Van Gogh, Tanner and the myth of the tormented artist

The struggles of Tanner and Van Gogh, reconsidered

8 minute read
Van Gogh's 'Wheat Field in Rain': Depressing, or joyous?
Van Gogh's 'Wheat Field in Rain': Depressing, or joyous?
In her BSR essay, "Henry Tanner's Civil Rights Roots," V. Chapman-Smith beseeches viewers of the Pennsylvania Academy's new Tanner retrospective to keep in mind the historic civil rights struggles of the artist and his family. Anne R. Fabbri, in a separate review of the Tanner show, adds that we Americans haven't had the opportunity to savor this artist's work nearly enough and suggests that race prejudice is the reason. The New York Times critic Ken Johnson echoed the same sentiments in his recent review. (Click here.)

One wonders: Would Tanner himself want such a caveat attached to a retrospective of his art? Wouldn't he have rather his life's work were judged on its own merits?

Down the Parkway at the Art Museum, BSR's Andrew Mangravite, in reviewing "Van Gogh Up Close," offers that perhaps Vincent's decision to paint a pair of boots reflects his ideal of a simple plebeian lifestyle. Victor Schermer, in another BSR review, sees the "sadness, greyness and lines of rain" in Vincent's painting Rain as foretelling "the 20th-Century loss of innocence" and perhaps also a reflection of "Van Gogh's state of mind." (Click here.)

These observations further raise the question: To what extent is the history of a painter's experience relevant to what he or she actually intended in creating a work of art?

Tanner's relatives dissent

It's natural to refer to what we know about an artist's life when approaching a work of art. But how much of what we "know" in historical art writing is based upon what scholars and writers merely conjecture about an artist's experience?

Certainly, the families of artists over the years have tended to distrust the conclusions of art critics and art historians. I have personally attended two lectures at which Henry Ossawa Tanner's descendants in the audience have publicly challenged and/or added to the commentary made by the presenting scholars.

Van Gogh's family, it has been conjectured, had a vested interest in emphasizing Vincent's mental struggles as a cause for behaviors that embarrassed them. How many authors and artists have destroyed their own letters and journals for fear that some future reader might learn the reality of their lives, or misconstrue that reality, or, worse, connect a partial or out-of-context history with their work— seeing the madness or the prejudice in the paint, so to speak?

Years ago I did some research into Van Gogh's life to prepare for an "Art Goes to School" presentation. After surveying about five different books on the subject, all with varying interpretations and conclusions about Van Gogh's life and the nature of his work, I found one surprising but indisputable fact: Van Gogh was born into one of Holland's first families. Indeed, for a time Vincent lived a cultured and sophisticated life, traveling between London, the Hague and Paris while working for the Sotheby's of his day.

Boots made for painting

Van Gogh gave up that lifestyle for an artist's life. Perhaps his bourgeois family saw that decision as madness. And perhaps his subsequent decision to paint that sturdy pair of boots derived more from his boundless visual curiosity rather than reverence of boots as symbols of a newly simple lifestyle or the only things a man now on a budget could find to paint.

Indeed, these boots are rendered as objects of beauty and character by Vincent's brush, with their carrot-colored soles and moving, vibrant brushed lines. Indeed, wasn't Van Gogh's stated purpose in making art to show the world beauty in places where people might not believe beauty existed?

Tanner, for his part, undoubtedly encountered race prejudice in Philadelphia. But his relocation to Paris didn't always translate into better painting, as the conventional narrative maintains. Much of Tanner's work done under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Academy is excellent (I love his North Carolina landscapes), while some of his work in France fails.

Paris vs. Philadelphia

To be sure, we do see Tanner experimenting in France (color chording, as Renoir did in his late paintings, but with a muddied palette of aquas, blues and browns) in a way that might not have occurred in tradition-bound Philadelphia.

So the question persists: Was Tanner motivated to relocate to France primarily by a desire (shared by many painters of all races) to work in an artistically free and stimulating environment, rather than to escape racial prejudice at home? Doesn't it neatly serve our current motives in, say, celebrating African-American History Month to bring up racial prejudice as a defining aspect of Tanner's work?

Although Tanner did acknowledge the absence of racial issues in France as compared to America, it doesn't necessarily follow that he painted better over there or worse over here. To suggest that it does tends to devalue his work.

Tanner's marvelous expression of light in dark spaces surely must come in great measure from his own personal experimentation— his success in finding the right pigments to cause painted light to glow. A nightscape isn't the easiest of painting challenges, but Tanner carries this off with such aplomb that we may be tempted to dwell on the painter's purported fascination with Nikola Tesla's experiments in electricity. Is this the source of Tanner's aptitude for portraying light in such wonderful paintings as Nicodemus Coming to Christ and The Annunciation? Or is it more of the hard won personal sort?

Van Gogh's upbeat side

Much has been surmised about Van Gogh's mental illness and its relation to his work. It's a fascinating subject for psychologists and others who cling to the well-worn notion that creativity itself is associated with madness.

The idea of the tortured Vincent, prisoner of a perpetually disturbed mind, driven to create because he could do nothing else, has fueled this paradigm of thinking to such an extent that it has hindered our appreciation of his art. Would he have painted the same way, we like to wonder, had he not suffered mental health issues?

In their recently published Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Niafeh and Gregory White Smith surmise that Vincent suffered from a form of epilepsy. Did the epilepsy contribute to the particular vision expressed in his paintings? If so, I would say that those seizures tended to glorify Van Gogh's sense of his surroundings rather than cause him to despair of them.

Knowing that his physical condition caused him much suffering is an interesting and verifiable fact, but for the most part this suffering isn't evident in his paintings. Most of Van Gogh's work strikes me as joyful rather than despairing. Even Wheat Fields With Crows— one of his last paintings (but not the very last), and supposedly illustrating Van Gogh's sense of his impending death— can be seen as a celebration of the natural world.

Joyful Rain

Van Gogh was profoundly interested in expressing the loveliness of things as themselves: humble old shoes, or a grand blue sky with swirling clouds and a field of poppies. He worked his technique, his personal way of handling paint, by creating a sense of movement with brush strokes and choosing vibrant colors (alas, not always "sanely" realistic or pragmatically geared to match sofas of his time).

Van Gogh's Rain likely has nothing to do with depression or doom or loss of innocence or any grand theme in the history of art. You can view it (as I do) merely an expression of the love of a world that includes beautiful lines of rain, and an admiration for the way a particular Japanese master of woodblock prints (perhaps Hiroshige) previously portrayed rain on a landscape.

This isn't a depressing rain. It's a rain that gives life to a dry earth, a rain that is lovely to watch from a window or to experience if one gets "mudliciously" deep with it.

Van Gogh here is thinking outside of the box of Academy technique. He is decidedly rational, serious and methodical where the craft of painting is concerned.

Their meaning, or ours?

There's a certain romance in seeing the artist as one who struggles against all odds to create. We want to know more about the travails of these people who seem so different from the rest of us. But for the most part these are courageous individuals practicing their craft, sometimes succeeding and sometimes learning from their mistakes. Often the "meaning" we see in a work of art is a reflection of our own concerns, provoked by the work of the artist, whose concerns may have been totally different from ours. These are paintings are visual expressions, not novels.

If Van Gogh and Tanner could hear us now, what would they say? Maybe this: Stop examining our paintings for hidden meanings and just look at them for what they are.♦

To read responses, click here.

What, When, Where

“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit.†Through April 15, 2012 at Hamilton Hall, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St. (at Cherry). (215) 972-7625 or “Van Gogh Up Close. †Through May 6, 2012 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ben. Franklin Parkway and 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or

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