Van Gogh gold

Posted on March 3, 2011


La Trobe University scholar and curator of Art, Dr Vincent Alessi, has uncovered a hitherto unknown 600 illustrations that helped shape the work of one of the world’s greatest and best-know artists, Vincent van Gogh. 

During his life van Gogh assembled a number of important collections. These included an archive of black-and-white prints which he cut from British illustrated newspapers of his time, many of them over four years to 1885. This was a critical period during which van Gogh was developing as an artist. 

The prints were later left with his mother in Holland, and kept by her after his death in 1890. About 1,400 have survived and are housed in Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum archives. 

When he embarked on his PhD studies about ten years ago, Dr Alessi read the artist’s letters to his brother. This led him to believe that van Gogh collected at least 2,000 of these illustrations. They came from two pioneering English publications, ‘The Illustrated London News’  and ‘The Graphic’. 

‘The illustrations themselves don’t have any intrinsic value,’ says Dr Alessi. ‘But the fact that they were his personal collection and obviously helped shape his views and his eye, means they tell an important story. They’re an amazing resource.’ 

So Dr Alessi pored over van Gogh’s letters for any mention of prints that had been lost from the collection. After identifying them, either by title or van Gogh’s descriptions, he searched through a decade of the newspapers to locate the matching images. In this way he retrieved nearly 600 prints museum curators had yet to locate. 

Although scholars have acknowledged the influence of these illustrations from Victorian England on Van Gogh’s work, there had never been a systematic analysis of his print collection. 

Dr Alessi’s fascination with van Gogh began as a teenager. As an honours student at La Trobe he wrote a thesis on sun symbolism in van Gogh’s paintings.  Later he visited the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to plan his PhD studies and became the first person to catalogue all of the English black-and-white prints van Gogh collected in the 1880s. 

The result of Dr Alessi’s work has attracted wide interest. For the first time we can answer in great detail such questions as why did van Gogh build the collection? Why did he choose certain illustrations over others? What was the collection’s thematic and stylistic structure?  And how did this influence the development of his unique visual language as a leading post-impressionist? 

Van Gogh, says Dr Alessi, initially set out to work as an illustrator. He studied woodblock prints to learn how to draw, to understand perspective and composition. The subject matter of the prints also influenced his future paintings. 

‘Most of the cuttings were social realist in nature. They illustrated the ills of society towards the end of the Industrial Revolution. They depicted street urchins, the homeless and poor, and mining and industrial scenes.’ 

They had two key themes, says Dr Alessi. ‘One is the city versus rural life. In Victorian England, the city was viewed as corrupt and dirty, and rural life as almost saintly and pristine. 

‘The other theme is religious or spiritual. Van Gogh came from a religious family. His father was a pastor and he himself had once planned to become a clergyman. 

‘These things shaped his view of what it is to be an artist and what an artist should do. He often spoke or wrote about “art of the people, for the people”.’ 

Dr Alessi says his research findings challenge the ‘van Gogh troubled genius industry’. 

‘While he was clearly troubled by financial and psychiatric problems, the widespread belief that he had an “inherent genius for painting” is certainly not correct. 

‘He did not work in a vacuum; he developed his skills from a number of sources. Far from being a natural genius,’ says Dr Alessi, ‘he had to painstakingly learn his craft like any painter. These prints help us understand how he did that.’

Link: La Trobe University podcast (More about the van Gogh study)