Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

I know, I know, I've been a wayward blogposter lately (three words: "acting department chair"). But I can't let Valentine's Day pass without a suitably romantic van Gogh painting to put everyone in the mood. Here is one of Vincent's pictures of the Voyer d'Argenson park in Asnières, a Parisian suburb, which he populated with courting couples (Van Gogh Museum, click image to enlarge). It is one of several views of Asnières that van Gogh painted, dating from May-June 1887, a little over a year after he arrived in Paris to live with his brother Theo. It's also one of the largest paintings Vincent ever did, at 75.5 x 113 cm (not quite 30 x 44 1/2 inches).

Motifs of parks and couples recur in Vincent's work from this point on -- in Arles, for instance, he would paint many views of the public gardens near his home. In this picture, the courting couples are recognizably working class, in keeping with van Gogh's thematic interests, and the style is quite neo-Impressionist. He was close friends with painter Paul Signac, he would have seen the work of Georges Seurat (including the famous painting of the park at La Grande Jatte), and their influence shows here. But notice that Vincent is no slave to pointillism -- he's too impatient for that -- he has more dashes than dots in his scene. His interest in color theory peeks through; the red-green complementary color pair is evident. That in itself has a romantic element, for in a letter to his sister Wilhemina, Vincent compares complementary pairs to human couples, saying that certain colors 'complete each other like a man and a woman.' Was Vincent thinking of a lady-love of his own as he painted this work? Unfortunately, we know little about his love life while in Paris, except for the likely affair with café owner Agostina Segatori. Vincent does say in a letter to his sister, "I still continually have the most impossible and highly unsuitable love affairs from which, as a rule, I emerge only with shame and disgrace." Many interpret the recurring theme of happy couples in Vincent's work as a poignant sign of his longing for affection.

This picture is noteworthy for being one of the first (if not the first) paintings van Gogh ever exhibited publicly. While living in Paris, Vincent hung his work regularly in neighborhood cafés and other venues. This piece was displayed at the Théâtre-Libre d'Antoine. His careful finishing of the painting and its size both indicate its importance to Vincent--he clearly intended it to be a show-piece in his oeuvre.

Happy Valentine's Day!

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