son Vincent Willem (1890-1978). Right after the boy was born, Vincent made a painting for the couple’s bedroom. It depicted large branches of almond blossom against a blue sky. He would have liked to make more blossom paintings, but before he had the opportunity, he fell into a severe psychological crisis.
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Irises, 1890

Shortly before he left the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh painted a few flower studies, including one of a large bunch of purple irises against a yellow background, which is in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum.
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Wheatfield with crows, 1890

In 1890, Van Gogh painted a series of twelve landscapes, one of which was Wheatfield with crows. He described the scene as “immense stretches of wheatfields under turbulent skies,” and wrote that he had tried to express “sadness, extreme loneliness”. [letter 898] It is often thought that this was Van Gogh’s final painting, but it was not.
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