A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Musée d'Orsay (Monet, Van Gogh)

Part 2

22 April 2011 

(Read Part 1)


In my last entry, after briefly describing the evolution of the Musée d’Orsay from a train station into an art museum, in discussing Claude Monet’s La cathédrale de Rouen series (of which the Musée d’Orsay owns five canvases) I alluded to another painting of a church — also at the Musée d’Orsay — by Vincent van Gogh.  That painting, along with several others by van Gogh, will be considered in this entry.

Following his childhood and youth in the Netherlands, van Gogh traveled frequently both while working for art dealers and as a missionary.  After his decision to pursue painting, he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo, staying for two years.  Then he was drawn to Arles where he could paint under the intense light of the Midi.

It is due to his stay in Provence that we are able to learn the most about his thoughts, as recorded in frequent letters to his brother Theo and others.  While he seemed to have difficulties in communicating face-to-face, Vincent was most expressive in his letters.  The painter Paul Klee wrote that van Gogh, through his letters, “was able to reach deep, very deep into his own heart.”   More than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo survive today.

Theo provided his brother with both financial and emotional support.  He often sent along paints and supplies in order for van Gogh to continue painting.  Many of Vincent’s letters contain sketches of paintings that he was working on, and detail the creative issues that he faced.  In one letter to Theo (c. 4 May 1888), Vincent wrote presciently about himself, “The painter of the future must be a colorist such as has never existed.”

While at Arles van Gogh painted several portraits of the Provençaux — including Le Facteur: Joseph Roulin (The Postman), and l’Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux, and Le Zouave — as well as several self-portraits.  In these paintings the backgrounds seem to be quite as alive as the subject, full of dynamic movement and intense color.  Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935), the German critic, commented that “He did not paint his pictures; it was like he exhaled them, in a gasping, boiling breath.”

Van Gogh also made many of his sunflower paintings in Arles, including Tournesols dans un vase, painted as a gift for Paul Gauguin.  Gauguin in turn painted van Gogh's portrait, Le Peintre de Tournesols (The Painter of Sunflowers), which is a wonderful way to remember van Gogh. 


Paul Gauguin:  Le Peintre de Tournesols (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh), 1888, Van Gogh Museum

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 


During this time van Gogh also produced Le Café de nuit (The Night Café), several landscapes, his paintings of Paul Gauguin's and his own chairs, and three versions of his bedroom in Arles, La chambre à Arles.

These three versions are quite similar to each other and attest to the great hope with which van Gogh had come to Arles.  After the original was slightly damaged, he painted two copies, knowing he would never return to that room. The three versions are intriguing to compare one with the other, being mainly differentiated by the pictures he chose to depict that hang on the wall to the right.  The first bedroom painting was made in October 1888 (now at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), the second in September 1889 (at the Art Institute of Chicago), and the last version — this one can be seen at the Musée d'Orsay — was also painted in September 1889.


Vincent van Gogh:  La chambre à Arles, 1889, Art Institute of Chicago


One painting that is perhaps best known from van Gogh’s stay in Arles is Terrasse du café le soir (Café Terrace at Night; 1888).  This particular café was a favorite place to relax for van Gogh, and the painting is apt in that it was made at night.  The tantalizing friction of deep blues and brilliant yellows in juxtaposition gives the painting an edgy vibrancy.  The magnificent stars in the sky, which appear in several of van Gogh’s other works of this period, seem to be mirrored on the earthly plane by the circles of the café tables under the glare of artificial light.  The café, now known as ”le Café la Nuit,” still serves customers in Arles today.


Vincent van Gogh:  Terrasse du café le soir (Caféterras bij avond), 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Holland

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


the Café la Nuit in Arles today


Another well-known painting from van Gogh’s output in Arles — and one that can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay — is La nuit étoilée sur le Rhône (Starry Night over the Rhône;1888).  This work was made during the same month as Terrasse du café le soir, and is also replete with stars.  The view is from the bank of the river with the city’s lights reflected in the water. A couple walks along the bank in the foreground.

In one of Van Gogh’s letters he wrote, “And lastly a study of the Rhône — of the town lighted with gas reflected in the blue river.  Over it the starry sky with the Great Bear [Ursa major] — a sparkling of pink and green on the cobalt blue field on the night sky, whereas the lights of the town and its ruthless reflections are red gold and bronzed green.”  As in the Café Terrace at Night, the man-made lights contend with those of the heavens.


Vincent van Gogh:  La nuit étoilée sur le Rhône, 1888, Musée d’Orsay


the Rhône River in Arles today


Tragically, in the midst of this burst of creative output in Arles, van Gogh began suffering hallucinations, paranoia, and recurring mental breakdowns.  There has been much speculation about van Gogh’s mental state, and many different diagnoses have been posited, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy, syphilis, too much absinthe, even poisoning from paints.

In a story that is now well known, following a dispute with Gauguin, van Gogh cut off part of his left ear.  He voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy.  During his almost year-long stay at the asylum, a former monastery, he would often paint lilacs and irises that he saw in the garden of the clinic.  On his supervised walks with a care-taker, he painted the vineyards, cypress trees, and olive groves through which he would pass.  He painted more than 150 canvases while at Saint-Rémy.

Nuit étoilée (The Starry Night; Museum of Modern Art, New York), perhaps the most famous work by van Gogh, was made during his stay at Saint-Rémy.  He also painted what he considered a “daylight complement” to The Starry Night, Oliviers avec les Alpilles dans le fond (Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background; also at Museum of Modern Art), one of at least 15 paintings that he had made of olive trees at this time.  For van Gogh, there was something powerful in these olive trees — they represented for him the ultimate struggle, that of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, during a time that van Gogh himself was struggling.


Vincent van Gogh:  Oliviers avec les Alpilles dans le fond, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


olive trees in the Alpilles today


The following year, on the recommendation of his painter friend Camille Pissarro, van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris, to be near the physician Dr. Paul Gachet.  Gachet, an art collector, was a supporter of several artists at the time and Vincent came to consider the doctor “something like another brother” (although he wrote to Theo, “He certainly seems as ill and distraught as you or me . . .”).

Van Gogh was to be in Auvers-sur-Oise for only 70 days.  He averaged one painting per day there.  While Dr. Gachet cared for him, van Gogh painted still lifes and landscapes, made portraits of Dr. Gachet and of children in the village, and painted various buildings in the village.  One of these buildings was L'église d'Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet (The church at Auvers-sur-Oise, view of the apse).

This is the other painting of a church at the Musée d’Orsay that I had earlier mentioned.  This church, which rests in its own shadow, appears to have no doors through which to enter.  Was van Gogh thinking about his continuing struggles in life?  There are two paths that diverge; neither seems to lead to the church. A woman, with her back to us, walks away.  The sky above swirls portentously.


Vincent van Gogh:  L'église d'Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet, 1890, Musée d’Orsay

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


the church at Auvers-sur-Oise today


For a while, it seemed that van Gogh was improving under Dr. Gachet’s care.  Then he wrote that he had made three paintings in Auvers-sur-Oise of “large fields of wheat under troubled skies.”  One of these is the well-known Champ de blé aux corbeaux (Wheatfield with Crows - Korenvelden onder dreigende luchten met kraaien;1890; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).  This painting, like the painting of the church, also has diverging paths, but each ends abruptly.  It was not his last painting, but it would come to symbolize his end, which came on 29 July 1890.  Vincent’s brother Theo died only six months later.  They are buried together in Auvers-sur-Oise.


Vincent's and Theo’s graves in Auvers-sur-Oise


I began this account with a discussion of Monet’s La cathédrale de Rouen series.  What were Monet’s thoughts on van Gogh?  Leon Daudet (1868 –1942), son of the novelist Alphonse Daudet, records in 1926:

But wait:  I can once again see, though it was many years ago, Monet speaking with Mirabeau about another famous painter, Vincent van Gogh, on the subject of a path of irises, a canvas that in Mirabeau’s nervous, blonde-haired hands gloriously shimmered in the light.

“How, ah! how,” Monet was saying, “did a man who loved flowers and light to such an extent, and who rendered them so well, how then did he still manage to be so unhappy?”

The film director Jean Renoir wrote in 1958 that he recalled what his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, said of van Gogh: “The indifference towards a man who was obviously a genius was, in his view, a condemnation of ‘this whole century of babbling idiots.’”

Vincent van Gogh left us with more than 900 paintings to reflect upon with an appreciation for his genius.  Perhaps we can get it right this time. 





The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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