Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 10 of the San Diego Museum of Art (fourth drawer of the most-left cabinet)
Commissioned by: The magazine La Plume on behalf of The Chap-Book in Chicago
What do you see? An advertisement poster for the American literary magazine The Chap-Book. The scene is the Irish and American Bar in Paris. An anonymous man with a large mustache sits at the bar with a drink. The iconic barman Ralph is preparing a drink for Tom, the driver of the horse-drawn carriage of the Rothschild family, who just arrived. The half-Chinese, half-American-Indian barman was born in San Francisco and known for his special cocktails. Both Ralph and Tom have a floral decoration on their jacket. In the background, another anonymous man stands behind the bar. The bottom of the poster lists, in small print, the printer (Imprimerie Chaix) and the magazine (La Plume) in which this poster is advertised.
What is The Chap-Book? The Chap-Book was an American magazine published between 1894 and 1898. Every two weeks, an issue was published containing several short literary stories. An issue cost 5 cents in 1895 and contained, on average, about five short stories.
Backstory: The Irish and American Bar was located at the Rue Royale in the center of Paris. The Rue Royale is a short street between the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Madeleine. The owner of the bar was a Swiss man (Achille) and an Englishman (Reynolds) ran the bar. While Toulouse-Lautrec preferred to hang around in the artistic Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, the Irish and American Bar was among his favorite spots when he wanted to escape Montmartre. When visiting the bar, Toulouse-Lautrec would encounter many other artists. Other people frequenting this place where coachmen who were waiting while their employers would dine in one of the fancy nearby restaurants. Toulouse-Lautrec featured this bar in several posters and drawings, including Chocolat Dancing in the Achille Bar.
Other versions: As Toulouse-Lautrec created the original drawing for this poster on a stone tablet, it could be used to create many prints. Toulouse Lautrec created two versions of this lithograph. The first version does not have the advertising text, and 100 hundred prints of this version were created for collectors. Some of these prints are now owned by museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art. After the first version was printed on posters, Toulouse-Lautrec added the advertising text and the current poster was printed. Besides the San Diego Museum of Art, prints of this second version are owned by museums like the Art Institute of Chicago. Most museums do not have the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec on permanent display as they are sensitive to light exposure.
What is Lithography? An image is painted on a smooth metal or stone surface. This surface can subsequently be used to print multiple copies of the original image. Lithographic posters became popular during the end of the 19th century. The recent advances in color printing made it possible to print colored lithographs relatively cheaply. Toulouse-Lautrec was among the artists that picked up lithography. He was able to make good money with these lithographs as the laws on public marketing were relaxed and bars, night clubs, and theaters were now allowed to publicly advertise their business.
Who is Toulouse-Lautrec? Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864-1901) came from a French aristocratic family. He suffered from health problems throughout his life and only became 1.42 m (4 ft 8 in) tall. Despite his aristocratic roots, he enjoyed a Bohemian lifestyle in Paris. Even though he could count on the financial support of his family, he earned his own money as a painter, draughtsman, and illustrator. He was one of the first artists who successfully jumped on the opportunity to create advertising posters. His artistic style was inspired by artists like Degas and Manet. A representative example of his paintings is At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which he painted in 1890.
Fun fact: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec loved to spend time in the bar. The Irish and American Bar in this painting was his favorite for some years. He spent so much time there that he invited people that wanted to meet him to the bar. He was typically the last person to leave the bar in the night. He also helped to serve the clients of the bar occasionally. As Toulouse-Lautrec was very short, the owner of the bar had a special platform installed for him such that he could properly serve the clients.
Where? Room W204 of the Getty Museum
What do you see? In the foreground are blooming blue irises with green stems and leaves with pointy tips. One the left is a single white iris with large petals. In the background are orange marigolds. The flowers are planted in the red-brown earth. On the top right is a meadow lit up by the Mediterranean sunlight. Van Gogh used bright blue and violet colors for the irises and this color contrast nicely with the other colors in this painting. The contrast makes the flowers stand out and makes the flowers come alive. Van Gogh also used the contrast in texture, and you can see that the different elements in this painting have their unique look and texture. For example, the earth in the foreground has a rough texture which contrasts nicely with the smooth texture of the stems and leaves of the irises. The somewhat disorganized petals of the irises also contrast with these smooth leaves and stems. The marigolds in the background have again a different texture. Van Gogh was probably sitting on the ground while painting these irises, which emphasizes the presence of the green stems and leaves.
Backstory: Van Gogh painted this work several days after he was admitted to the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. In his first letter from the asylum to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote that he was focusing on painting irises and lilies. These colorful flowers may have provided him with feelings of hope that may have helped him temporarily with his mental state. However, one year after he was admitted to the asylum, he died because of a self-inflicted gun wound. His death was the result of a troubled life, though not everybody could understand that. Monet commented on the death of Van Gogh that he could not understand how a man that loved flowers so much and could depict them in such a beautiful way could be unhappy with his life.
What are irises? There are almost 300 different types of irises. The iris exists in many different colors, explaining its name which is derived from the Greek word for rainbow. The most common color for irises is violet-blue, which is the color of the irises depicted in Van Gogh’s painting. The iris can grow from a root or a bulb. Irises have a long stem and one or more six-lobed petals. For bearded irises, the type depicted in this painting, three of these petals curve up and the other three bend down. These irises grow up to about 120 centimeters.
Why irises? The simplest explanation is that irises where blooming in the garden of the asylum to which Van Gogh was admitted. Van Gogh was not allowed to leave the asylum and its garden in the first month, so the availability of the blooming irises was a good reason to paint them. Another reason that he painted irises was that Van Gogh loved flowers and flower paintings. Flowers are colorful, and they allowed Van Gogh to experiment with different colors. Van Gogh liked to play around with different colors to provide contrasting effects and to make certain elements in his painting stand out more. His use of colors was inspired by Eugène Delacroix, who he called ‘the greatest colorist of all.' A third reason is that flowers were a popular subject among the masses and Van Gogh hoped throughout his career for some commercial success (which he never got during his life).
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent Willem van Gogh was born in 1853 in Zundert, The Netherlands. He only started to fully focus on painting in 1883. In 1886 he moved to Paris, and, two years later he moved to the south of France, to Arles. He struggled with mental illness and died in 1890 from the results of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Most of Van Gogh’s famous paintings come from the last three years of his life. Examples include his famous series of sunflowers, of which one version is in the National Gallery in London. Another example is his Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (he made two other versions of that painting, one in the National Gallery and another in a private collection). His later work can be characterized by broad brush strokes, the unique combination of colors, and the use of innovative perspectives and designs.
Fun fact: Irises was sold in 1987 for a record-breaking fee of $53.9 million to the Australian businessman Alan Bond. However, he failed to repay a substantial loan he got from the auction house, and the painting was resold in 1990 to the Getty Museum. Van Gogh created more paintings with irises as the main subject. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art hangs the painting Irises and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has another version of a vase with irises. The National Gallery of Canada exhibits Iris, a painting with a single iris.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
What do you see? The arrival of the evening in Grandcamp on the Northwest coast of France. The sky is a beautiful combination of white, silver, and gray. On the right is the Atlantic Ocean with a single sailboat. Seurat painted the sea and the sky using small horizontal brush strokes to indicate the direction in which the sea and sky are moving. In contrast, he painted the using dots of paint, which you can see very clearly when standing close to the painting. Some of the objects are very unclear from up-close. For example, look at the sailboat on the sea. However, from a distance, all the dots and small brush strokes come together, and the different elements of the painting become very clear. From a distance, we have no problem identifying a sailboat in this painting.
Backstory: In 1885, Seurat spent his Summer in Grandcamp, Normandy, on the French coast. That Summer he painted several seascapes. Two examples of other works he created in Grandcamp that Summer are Ruins at Grandcamp in the Musée d’Orsay and Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp in Tate Modern.
Beyond Impressionism: Impressionism developed under the lead of Édouard Manet in the 1860s and by the 1880s, Impressionism gained some popularity. However, among the next generation of artists, there were several innovative painters that went beyond Impressionism, usually labeled under the umbrella term Post-Impressionism. Seurat developed Neo-Impressionism, which is discussed below. Van Gogh used brighter colors and expressed his emotions in his paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec was a brilliant observer and drawer and started to develop advertisement posters. Gauguin developed Synthetism by focusing on the purity of colors and forms. Cézanne changed the way in which color was applied to the painting to create shapes and depth. Together, these artists have laid the groundwork for Modern Art as developed during the 20th century.
What is Neo-Impressionism? An art movement created by Georges Seurat in 1884. Neo-Impressionism involved a scientific interpretation of colors and lines. The paint was applied in pure, unmixed dots and blocks of colors, creating a strong sense of organization. Scientific principles guided the choice of contrasting colors such that the colors interacted optically (instead of mixing the colors in the painting). This creates a special effect for the viewer. Looking at the paintings from nearby, one sees a lot of dots of pure colors. However, from a distance, these colors interact beautifully, and the painting becomes a unified whole of almost unmatched clarity. One great example of this style from 1892 is Femmes au Puits by Paul Signac in the Musée d’Orsay. A later example from 1902 is Old Woman by Pablo Picasso in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Who is Seurat? Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) was born and raised in Paris. He only became 31 years old and died in the midst of his career from an unknown disease. He was a Post-Impressionist painter. He can be classified even more accurately as a Neo-Impressionist painter. He received a classical art training at the traditional École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While his painting style was far from traditional, his ideas benefited greatly from his education. He used a scientific approach to painting, whereby different colors can create different emotions and combining specific colors can create harmony in a painting. He decided not to combine colors in a painting, but instead to apply the colors separately, using small dots, and let the viewer combine the colors in his/her mind. The best-known painting by Seurat is probably A Sunday at La Grande Jatte – 1884 by Seurat in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Fun fact: Seurat completed this painting in 1885. Only three years later, he added the border of the painting. He did this to increase the brightness of the colors. This addition perfectly fits with the ideas and style of painting that Seurat used. The colors are carefully chosen to complement each other, and the contrasting colors in the border make the painting itself, and especially the sea and the sky stand out more.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 165 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
What do you see? The couple in the middle is dancing the can-can in the Moulin Rouge. The man is dressed in a black suit with a black top hat. The woman wears a beige-orange dress with red socks. The man teaches the woman some new moves of the can-can dance. In the foreground is an mysterious, unknown woman in an elegant pink dress. A group of dressed-up people, most of which are men, surrounds the dancing couple. These people engage in conversations, look at the dancing couple, or just hang out on the bar in the background. Toulouse-Lautrec knew most of these people as he was a regular at the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse-Lautrec used a combination of plain colors with some bright colors to take the viewer on a journey through the Moulin Rouge. Most viewers start by looking at the woman in pink in the foreground, look at the dancing couple next, and then look at the man in the bright red jacket in the background. The light in this painting is provided by the electric chandeliers on the ceiling. This painting is lauded for its beautiful composition.
Backstory: After Toulouse-Lautrec completed the painting, the owners of the Moulin Rouge bought it and put it on display on top of the bar. An inscription on the back of this painting reads: “The instruction of the new ones by Valentine the Boneless.” This identified the dancing man as Valentin le Désossé (which means ‘the boneless’). He was a star can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Valentin le Désossé was the stage name of Jacques Renaudin. He had a slim build with long arms and legs, giving him the perfect body for a can-can dancer. He was very elastic and could perform the expressive can-can dance moves with unequalled grace. He did not accept money for his dance performances as he did it for the love of dancing. The woman dancing with Valentine is Louis Weber, a popular dancer from that period. She was so flexible that she could keep her body straight while standing on a single leg and with the other leg raised above her head.
What is the Moulin Rouge? The Moulin Rouge is a cabaret and nightclub in Paris established in 1889. As its French name suggests, the Moulin Rouge is a building with a large red windmill on top of it. It is the birthplace of the modern can-can dance. The Moulin Rouge provided entertainment for all layers of society. The extravagant shows, innovative and unique interior, and the world-famous dancers performing there were the key ingredients for the immediate and lasting success of this place. Below is an image of an 1891 poster to advertise the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Lautrec. The Moulin Rouge is still open to visitors today.
What is the can-can dance? The can-can (or cancan) is a dance developed in France in the first half of the 19th century. It is a high-energy dance originally performed by both sexes. It involved kicking the legs above the head, splits, and cartwheels (check out this video). It developed over time into a dance mainly performed by women. The female dancers used an elaborate and provoking routine with their long skirts. In the 19th century, it was considered a scandalous dance and it was often performed by prostitutes. However, its status improved over time and by the time the Moulin Rouge opened, there were professional can-can dancers that could make could make a living dancing fulltime.
Who is Toulouse-Lautrec? Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864-1901) was born in the South of France and was the first child of a wealthy family. From a young age, his artistic skills were present, and he developed himself into a very productive artist. He is an important representative of the Post-Impressionist art movement, together with artists like Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and Van Gogh. Unlike some of these other painters, Toulouse-Lautrec could sustain himself by making advertising posters for nightclubs and other businesses. Two of those posters are shown below. The first is an 1895 advertisement for the American literary magazine The Chap-Book. The second poster is from 1900 and advertises a Simpson bicycle chain.
Fun fact: The parents of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were first cousins and as a result Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from serious health problems throughout his life. One health problem he faced was that his legs stopped growing as a child and, as a result, he became only 4 ft 8 in (1.42) tall. His atypical stature (the legs of a child combined with the torso of an adult) led to a lot of mockery from other people and Toulouse-Lautrec resorted to drinking a lot of alcohol. To make sure that he always had a supply of alcohol with him, he had a hollow cane – which he needed to walk – filled with alcohol.
Where? Room 822 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do you see? Van Gogh described this painting to his brother as follows: “I have a canvas of cypresses with a few ears of wheat, poppies, a blue sky, which is like a multicolored Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticellis [works of a painter who Van Gogh adored], and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too; I think that these would make it more or less clear to him [the art dealer Alexander Reid, who was a friend of Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo; Van Gogh has also painted a portrait of Alexander Reid] that he could not lose much by remaining friends with us.” The painting shows a large ripe gold-colored wheat field which is ready for harvest. On the right are two darker cypresses that draw the attention. To the left are lighter and smaller cypresses. The whirling clouds and blue mountains in the background complete this landscape. You can almost feel the wind that is affecting the clouds and the wheat field. This movement is emphasized by the impasto technique used for this painting, in which the paint is applied in thick layers.
Backstory: Van Gogh painted this wheat field (by some referred to as a cornfield) with cypresses when he was in a mental asylum in Saint Remy in the south of France. He painted this when he was allowed to make short walks and paint outside of the asylum. He was particularly impressed by the cypresses he saw there as he felt that this tree reflected some of his emotions. Van Gogh liked this painting so much that he repeated this painting three more times. One version is in the National Gallery in London (and was acquired in 1923 for ₤300, which was similar to the price of a house at that time). Another (smaller) version is part of a private collection. The last version (a pen drawing) is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Symbolism: Van Gogh used his paintings to express his ideas of the meaning of life. The wheat fields represent the cycle of life, where people celebrate their growth, but at the same time are susceptible to the powerful forces of nature. The cypresses are a symbol of stability in a wild landscape (though at the same time the cypress was associated with cemeteries and death in the south of France, though many believe that this was not the intended meaning of the cypresses for Van Gogh).
Who is Vincent van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was born in The Netherlands. His work is classified as post-impressionism. His work includes landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, and still lifes. Well-known are his depictions of cypresses, sunflowers, and wheat fields. In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris, where he connected with the French Impressionists, such as Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet. In 1888, Van Gogh moved further south in France to Arles where he painted his famous series of sunflower paintings, including the version that is in the National Gallery in London . A year later he moved to a nearby mental asylum in Saint Remy, due to his poor mental state, but continued to produce his paintings. During this time, he produced not only this painting but also The Starry Night which is in the Modern Museum of Art in New York. Van Gogh was a heavy drinker and smoker, and his mental state is often reflected in his paintings. In 1890, Van Gogh died at 37 years old from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
What is post-impressionism? Post-impressionism is a French art movement which developed in response to Impressionism. It is an extension of Impressionism, which is characterized by paintings with bright colors, real-life subject matters, and a thick application of paint. Post-impressionism extended on impressionism by adding emotions and symbolism to the paintings to reflect the artist’s state of mind. Besides Van Gogh, well-known painters in this movement include Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne.
Fun fact: On the list of the 100 most expensive paintings ever sold, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Vincent van Gogh are best represented. Van Gogh has most paintings on this list (at least seven). For example, Wheat Field with Cypresses was bought in 1993 for $57 million and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, unlike Picasso and Warhol, Van Gogh did not get rich during his life. In fact, the only known painting that Van Gogh sold during his life, The Red Vineyard, was sold for 400 Belgian Francs, which is worth about $1,500 nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Where? Floor 5, Gallery 1 of the Museum of Modern Art
When? June 1889
What do you see? This painting is an imaginative version of a starry night in Saint-Rémy in France where Van Gogh was staying at that time. The various elements in this painting are certainly inspired by what Van Gogh observed in reality, but he created his own ideal version of the starry night. In the painting, we can observe some trees, a village, and mountains under a night sky full of stars (or more precisely a collection of 12 celestial bodies). In the foreground, you can observe a big wavy cypress tree. The cypress is an element that comes back in multiple Van Gogh paintings, such as the Wheat Field with Cypresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the top right is a crescent moon. The brightest celestial body in the painting, just to the right of the cypress tree, is the planet Venus. The celestial bodies light up the sky (indicated by the use of white paint in the night sky). The church tower in the middle foreground is probably the Saint-Martin church in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, however, did not include the dome of the church in this painting. In the village surrounding the church, several houses still have their lights on. On the right side of the painting, between the village and the mountains, you can see a forest. The curvy lines used for the cypress tree and the clouds in the sky create a sense of movement in this painting. Notice also the clear contrast between the turbulent sky and the quiet life on earth. The cypress in the form of a big fire is the only element that connects the earth and sky with each other.
Backstory: The painting is created between June 16 and 18, 1889 when Van Gogh was staying in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” He mixed this view both with some other elements that he observed in the area of Saint-Rémy and his imagination to create this painting. Van Gogh used thick broad strokes of oil paint to create this painting and it was probably created in a single day (even though the idea for this painting was already occupying his mind for over a year). If you look carefully, you can still see some pieces of the canvas in between the broad strokes of paint.
Symbolism: There is some debate on whether this painting should be interpreted symbolically. One symbolic explanation for this painting centers around the cypress which connects the earth to the sky in this painting. The cypress tree is associated with cemeteries and death. In this painting, it could be the connection between life (which happens on earth) and death (which is when you go to the stars according to Van Gogh). Van Gogh wrote in one of his letters “We take death to go to a star.” Van Gogh, who would eventually commit suicide, was interested in death and he expressed some ideas that one would go to the stars after death.
Other versions of the Starry Night? Van Gogh was already interested in the idea of painting a starry night in 1888 as expressed in several letters to his friends and brother. Indeed, in 1888 he painted two versions of a starry night. The first version is Café Terrace at Night which is in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. The second version is Starry Night over the Rhône which is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. However, these two paintings did not fulfill his idea of a perfect starry night. Instead of a starry night above a town, he was more interested in a starry night above a landscape and a more imaginative version of the night sky.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in The Netherlands. At the end of his life, he created many paintings that fall under the post-impressionist style. Van Gogh has produced a large number of paintings during his life and most of them have been painted in the last two years of his life. In addition, many letters that he wrote, many of which to his brother Theo, have been saved. In these letters, he explained his ideas about painting and they form a valuable source to interpret some of his works. The work of Van Gogh was not really appreciated during his life, but his work has become famous after his suicide in 1890.
Fun fact: While this is nowadays considered to be one of the best paintings by Vincent van Gogh, he did not seem very proud of this painting. When he wrote a letter to his brother Theo after he left Saint-Rémy, he did not mention this painting as a good one. In fact, he listed several paintings, including the Wheatfield with Cypresses, as “a little good.” About the other paintings from that period, including this painting, he writes “the rest says nothing to me.” His brother Theo seems to agree that The Starry Night is not his best work. He was worried about the more imaginary nature of this work compared to the somewhat more realistic paintings he created before. He advised Vincent to stick to still lifes and flowers as that would have more therapeutic value for the mentally troubled Vincent.
Where? Gallery 222 of the Cleveland Museum of Art
What do you see? A portrait of Adeline Ravoux. Adeline was the daughter of the innkeeper from who Van Gogh rented a room. She wears a blue dress with a high collar, a white bodice under it, and a blue ribbon in her hair. The color of the dress matches her blue eyes. While she was 12 years old when Van Gogh created this painting, she looks much older. This was actually the idea of Van Gogh, as he wanted to portray her as the woman she would become. Her expression is a bit aggressive or unhappy, which may imply that she hears about her future as a woman. On the right are two white flowers and a series of green leaves floating in the air. The white flowers may symbolize purity and innocence and may also refer to her future as a married woman.
Backstory: Van Gogh created this painting one month before he committed suicide. He based this painting on an earlier work for which Adeline had posed. His idea was to develop a new style of portrait painting. As he wrote to his brother: “I should like to paint portraits which would appear after a century to the people living then as apparitions.” In other words, he wanted to create a ghostlike image of his sitters. To his sister he wrote: “So I don’t try to do us by photographic resemblance but by our passionate expressions, using as a means of expression and intensification of the character our science and modern taste for color.”
Other versions of Adeline Ravoux: Van Gogh made two other portraits of Adeline Ravoux, which are both in private collections. In one portrait of Adeline Ravoux, she is shown from the thighs up. This is the only portrait that he signed as he gave it to Adeline’s family. He created the portrait in a single afternoon. He made a copy of this painting, using lighter colors for the dress, which he gave to his brother Theo.
Who is Adeline Ravoux? She is the daughter of Arthur Gustave Ravoux, who was an innkeeper at Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, about 20 miles North of Paris. Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life in this inn. Adeline Ravoux is prominently featured in the movie Loving Vincent. Van Gogh wrote in a letter that she was probably 16 years old at the time of the painting, but she was actually only 12 or 13 years old.
Loving Vincent: In 2017, the movie Loving Vincent was released. It is an animated film, based on paintings by Van Gogh. The movie took six years to produce. It takes place one year after the death of Van Gogh and uses characters who Van Gogh painted. As he painted Adeline Ravoux three times, she plays an important role in the movie. The movie was nominated for an Oscar but did not win one.
Auberge Ravoux? Nowadays, Auberge Ravoux is better known as Maison de Van Gogh. It is open to visitors who can see the room in which Van Gogh spent his last nights. Van Gogh spent less than a dollar per day to stay in a room of seven square meters (75 square feet). This fee included meals. After Van Gogh died, the room was never rented again. There is nothing in that room that remembers of Van Gogh’s stay, which is also reflected in the slogan of the Maison de Van Gogh: “There is nothing to see… but everything to feel.” The picture below shows the Auberge Ravoux in 1890. The person on the left is the owner, Arthur Gustave Ravoux, and Adeline Ravoux is the girl standing in the door opening in the middle.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent Willem van Gogh (1857-1890) was a Dutch painter who lived most of his painting career in France. He only started painting seriously in 1881 and created almost 900 paintings, of which he completed most during the last two years of his life. He is a neoclassical painter who created mainly landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. In 1886, he moved to Paris, where he met Paul Gauguin, amongst others, and these meetings inspired the rest of his painting career. He started to paint more colorful works and developed the post-impressionist painting style. Famous works include his series of sunflowers, of which one version is in the National Gallery in London and The Starry Night in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Fun fact: Adeline Ravoux has described in a book by Dr. Tralbaut what she remembers of the day that Van Gogh shot himself. In short, she remembered that Van Gogh had lunch at the inn and that nobody noticed anything unusual about him. However, that day, he had borrowed the gun of Gustave Ravoux, the innkeeper, to scare off the crows that would get to close to his canvas while painting in the fields. In the evening Van Gogh came back to the inn later than usual, and he quickly went up to his room. When the innkeeper entered his room, he told him that he had shot himself and that he would like to have his pipe and tobacco. He died two days later in the presence of his brother Theo.
Where? Second floor of the Department of 19th and 20th Century European and American Art in the Pushkin Museum
What do you see? The vine harvest in Arles, in the South of France. On the top right is the sun in a yellow sky. The sunlight affects the landscape, starting with the gold-colored river on the right side. The sun makes the vine leaves in the bottom half of the painting look red. According to a letter written on November 6, 1888, by Vincent van Gogh to his brother, the vineyard looked like red wine in the sunset. The vineyard in the top half of the painting looks yellow, just as Van Gogh observed it during his stroll through the vineyards. A large number of people, mainly dressed in blue, is working in the vineyard. The workers in the background are depicted as blank silhouettes. The field workers are picking vines during fall. They naturally blend in with the vineyard. On the top left is a series of blue and green trees and in the middle background is a house. Van Gogh used several diagonal lines in his composition and most viewers naturally start looking at the sun when viewing the painting. The viewers’ eyes then move down along the diagonal black line on the left of the river in the direction of the bottom left of the painting.
Backstory: This painting is also referred to as The Red Vineyard at Arles. Van Gogh created it in a single day on November 5, 1888. He painted this work about two weeks after Paul Gauguin joined him in Arles. The colorful works of Gauguin inspired Van Gogh to also use more colors for this painting, and he continued to do that in his later works. He created this painting from his memory, the day after an evening walk through the vineyards near Arles. Van Gogh liked to work from memory rather than by directly painting from observation as painting from memory gives paintings a more artistic look. The only painting that Gauguin completed during his two-month stay in Arles was The Painter of Sunflowers (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh) which is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In September 1888, Van Gogh also created another painting of the vineyards, called The Green Vineyard. This painting is on display in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands.
Symbolism: The main message of this painting is that the people living at the end of the 19th century had to work long days. The workers in this painting are still doing manual labor during sunset at the end of the day. Van Gogh also liked the field workers as they were in sync with nature.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in the south of The Netherlands. He was the oldest of six children who survived birth and grew up in a very religious family. Vincent wanted to become a pastor, like his father, but failed the entrance exam. Instead, he worked for some time as a missionary. His career as an artist was relatively short. He only started painting at age 27 on the advice of his brother and killed himself ten years later. In 1888, Gauguin visited Van Gogh in Arles. In anticipation of his visit, Van Gogh created his famous series of sunflower paintings. One of the versions of the Sunflowers is in the National Gallery in London. Another famous painting by Van Gogh, created in 1889, is The Starry Night which is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Fun fact: Van Gogh created about 900 paintings and 1100 drawings during his relatively short career but only sold one painting (at least according to official records). In 1890, he sold The Red Vineyard at an art show in Brussels for 350-400 Belgian Francs to the Belgian artist Anna Boch. This is equivalent to about $1,500 today. In 1906, Anna Boch sold the painting for 10,000 Belgian Francs to the Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin. The brother of Anna Boch, Eugène Boch, was a friend of Van Gogh. There are theories that Van Gogh may also have sold a few other paintings, but clear evidence for those theories lacks. During his life, Theo, the brother of Vincent van Gogh, supported him financially and tried to promote his work as he was an art dealer. However, Van Gogh’s work was different from the popular Impressionist paintings at that time and was not much in demand. There were a few art critics and artists that appreciated his work, but he was ahead of his time for most of the rest of the people. After his death, his works became much more popular.
Where? Room 43 of the National Gallery
What do you see? These sunflowers are a typical Van Gogh painting. A total of 15 sunflowers is depicted. The sunflowers are actually dying, and you can see that almost half of the sunflowers does not have any petals left. Specifically, six sunflowers only have their flower head left, and the sunflower on the top right only has a single petal on it. This is an indication that they are at the end of their life. The sunflowers that we often adore are the ones with the petals still on it, and in combination with the flower head, they make the sunflower look like a sun with rays. The petals of the sunflowers that still have them are quite spiky. Notice also the colors that Van Gogh used. Besides some green, he used different shades of yellow. It is very difficult to create a painting with a clear subject and interpretation with such a limited array of colors, yet Van Gogh succeeded in creating a painting of sunflowers that can be recognized from a large distance. This still-life painting beams of the wall and energizes people around the world, something that is very uncommon for still-lifes which are often considered to be somewhat dull.
Backstory: A painting of sunflowers is immediately associated with Van Gogh. He created a total of 11 paintings of sunflowers. The first series of four paintings shows sunflowers lying on the ground and the second series of seven paintings shows sunflowers in a vase. This second series contains four originals which he created in a single week. Van Gogh also made three copies of the paintings in the second series. Two of these three copies are copied from the Sunflowers version in the National Gallery. One of these copies is currently in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the other copy is in the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Tokyo (this version was sold for almost $40 million in 1987, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at that time). Van Gogh’s idea was to create these sunflower paintings as a decoration for the room of Paul Gauguin who would join him in Arles to paint. He knew that Gauguin liked sunflowers as, in the year before, Gauguin had exchanged one of his paintings for two of the earlier sunflower paintings of Van Gogh. Van Gogh was very excited that Gauguin would visit him and was in a fantastic mood when he created his second series of sunflower paintings. When Gauguin arrived, he was indeed impressed by these paintings and even Van Gogh himself was quite happy with the results (which was uncommon for him). The interest of Van Gogh in flowers was probably stimulated by his nationality as flowers are a very big part of the culture in The Netherlands. In fact, The Netherlands is the biggest flower exporting country in the world.
Symbolism: These sunflowers also have a symbolic value (though it is not clear how important this symbolic value was to Van Gogh). Flowers are a symbol of life. They have a period in which they bloom beautifully and they are in their prime, but eventually, they die. The cycle of a flower’s life is often used as an analogy for human life and should remind us of our own mortality. However, inside the flower head are the seeds of new life. These seeds refer to the cycle of life on this planet.
Who is Van Gogh? Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Zundert in The Netherlands. He only started his artistic career in 1881 and so all the works we know from him are made within a single decade. For many of his later paintings, Van Gogh studied a landscape, the sky, or some flowers in front of him while working on the painting. He liked to be outside while painting. His favorite color, which you can see in many of his paintings, is yellow. He considered yellow to be the color of life (as the sun is also yellow). He developed a unique style of painting, which is very recognizable. Especially in his later years, he applied thick layers of paint to the canvas and used heavy brushstrokes. His work appeals worldwide to many people that are otherwise not so interested in art.
Fun fact: Van Gogh’s idea was to create a painting community in Arles, where he moved in February 1888, but nobody wanted to join him there initially because of his difficult personality. However, the brother of Vincent convinced Paul Gauguin to join him and Vincent was very excited about this. On October 23, 1888, Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles. However, the collaboration did not turn out well and Gauguin left in December 1888. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh threatened him with a razor and Gauguin ran away. That same night Van Gogh mutilated his own ear with a razor blade, which caused severe bleeding. He applied a bandage to his ear and packaged his ear in a piece of paper, which he brought to a woman in the brothel nearby that he frequented. He painted a self-portrait with a bandaged ear and pipe which is currently in a private collection.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Part of the Thannhauser collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
What do you see? This painting is situated in a small forest in Tahiti used to grow vanilla. The vanilla vines climb up the trees. The majority of the painting is made up by the landscape. In the bottom half of the painting, Gauguin used abstract color areas to depict the grassland. The forest in the background looks more like a tapestry. In the right foreground, a man holding his horse can be seen. The man is only wearing black shorts. He is looking down while waiting and does not have much expression on his face. In between the trees, just left to the middle, a woman dressed in white hides in the forest. It seems that the two people have arranged a romantic meeting (a rendezvous) between them that needs to remain a secret.
Backstory: This painting was bought in 1942 by Justin Thannhauser, who left the painting in 1978 to the Guggenheim Museum. It is also known as The Rendez-vous, or under the French name Dans la Vanillère, Homme et Cheval. During the Fall of 1891, Gauguin was living in a small village on Tahiti, Mataiea. This painting is most likely depicting a vanilla grove in that area. The poses of the man and his horse in this painting are derived from a well-known frieze on the Parthenon in Athens. This painting, as much of Gauguin’s other work while in French Polynesia, is considered to fall under primitivism, an art style that borrows elements from non-Western societies.
Synthetism: This is an artistic style used by artists such as Gauguin and Émile Bernard. It is a combination of different approaches to painting. For example, on the one hand, the real world can be depicted in a painting, while on the other hand, the artist’s dream world can also be depicted. As Gauguin was an artist who mainly painted from his imagination, he combined the real world which he saw in front of him with the ideas that he had in his mind. In this painting, he combined the landscape in French Polynesia with a scene in his mind from a man with a horse that was inspired by one of the friezes of the Parthenon. An even better example of this style is the painting Vision after a Sermon by Gauguin. In this painting, several women are leaving the church at the bottom, and they see a vision of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which was the subject of the sermon.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was born in Paris. He was a post-impressionist painter. He is known for his experimental use of different colors, which has had a big impact on future artists such as Picasso and Matisse. On April 1, 1891, Gauguin left to Tahiti, which is the largest island of French Polynesia and lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His idea was to escape from the artificial life in France and to immerse in nature, live like a child would do, and focus on his art. The first painting he created on Tahiti is Hail Mary which is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the same time as the painting In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse, he also painted Haere Mai, which is also on display at the Guggenheim Museum. Gauguin stayed in Tahiti for two years, before returning to France in August 1893. In 1895, he returned to French Polynesia where he stayed until his death. During his life, Gauguin was often struggling for enough money to be a full-time painter. Unfortunately for him, his work only became very popular after his death.
Tahiti: Tahiti is an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is formed by volcanic activity and is a part of France. 70% of the total population of fewer than 200,000 consists of indigenous Tahitians. While many people speak the Tahitian language, French is the official language. The island contains a small airport but has direct flights to Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo. Vanilla is one of the important export products of Tahiti. The island contains a small museum dedicated to Paul Gauguin, appropriately called the Paul Gauguin Museum.
Fun fact: In 1893, Gauguin returned to Paris to sell some of his paintings. During his time there he dressed in traditional Polynesian cloths and started an affair with an exotic teenager. His stay in France was not a success, and his ideas and his reputation were verbally attacked in the Mercure de France magazine by several contemporaries. Disappointed, he returned to French Polynesia in 1895, where he could focus again on his art without much distraction from the artificial and conventional aspects of life.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Gallery 825 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do you see? This painting contains five people. On the right is Mary with her naked child Jesus sitting in an odd pose on her shoulder. Both have a halo around their head and are looking at the viewer. Mary is wearing a red pareo (which is a dress that is wrapped around the middle or higher and is typical for people in Tahiti and the Cook Islands) wrapped around her with a hibiscus flower motif on it. On the left, you can see a female angel (probably representing the Archangel Gabriel) dressed in pink and with blue and yellow wings. The angel is partly hidden behind a flowering tree. The angel points out the presence of Mary and Jesus to the two Tahitian women on the purple path. who. These two women are dressed in a pareo from the waist down, and they fold their hands in devotion. In the foreground is a collection of fruit laying on a fata, which is a wooden altar that Polynesians use to make offers to their gods. These fruits may be an analogy to the gifts that the three Magi brought to Jesus after his birth. The fruit includes red and yellow Tahitian bananas (some of which are in a wooden bowl) and the green breadfruit in the center. In the background, you can see the dark mountains, a lake, palm trees, and flowering bushes. There is a boathouse on the right side of the lake.
Backstory: This painting is also known as Ia Orana Maria (which is Tahitian for ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Mary, I salute you’) and this is the title displayed at the bottom left of the painting. Paul Gauguin painted this after he moved to Tahiti, the largest island of French Polynesia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This was the first painting he completed after his arrival in Tahiti in 1891. The words Ia Orana Maria are the first words of the Tahitian version of the prayer Ave Maria. Gauguin occasionaly painted religious paintings. For example, see his self-portrait with the yellow body of Christ which is now in the Musée d’Orsay.
What is Hail Mary? Also known as the Angelic Salutation or Ave Maria, Hail Mary is a prayer in the Catholic Church. The full text of this prayer is: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death. Amen.” This prayer is the most popular prayer aimed at Mary and asks for her help in intervening between the person praying and God.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is a post-impressionist artist who is known for his experimental use of colors. Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas were important for Gauguin in developing his unique style. In 1891 he moved to Tahiti to start a new life. His idea was to set up a community of painters, called l’atelier des tropiques in an area that was far away from home and did not suffer from the materialism that was present in France. The main idea behind this initiative was to stimulate the role of spirituality in their artworks and to expose themselves to different cultures and religions. In the end, no other painters joined him, and he left alone to Tahiti. However, this did not have a negative effect on the quality of Gauguin’s work, and he produced some of his best works during this period. For example, By the Sea (Fatata te Miti), which is in the National Gallery of Art and Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau) in the Albright–Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Most of Gauguin’s paintings are based on his imagination, and he expressed in a letter to his wife that he believed that his artistic center was in his mind and did not need to be inspired by other painters.
Fun fact: Gauguin did not have any models from Tahiti in front of him to paint this picture, but rather painted this based on his imagination and some other stimuli that he brought to Tahiti. For example, the two women in the middle are not from Tahiti (as Tahitians were not walking around half-naked), but modeled after the figures of dancers on a bas-relief of the Javanese Borobudur temple of which he had brought a picture. Also, the pose of Jesus on top of Mary’s shoulder was based on a postcard that Gauguin bought during his trip to Tahiti. Moreover, Gauguin was one of the first artists to depict Mary and Jesus with a colored skin, something that was not allowed yet by the Catholic Church.
Where? Gallery 255 of the Museum of Fine Arts
What do you see? This painting shows a story on the cycle of life. It consists of three parts corresponding to the three questions in the title of the painting.
Backstory: The French title of this painting is D'où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? Gauguin included this title on the top left of the painting. A valuable source of information to understand this painting are the letters that Gauguin wrote to George-Daniel de Monfreid, an art collector and painter in France. Based on these letters, we know that when Gauguin started to work on this painting, he was in a dark period of this life. He faced quite some debt, bad health, the death of his favorite daughter, and he wanted to kill himself. However, before dying, he wanted to complete a large canvas about the meaning of life. For about one month, he worked day and night on the painting. When it was finished, he considered this to be his best work ever and wrote that he would never make a better painting. Some other works that he completed during this dark period of his life are the Landscape with Two Goats (also known as Tarari Maruru) and Man Picking Fruit from a Tree. After Gauguin completed the Where Do We Come From painting, he attempted suicide but failed at it. The painting was exhibited in 1898 in Paris and received mixed reviews. In 1901, the painting was sold for 2500 French Francs (which is equivalent to almost $15,000 in 2017).
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in 1848 in Paris, France, and died in 1903 in French Polynesia. Gauguin is considered to be a Post-Impressionist artist, though his work differs from the Post-impressionists by the unique colors that he used and the feelings he expressed in his paintings. Just like paintings by Van Gogh, who was a friend of Gauguin, the works of Gauguin are often recognizable from a distance. Gauguin was only a full-time artist during the last 20 years of his life. Until the crash of the French stock market and the art market in 1882, Gauguin was a successful stock and art broker, yearly making the equivalent of about $250,000 today. In 1891, he decided to move to Tahiti in French Polynesia where he stayed for two years. Upon his arrival, he created some of his famous paintings, like Hail Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. After an unsuccessful return to France for two years, Gauguin returned to French Polynesia where he lived until his death.
Fun fact: This painting is featured in the book Origin (Amazon Link) by Dan Brown. In the book, the painting hangs in Casa Mila in Barcelona, which was a private house designed by Antoni Gaudí. The painting refers to the search for the existential questions of ‘where do we come from?’ and ‘where are we going?’. The painting by Gauguin does not answer these questions. Gauguin kept the painting and symbolism in this painting quite vague to stimulate the viewer to think about these questions. That has certainly worked for some people in Dan Brown’s book as some characters are actively looking for the answers to these questions.
Where? In the Museum of Modern Art, but currently not on display.
What do you see? A nude woman from Tahiti sits on a blue and white blanket. She is sitting in a dignified position with her back very straight, like the old Egyptians depicted people in art. She has some white flowers in her hair and in her left hand she holds a flowering mango (seed) that she seems to offer to the viewer. This flowering mango symbolizes fertility and was the sacred fruit of the Areoi society. On the bottom right is a three-legged table (called an umete in Polynesian) with more mangos in different colors. The woman is sitting against a background of pink flowers. In the background is the beautiful landscape of Tahiti which shows some mountains, water, trees, and a piece of the sky. Gauguin kept this painting relatively simple and did, for example, not include any shadows. He created a very colorful painting where the colors are not all very realistic.
Backstory: This painting is also known under the Polynesian title Te Aa No Areois as can be seen in the bottom left corner. The painting was bought in 1936 by William S. Paley, a trustee, and the later president of the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first Gauguin painting acquired by the MoMA. Gauguin signed and dated the painting on the left side of the table with fruit in the foreground. The composition of the painting is similar to another Gauguin painting entitled Her Name is Vaïraümati (or Vairaumati Tei Oa) which is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. This painting deals with a similar theme, which is the origin of the Areoi society.
Who are the Areoi? Also referred to as the Arioi, it is a secret religious society in French Polynesia which does not exist anymore. At its origin is a myth about the god Oro who has intercourse with the most beautiful woman on earth, Vaïraümati, which results in the creation of a new race. The society had a hierarchical structure with several classes or ranks. While everyone, both men and women, could theoretically enter into each class within the Areoi, the highest classes were in practice mainly accessible for people from the higher classes of society. The highest class was reserved for priests. Access to the society depended on your beauty, religious knowledge, recitation skills, and dancing skills. Moving up through the ranks was confirmed by increasingly large tattoos. Members of the society had sexual freedom until they married and were not allowed to get children. Most of the French Polynesian islands had their Areoi order, and they all had a place of worship and several houses in which the members met and where members of the other islands could stay.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was a post-impressionist painter from Paris. He was a self-taught painter without any formal education. He spent a large time of his youth in Peru where he developed his taste for traveling and exotic countries. In 1891, he moved to Tahiti in French Polynesia where he stayed until 1893 when he temporarily moved back to France. In 1895, he returned to Tahiti where he spent most of his time until his death in 1903. He is widely known for the idyllic and colorful paintings he made in French Polynesia. His work has had a big influence on artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Other well-known works of Gauguin from his first period in French Polynesia are Hail Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Fun fact: The girl in this painting is the Tahitian mistress/wife of Gauguin. Her name is Tehura, and she is 13 years old at the time of this painting. Soon after this painting, she was pregnant. She is depicted as Vaïraümati, the wife of the god Oro, who gave birth to a son who formed the beginning of the Areoi. Gauguin wanted to paint the origins of this secret society which he claimed to have learned from Tehura. However, it is now assumed that Gauguin learned about this society through a travel book by Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout. In fact, Tehura was not aware at first that she was depicted as the mother of the Areoi.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas.