Painting Mondays: View of Roofs and Backs of Houses

How did van Gogh become van Gogh? The two years, from 1886 to 1888, which he spent living with his brother among the rooftops of Paris, marked his transition from somber dark to expressive color.

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On Mondays I write about one of the 30+ Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the  book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today’s painting, of the roofs of Paris, is important because it is among this landscape of zinc and slate that van Gogh’s artistic vision was transformed. Before arriving in Paris, his paintings were dark, steeped in the tradition of Dutch painters. Two years later, when he left Paris for the south of France, he was ready to master the explosive expressions of color that we see in many of his most beloved paintings.

With no advance warning, in February 1886, Vincent showed up at the door of his brother’s apartment in Paris, asking to move in. Vincent was broke; he had arrived from  Antwerp, Belgium where he was unable to pay his rent. Not surprisingly, the next two years were one of the very few times when Vincent and his brother Theo struggled to get along. However, the move was a good one for van Gogh’s artistic development.

Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother, lived in Montmartre, the artistic center of Paris. Two years earlier, in 1884, he had been promoted to work in the Paris headquarters of Goupil & Cie, at the time the leading art dealer in France. As Nina Siegal explains in her New York Times article, Becoming Vincent Van Gogh: The Paris Years, van Gogh “was immediately thrust into a milieu of young avant-garde artists experimenting with new styles.” Siegal explains more about the Parisian art scene in those years:

“Impressionists…were busy with their explorations of light and shadows. The Pointillists…were separating out colors into individual dots dabbed on canvas to form discernable figures. The Cloisonnists, meanwhile, were painting with bold and flat forms separated by dark outlines. Vincent…tried his hand at all of [these styles].”

Exposed to these influences, Vincent re-examined his ideas of painting. He met many of the notable Parisian painters during this period too, further inspiring his artistic growth. Read more in Siegal’s excellent and knowledgable piece, here.

From the start of van Gogh’s years in Paris to its end, the transition in his art is remarkable. For me, the two self-portraits below say it all. The one on the left is from 1886, just after he moved to Paris; the one on the right is from 1888, just before he left Paris and moved to Arles.

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Wow! I like both paintings. But it is the Vincent on the right who was ready to create such masterpieces as his sunflowers, wheat fields, and Starry Night!

(Many scholars have written about van Gogh’s Paris years. If interested, check out Van Gogh: The Life, a phenomenal book, or Becoming Van Gogh, a shorter piece in the New York Review of Books that displays images of his pre-Paris sketches and his post-Paris work. Van Gogh created 224 paintings in Paris, including a number of scenes of rooftops. You can find the complete list of them on vggallery.com, here.)

Finally, back to the roofs of Paris. Many artists, not just van Gogh, have been inspired by them. The Paris City Council is now asking UNESCO to designate their “unique” roofs a world heritage site. What do you think about the roof request? About van Gogh? About books intended to inspire children’s appreciation of great art? I would love to know and will read and respond to your comments with interest.

Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book/early reader that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. See it here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

 

 

 

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