Vincent Van Gogh’s two breakthrough years in Paris with Theo
For lovers of Vincent Van Gogh, his important two years in Paris from 1886 to 1888 are a frustrating time, mainly because he was living with his brother Theo, which of course meant that he wasn’t writing the famous “Dear Theo” letters. Van Gogh scholars are spoiled because so much of his correspondence was kept by the recipients, in which he laid bare his every thought, doubt, joy and frustration. The letters also outlined in detail which paintings he was working on, so establishing a chronology for much of his career is easy – except for the Paris years.
It was during this period that Van Gogh completely changed his painting style from the dark Dutch and Belgian browns of The Potato Eaters in 1885 to the brighter impressionist colours in his paintings of flowers, street scenes and portraits. It’s interesting that the impressionists had been working since the 1860s and Van Gogh was surely aware of their work, but it didn’t really influence him until he came into more direct contact with the paintings some twenty years later in Paris.
For most of two years between early 1886 the spring of 1888, when he departed for Arles, Vincent lived with Theo in an apartment on the fourth floor at 54 Rue Lepic on the hills of Montmartre. It must have been intense with those two in there, and there surely were some times when it was too much.
Think about it – two bachelor brothers, both high-strung, the unsuccessful older painter dependent on the younger businessman brother, both drinking and womanizing and neither in particular good health. Vincent seems to have provided occasional relief by spending days painting in the country – all subsidized by Theo.
Given that Theo’s profession as an art dealer had him in regular contact with many painters, it was easy for Vincent to meet them too. His circle of friends quickly included the older Camille Pissarro, bon vivant Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, stockbroker turned painter and cad Paul Gauguin and the young Émile Bernard. During this time, the works of Japanese print makers such as Hiroshige and Hokusai were in vogue in Paris and Vincent, like some of his artist friends, collected them painted reproductions and incorporated them into his works.
A few things to consider. While technically you can say that the Van Gogh brothers lived in Paris, at that time the Montmartre neighbourhood was practically a suburb as far as Parisians were concerned. As is still the case today, this was a place of light and casual entertainment with streets of bars, cabarets and concert halls. Montmartre was an escape, a place to let your hair down to have some fun, perhaps out of sight of spouses, family and enquiring neighbours.
It was also a cheaper place to live and therefore home to many of Paris’s artists. There were a number of “open studios” where artists could work and learn, including one run by the painter Cormon where Vincent studied, trying out various painting techniques.
It’s quite interesting to see the variety in his work from these years as you can immediately see when he was influenced first by Pissarro, then Toulouse-Lautrec and finally Seurat (yes Vincent tried the pointillist technique for a few paintings).
He worked hard trying to get his works in front of buyers. Towards the end of 1887, Vincent arranged an exhibition of paintings by himself, Bernard, Anquetin, and probably Toulouse-Lautrec in the Grand-Bouillon Restaurant du Chalet, 43 Avenue de Clichy.
Emile Bernard wrote of the event: “On the avenue de Clichy a new restaurant was opened. Vincent used to eat there. He proposed to the manager that an exhibition be held there …. Canvases by Anquetin, by Lautrec, by Koning …filled the hall….It really had the impact of something new; it was more modern than anything that was made in Paris at that moment.”
Here, Bernard and Anquetin sold their first paintings. Vincent, nothing. In his two years in Paris, Van Gogh completed over 200 paintings, selling none of them commercially. He sometimes exchanged paintings with other painters or traded paintings for meals in restaurants, but neither Theo or Pere Tanguy ever sold any to this point.
Finally, the noise and hustle and bustle of Paris became too much for Vincent. He was in his mid-30s, not successful, frustrated and looking for a break. He decided he needed a change of scenery and thought the south of France might be better for him. He dreamed of establishing a “studio of the south” where his other artist friends would join him. Although he didn’t originally target Arles as his next home, that’s where he ended up, establishing the Yellow House as his studio. It was the beginning of two spectacular years of virtuoso painting that gave us the Van Gogh most of us think of today – sunflowers, starry nights, night cafés and so many portraits.
It was also the continuation of the most passionate of the “Dear Theo” letters.