What Van Gogh Can Do

Van Gogh frequently paid tribute to painters who had allowed him to see certain colours and atmospheres. Velazquez, for example, had given him a map that allowed him to see grey. Several of Velazquez’s canvases depicted humble Iberian interiors, with walls made of brick or a sombre plaster, where even in the middle of the day, when the shutters were closed to protect the house from the heat, the dominant colour was a sepulchral grey, occasionally pierced, where the shutters were not quite closed or a section had been chipped off them, by a shaft of brilliant yellow. Velazquez had not invented such effects, many would have witnessed them before him, but few had had the energy or talent to capture them and turn them into communicable experience. Like an explorer with a new continent, Velazquez had, for Van Gogh at least, given his name to a discovery in the world of light.

Van Gogh – Field of Poppies

The above paragraph, from Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, is taken from the section in which the author presents his case for how works of art can help us to really see and appreciate the real thing when we get the opportunity, as in our travels. Even Van Gogh’s eyes were opened to the depth of natural phenomena by this means.

I am not aware of this aspect of my own developing appreciation for the beauty of various places. I can’t even think of any word pictures that primed me to love the places I do. That art is an influential power I do believe, but I mostly post excerpts here as an example of de Botton’s art. His words are a pleasure to read and also add a good deal to my meager foundation in art appreciation.

Come to think of it, I will have to take back what I just said, because I find myself influenced after all. Before reading this book, I had no interest in visiting Provence. The following paragraph has changed my mind.

After Van Gogh, I began to notice that there was something unusual about the colours of Provence as well. There are climatic reasons for this. The mistral, blowing along the Rhone valley from the Alps, regularly clears the sky of clouds and moisture, leaving it a pure rich blue without a trace of white. At the same time, a high water table and good irrigation promote a plant life of singular lushness for a Mediterranean climate. With no water shortages to restrict its growth, the vegetation draws full benefit from the great advantages of the south: light and heat. And fortuitously, because there is no moisture in the air, there is in Provence, unlike in the tropics, no mistiness to dampen and meld the colours of the trees, flowers and plants. The combination of a cloudless sky, dry air, water and rich vegetation leaves the region dominated by vivid primary, contrasting colours.

Van Gogh – The Yellow House, Arles

Speaking of colors, every chapter of The Art of Travel includes several black-and-white illustrations, photographs from the author’s travels and of the featured artists’ paintings. In this section of the book in which there is so much about colors, the lack of them was particularly conspicuous.

As is hinted above, De Botton did not love the scenery of the French countryside at his first encounter, because at the time he was bored, impatient, and uncomfortably hot, not disposed to be charmed. He says he needed to be taught by Van Gogh, but I think he also just needed a good night’s sleep.

This chapter “On Eye-Opening Art” includes many quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which were for me, trained more in reading than in art, more impressive and evocative than his paintings. De Botton’s eyes began to be opened as he read the artist’s own descriptions of Provence, and in Arles he was lucky to get in on a guided tour of “The Van Gogh Trail.” At stops along the walk the tourists gazed upon scenes that long ago had been the subjects of Van Gogh paintings, while the guide held up large photographs of the finished works. The seeds of love were planted and watered by these lessons, and sprang up in the heart of Mr. de Botton.

5 thoughts on “What Van Gogh Can Do

  1. I am certainly more appreciative of everything the better I have slept. This is your second interesting peek into this book. Thank you. Might this book cause you to book more travel?
    I think it fun that we both wrote about color today…and appreciation.


  2. This might be a book I'd like. The idea of art aiding in appreciation of place is one that resonates within me.

    I'm no student of art, but have grown to appreciate it the more I read about it. Five years ago my husband and I visited Provence. We visited several places Van Gogh includes in his paintings. I remember looking at the twisted cyprus trees and thinking, “they really do look like that.” I had wondered how stylized Van Gogh's trees were in his starry night paintings. And the light – so clear!

    Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed it.


  3. Great post! Yes… and I remember in high school painting a water color from a National Geographic of two farmers in Provence. Do I wish to visit some day? Sure. Problem is… you also want to visit Paris and so many others, to see the Biblioteque Nacionale (sp?) and just ask for one of those illuminated manuscripts…to see it in the flesh, or maybe one of the ivory psalter covers. Art is art… and great art has memories that dwell in your heart. So yes, go and see.

    Thanks for posting this! Now I really do have to get to that French countryside… maybe even pick up this book.


  4. The art I enjoy most is the art that isn't cubic or that crazy stuff. Yeah, I'm an art critic in my spare time -haha-. The Impressionists are some of my favorites and was totally surprised when I saw Starry Starry Night for the first time…SO small!


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