Vincent van Gogh’s British inspiration

Words by Mark Hooper

23 June 2020

Even for scholars of Vincent van Gogh, the artist’s time in England – between 1873 and 1876 (working first as a trainee art dealer and later as a teaching assistant) – might seem little more than a footnote. After all, it wasn’t until half a decade later, in 1881, that he took up painting in earnest, at the relatively late age of 28. But, as the new Tate Britain exhibition Van Gogh And Britain reveals, many of the ideas that were to shape his art were forged following his exposure to British culture.

“I’ve always felt there was a story to be told here; to look much more carefully at the kind of world Van Gogh encountered in Victorian London,” says the show’s lead curator, Carol Jacobi. “The main thing is that we understand him as a man living in the modern world: a world that’s changing incredibly quickly in terms of society. And because London was the most modern city in the world – it was 20 or 30 times bigger than The Hague, which was the biggest place he’d been before that – he genuinely got a sense of what modernity was and what the future held.”

The show brings together 45 of Van Gogh’s works (the largest collection of his paintings in the UK for nearly a decade) but looks beyond his art alone to explore how his exposure to British writers and thinkers prompted a lifelong interest in social reform. Often using his own words as they appeared in countless letters to his brother Theo, Jacobi was able to piece together what she describes as “this very sudden change in London that was clearly catalysed by something” (she suspects a failed love affair).

“Certainly, he seems to reject the commercial world and the middle-class idea of striving to achieve a certain position,” Jacobi says. “He becomes very concerned with the poor… and that doesn’t change; that lasts his whole life.”

As well as citing evidence that Van Gogh was a keen reader of the writings of the philosopher JS Mill, Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle (founder of the London Library), Jacobi singles out novelist George Eliot as a key influence. “The working-class heroes in her books, weren’t trying to become middle class – which is quite unusual for the time,” she says. “Van Gogh associated with those heroes more than anybody else.”

These writings had a direct influence on the revolutionary realism that was evident from the start of Van Gogh’s career as an artist. Having moved back to The Netherlands, his uncle Cornelis Marinus offered him a commission of 12 cityscapes of The Hague. Instead of painting landscapes depicting the famous sites of the town, he sent his uncle a less idealised set of pictures, featuring instead the local gasworks and other less-than-salubrious scenes. “We have this beautiful picture in the exhibition which is just of the view out of his back window,” says Jacobi. “This is something you see more in Britain, where artists, printmakers, were really pioneering in this new kind of everyday imagery. Van Gogh’s uncle wrote back to him and said, ‘This isn’t really what I was expecting, could you do six more?’ But Van Gogh absolutely stuck to what he felt was real art – he called himself an ‘artist of the people’.”

One of the many revelations of the show is the fact that his famous Sunflowers series also has its roots in his time in England. For a period, Van Gogh shared his lodgings with a Scottish art dealer in Paris who had found a healthy market in Britain for the flower paintings of Adolphe Monticelli, which sparked an idea. “When he finally does his Sunflowers series, he actually says, ‘Look, that Monticelli you’ve got is worth 500 francs – so my sunflower paintings have got to be worth at least 500 francs’.

He’s thinking about his flower paintings and that he could overtake Monticelli in that market. It’s fascinating that he thought Sunflowers would go down well here – which it clearly has!”

The artists’ collectives of Victorian Britain also had an influence on Van Gogh; Jacobi draws parallels between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the group of artists and writers who set up The Graphic magazine [first published by William Luson Thomas in 1869] with his decision to invite Paul Gauguin to the Yellow House in Arles.

But just as fascinating is how the show traces Van Gogh’s subsequent influence on 20th century British art. For instance, Walter Sickert (“a great one for looking out the back window”) was a significant defender of Van Gogh’s art when the artist and critic Roger Fry organised the 1910 show ‘Manet And The Post Impressionists’, which first introduced the work of Manet and Van Gogh - alongside Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne - to the British public.

Jacobi notes a clear line of inspiration through Sickert and his Camden Town Group, including Harold Gilman and Matthew Smith – who in turn influenced Francis Bacon. “A lot of those artists were thought of as the mavericks of British art and of going against the grain. And yet if you put them all together, because they are all connected by this passion to Van Gogh, you see that there is this other story of British art, which is expressionist and realist,” she says.

“I think one of the things that really comes through in the show is how Van Gogh really offered a new model of what an artist could be.”

The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain from 27th March – 11th August 2019.

If you’re a Quintessentially Art Patron or would like to become one, you could join an art expert for a pre-opening hours tour of Van Gogh And Britain. For more information please contact our art specialists. Find out more about our art advisory and consultancy service.

Photography by National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

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