A Dutchman and a Norwegian. Two artists who never met, but who created powerful and intense paintings in the same period. And who pushed themselves and their art to the limit. Discover the striking parallels between the work and the lives of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch.
During his short life, Van Gogh did not allow his flame to go out. Fire and embers were his brushes during the few years of his life, whilst he burned out for his art. I had thought and desired, like he, not to allow my flame to become extinguished and with burning brush to paint until the end.
Edvard Munch, 28 October 1933
Becoming artists at the same time
Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch had different backgrounds and skills. In the autumn of 1880, however, they had a common aim: to become artists. Edvard enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania (now Oslo); Vincent at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Antwerp.
After practising for several years, Edvard and Vincent each embarked on an ambitious figural painting in the mid-1880s. Vincent wanted to be an artist of rural life and chose a peasant family eating their meal.
Edvard’s subject was a maid who had just woken up. He hoped to exhibit his canvas and succeeded in doing so.
The Potato Eaters and Morning are milestones in which each of the two artists approached a traditional subject in his own way. Both works were, however, greeted by incomprehension. To pursue their art further, the painters subsequently moved to Paris.
Inspiration in Paris
Paris in the nineteenth century was the world’s leading cultural centre. Artists from many different countries were drawn to the vibrant French capital. Celebrated painters offered lessons in their studios, the annual Salon was packed with the latest art, and ‘alternative’ exhibitions were held in cafés and private galleries.
‘Le Grand Louvre’ was already world famous and was the place Edvard and Vincent most looked forward to seeing. Munch moved to Paris in 1885 and Van Gogh in 1886, although Edvard had already moved on by that time.
Vincent and Edvard lived in the same neighbourhood in Paris (Montmartre) and also moved in the same artistic circles.
Although they almost certainly never met, there was a direct link between the two – the Norwegian artist Hans Heyerdahl. Vincent’s brother Theo was Heyerdahl’s dealer, so it is entirely possible that the Norwegian introduced him to the young Edvard.
During their respective periods in Paris, Edvard and Vincent each discovered Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, the key movements in modern French art at the time.
Both men also explored novelties like photography and Japanese prints, which had a significant influence on their style and choice of subject.
It took Vincent a while to start experimenting with impressionist techniques. He had an opportunity to see Claude Monet’s landscapes in Theo’s gallery, where they made a deep impression on him. He applied the same loose touch and light colours in Montmartre: Behind the Moulin de la Galette.
The Pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were the very latest thing in 1886. They consisted of dots of pure, contrasting colours placed next to each other.
Rather than dots, Vincent preferred to use short, separate loose brushstrokes, which were more in keeping with his much-admired père Pissarrro.
Edvard’s Spring Day on Karl Johan Street forms a perfect match with the street scenes of the Impressionists. He painted his modern Oslo townscape with small touches of bright colour, just as the Pointillists did.
As for stippling […] I find that a real discovery, but it can already be foreseen that this technique won’t become a universal dogma any more than another.
Vincent to Theo from Arles, c. 26 August 1888
Both Vincent and Edvard viewed Edouard Manet as the most important exponent of the new painting. They especially admired his portraits. Manet’s influence can be detected in Edvard’s portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell – a true bohemian, whom he painted with broad, loose brushstrokes. The portrait was immediately described as ‘Impressionism taken to the extreme’.
Like Edvard, Vincent focused in Paris on modern portraits. In this example, he painted his girlfriend Agostina Segatori against a flat, yellow plane. The flatness, along with the emphasised outlines, came from Japanese prints. The example shown here is one that Vincent owned himself.
Vincent befriended a number of young artists in Paris, including Paul Gauguin, whose experiments with a new style he admired.
Gauguin simplified his subjects, which he laid down in large expanses of colour, reducing forms to their essence, and giving them strong outlines. His works often have a symbolic or suggestive charge.
Gauguin was very important to both Vincent and Edvard. His robust and symbolic style provided a model that helped them translate their personal experiences into powerful images.
Working in series
Both Vincent and Edvard had big plans for their most important works, which they wanted to show as a coherent ensemble, as a series. This, they felt, would add to the significance of their paintings.
Vincent began to set up his Yellow House in Arles in 1888. He dreamed of creating a ‘Studio of the South’ there – a place where the art of the future would take shape; where modern artists could find a home; and with his latest paintings decorating the walls.
Vincent began his Décoration to prepare for the arrival of his artist friend Paul Gauguin. It was to be a series of paintings featuring motifs from Arles, beginning with Sunflowers. The series swiftly expanded to include themes of day and night, inside and outside, interior and landscape. The paintings were full of interconnections relating to growth and decay, nature and civilisation.
Edvard sought around 1893 to achieve ‘greater unity’ in his paintings, to which end he worked on ‘studies for a series of pictures about life and death’. He called it his Frieze of Life.
The cycle of paintings embraces the different stages of human existence: burgeoning love, separation, fear and death. Edvard painted his own experiences and would continue to work on the series for the rest of his life.
Edvard and Vincent were not only painters, but also writers of letters and literary texts. They frequently linked the two art forms.
Edvard once described his Frieze of Life, for instance, as ‘a poem about life, love and death’. While Vincent wrote: ‘Books and reality and art are the same kind of thing for me.’
Anyone who wants to produce great art should be poor, preferably a social outsider and ideally a little bit insane.
That’s the image many people have of the artist. It explains why both Vincent and Edvard are often cited as the archetypal artist – an image fuelled in both cases by their love lives and their physical and mental health.
To paint strong feelings solely by working directly from nature – glowing with passion – infernal fire of the soul – is incredibly taxing for the nervous system. Vincent is an example of that (myself partially so).
Edvard Munch, c. 1908
Edvard suffered from poor health throughout his life, while Vincent often failed to take care of himself properly. Both men believed that if you devoted your life to art, you could not lead a ‘normal’ social or love life. Each was unhappy in love and remained unmarried and childless.
The difficult course of their lives and their total surrender to art had grave consequences. Vincent committed suicide in 1890 at the age of thirty-seven, while Edvard led a reclusive existence until his death in 1944.
On the evening of 23 December 1888, Vincent quarrelled violently with the painter Paul Gauguin at the house in Arles. Afterwards, in a state of utter confusion, he sliced off part of his left ear.
The crisis was the first in a series of mental breakdowns, accompanied by hallucinations and bouts of anxiety. Vincent was initially treated at the hospital in Arles, but subsequently had himself committed to the psychiatric clinic in Saint-Rémy. He stayed there for a year, but emerged a broken man.
For many days I’ve been absolutely distraught, as in Arles, just as much if not worse, and it’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE.
Vincent to Theo, 22 August 1889
Vincent remained in the hospital in Arles from 24 December 1888 to 7 January 1889, immediately after cutting off his ear-lobe. He had to be hospitalised again the following February.
Edvard had himself admitted to Dr Jacobson’s psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen in 1908 following years of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.
As a child, Edvard had lost his mother and older sister to tuberculosis, leaving him oversensitive and anxious. He left the clinic after about eight months, his mental health better than it had been for years .
I remember the days before I was admitted to the clinic in Copenhagen, the way I senselessly poured wine and cognac down my throat. A complete intoxication of the senses. A couple of days later I was struck down by an attack which brought me close to death.
Edvard and Vincent have become legends. Their paintings The Scream and Sunflowers are among our most important cultural icons and hang in museums dedicated to their creators.
Following Vincent’s death in 1890, all his paintings and drawings went to his brother Theo, who himself died six months later from the effects of syphilis. His young widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, assumed responsibility for Vincent’s collection.
Four years before his death in 1944, Edvard donated all his artworks to the city of Oslo. It was an immense gift: some 1,100 paintings, almost 18,000 prints and around 3,000 drawings.
For both Edvard and Vincent, art and life were inseparably linked. Language and images together helped them fathom the mystery of life.
Art, they believed, had to be true and sincere: only then could it have a future.
Meet Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch – Two Extraordinary Lives, article originally published on vangoghmuseum.nl