van Gogh – some serious seaviews (and boats)

One fundamental difference between van Gogh and Monet is that van Gogh is usually more about work than pleasure. Monet is the one that usually paints the bright side of life, while van Gogh is not as light-hearted. Van Gogh is much more aware of and concerned with the conditions of the working class. One group van Gogh noticed were fishermen. He said about them:

Vincent 91

One thing that is good about van Gogh is that he often exchanged letters about his art with others like his brother Theo and Gauguin and that we still have hundreds of  those letters. In some of those letters he even discussed how he felt about the fishers. For example: with Gauguin he discussed the portrait he made of a woman in a chair that is related to a painting by Gauguin of an empty chair with a candle. van Gogh called this work the lullaby. The explanation he offered was the following:

On the subject of that canvas, I’ve just said to Gauguin that as he and I talked about the Icelandic fishermen and their melancholy isolation, exposed to all the dangers, alone on the sad sea, I’ve just said to Gauguin about it that, following these intimate conversations, the idea came to me to paint such a picture that sailors, at once children and martyrs, seeing it in the cabin of a boat of Icelandic fishermen, would experience a feeling of being rocked, reminding them of their own lullabies. Now it looks, you could say, like a chromolithograph from a penny bazaar. A woman dressed in green with orange hair stands out against a green background with pink flowers. Now these discordant sharps of garish pink, garish orange, garish green, are toned down by flats of reds and greens. I can imagine these canvases precisely between those of the sunflowers – which thus form standard lamps or candelabra at the sides, of the same size; and thus the whole is composed of 7 or 9 canvases.

la bercuese - the lullaby - by van Gogh, 1889.

la bercuese – the lullaby – by van Gogh, 1889.

Van Gogh, based his painting on a book by Pierre Loti who wrote about the custom of icelandic fisherman to hand a painting a saint in the saloon.

‘Against a panel at the far end, a Blessed Virgin in ceramic was set on a little shelf, in a place of honour. She was a little antique, these sailors’ patron saint, and painted in a naïve style. But ceramic figures last much longer than real men; and her red and blue robe still had the effect of a very fresh little thing in the midst of all the dark greys of this poor wooden house. She must have listened to many an ardent prayer at moments of great anxiety; two bunches of artificial flowers and a rosary had been nailed at her feet.’

At the end of Loti’s novel, the maternal instincts of the sea are evoked. The sea is compared to a woman rocking a child, when the protagonist, Yann Gaos, drowns and ‘weds’ the sea: ‘Out there, one August night, off the dark mass of Iceland, in the midst of a great sound and fury, his marriage to the sea had been celebrated. To the sea that once had been his nurse; it was she who had rocked his cradle, who had made of him a tall, strong youth – and then she had taken him back, in the glory of his manhood, for herself alone’

It is quite clear that van Gogh had a genuine interest in the fishermen and their hardships. It seems that he even cared a little bit TOO much about the fishermen and the boats:

In my mental or nervous fever or madness, I don’t know quite what to say or how to name it, my thoughts sailed over many seas. I even dreamed of the Dutch ghost ship and the Horla, and it seems that I sang then, I who can’t sing on other occasions, to be precise an old wet-nurse’s song while thinking of what the cradle-rocker sang as she rocked the sailors and whom I had sought in an arrangement of colours before falling ill.

He also compared the hearts of man with the sea itself:

Vincent 93

It sounds like van Gogh really respected the fishermen and saw them as brave and strong compared to the rich.

Seascape at Saintes-Maries by Vincent van Gogh

Seascape at Saintes-Maries by Vincent van Gogh

Unsurprisingly most of the boats that van Gogh painted were fisherboats rather than boats for leisure that Monet often painted.

 Fishing Boats on the Beach of Saintes, June 1888

Fishing Boats on the Beach of Saintes-Maries, June 1888

The picture above is probably the most famous picture of boats by van Gogh. He wrote to his brother Theo how he painted it:

“I made the drawing of the boats when I left very early in the morning, and I am now working on a painting based on it, a size 30 canvas with more sea and sky on the right. It was before the boats hastened out; I had watched them every morning, but as they leave very early I didn’t have time to paint them.”  

Maybe it is fitting that this painting with stranded boats is his most famous work with a boating theme. In Dutch there is een expression “aan de grond zitten” which means that your financially “stranded”, with other words your stuck where you are and unable to generate enough money on your own to get back on your feet again. Van Gogh was often broke and had to loan money for art supplies and living from friends and family quite often. He often promised that he would eventually get his breakthrough and make it up to them. It’s sad that he was absolutely right in that, but did not live to see it for himself.

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He also painted coal barges and sand barges like these paintings above.  Vincent described his intention with these paintings in a letter written August 13, 1888:

At the moment I’m working on a study […] boats seen from a quay, from above; the two boats are a purplish pink, the water is very green, no sky, a tricolor flag on the mast. A workman with a wheelbarrow is unloading sand. I have a drawing of it too.

He had written his brother earlier about the coal barge that he painted twice:

I saw a magnificent and very strange effect this evening. A very large boat laden with coal on the Rhône, moored at the quay. Seen from above it was all glistening and wet from a shower; the water was a white yellow and clouded pearl-grey, the sky lilac and an orange strip in the west, the town violet. On the boat, small workmen, blue and dirty white, were coming and going, carrying the cargo ashore. It was pure Hokusai. It was too late to do it, but one day, when this coal-boat comes back, it’ll have to be tackled.

And ofcourse he did painted some boats meant for pleasure as well; Fishing boats, rowing boats and sailboats.

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These paintings show that van Gogh managed to use a lighter palett compared to how he painted in Holland, even though he never really managed to “lighten up” himself. It’s not that surprising that van gogh didn’t paint as many scenes with boats for leisure as Monet. Boating for leisure was a thing for the bourgeois and van Gogh was not part of them. Despite all his talent van Gogh was poor througout his life and he only once managed to sell a painting. No wonder that van Gogh felt more sympathy for the fishermen than for the upperclass and middleclass that used boats to entertain themselves in their free time.

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