Vincent van Gogh. Sunflowers. Chairs. Night skies of swirling blue, butter-yellow stars and fat crescent moons. Tortured by mental illness, unable to make a living from his paintings. After his death, so famous that he was the subject of an episode of BBC TV series Doctor Who without anyone having to worry that the audience wouldn’t know who he was. In short, you know Vincent van Gogh. Except that you don’t.
Van Gogh is best known as a Post-Impressionist, his paintings a form of emotional expression rather than a literal representation of the world around him. The Impressionists, in contrast, employed a more naturalistic style, tackling found subjects whether those were countryside scenes or industrial views. We looked at the work of Impressionist Camille Pissarro a few months ago.
Born in 1853 in the Netherlands, where he started his journey in art, van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, where he developed his new Post-Impressionist style, featuring a palette of bright colours, applied thickly on his canvases, which he continued to employ until his early death. It is to this latter period that his Sunflower paintings, “The Starry Night” and “Van Gogh’s Chair” belong.
But before van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist, he was an Impressionist. His early works are hard to reconcile with his later paintings, often highly detailed sketches in pencil, charcoal or ink, with a realism totally abandoned in his Post-Impressionist phase. As an Impressionist he painted or drew whatever he came across, without concern as to whether his subject was natural or artificial. His subjects ranged from gasworks to country lanes, via fish-drying barns. With his willingness to paint the industrial, van Gogh left behind a body of work which includes images of early industrial transport, drawings and paintings which are barely known amongst the wider public.
In 1882 he painted an iron mill, with the scene including a canal barge prominent in the foreground. This is no romanticised view of life on the canals, all bright colours and cheery bargemen. This is a beaten-up, severely plain, working craft.
His earliest railway picture, above, was also created in 1882, along with many others; he was driven and prodigiously productive, a one-man art factory. It’s a view of a station in The Hague, a pencil and ink drawing which captures the detail of the station’s ironwork in precise detail, whilst also conveying the winter chilliness of the day.
By 1887 he was in Paris, and his “Bridges across the Seine at Asnieres” is an oil painting featuring a steam train and a river boat. The Post-Impressionist style of this painting is identifiably similar to that of his most famous works, with the colours far brighter and more contrasting than the reality could have been, the ripples on the water represented by broad strokes of colour. Van Gogh was good with his trains. The coal glistens on the locomotive’s tender, and the copper dome catches the sun. I’m not absolutely convinced about the funnel, but I’m no expert on early French steam locomotives so the tall, thick, and slightly ribbed effect might be accurate for all I know:
Another painting from 1887 is the quite extraordinary subject of “Roadway with Underpass (Le Viaduc)”. Another oil painting, this is one to make any civil engineer proud, being a detailed view of a short tunnel through an embankment. The actual tunnel is shockingly well-realised, even as the vegetation around it is finshed in van Gogh’s by-now-characteristic broad strokes of colour. The gas lamp bracket on the right is particularly neat, and there’s a mysterious, ambiguous, dark figure making her(?) way through the gloom of the tunnel. And you thought van Gogh was the Sunflower man…
1888 found van Gogh in Arles, in the south of France, not far from the Mediterranean coast. It was here that he produced what is arguably his transport masterpiece. “Railway Carriages” is exactly what it sounds like, an oil-painted view of railway carriages stabled in a siding, awaiting their next diagram perhaps, or maybe even awaiting withdrawal. Again, the vegetation is depicted roughly in broad strokes, but the carriages themselves are shown in a surprising degree of detail. It’s possible to get a very real sense of late 19th Century French train travel from this painting alone. Van Gogh also captures the limpid quality of the light in southern France, with the sky shimmering overhead. You can practically feel the heat coming off the sides of the two wooden carriages on the right of the painting:
Before he left Arles, van Gogh also captured a view of a diligence (a public stagecoach) as it waits for its next journey in “The Tarascon Diligence”. Again, the coach is represented in surprising detail, but the perspective of the scene is all over the place, very much a Post-Impressionist painting:
Again in 1888, in Paris, Van Gogh completed another civil-engineer-pleaser, “The Railway Bridge over Avenue Montmajour”. As with “The Tarascon Diligence” and unlike “Bridges across the Seine at Asnieres”, this is every bit the Post-Impressionist piece, its angles and perspectives shifting disturbingly across the canvas, as though the viewer is looking in several directions at once. Was this how Van Gogh saw the world, or how we wanted us to see it? The detail of the bridge is so much coarser than his careful 1882 depiction of the roof of the station in The Hague that it’s difficult to believe that it’s by the same hand:
Van Gogh’s final transport painting was created in 1890. “Landscape with Carriage and Train” shows the elements of Van Gogh’s paintings coming apart at the seams. The strokes of colour in the sky are disconnected from one another. The train is crudely represented, its wheels no more than blobs of paint, the house on the right of the picture appears to tilt backwards , while the horse pulling the carriage seems semi-corporeal. It’s hard not to see Van Gogh’s increasingly frail mental state reflected in this final work. It was painted in Auvers-sur-Oise, after Van Gogh had left an asylum in Saint-Rémy.
“I’ve been working a lot and quickly; by doing so I’m trying to express the desperately swift passage of things in modern life,” said van Gogh (see here). He was right. Industrial transport massively accelerated the process of change. Towns exploded in size almost overnight, just as the world shrunk everyday. Auvers-sur-Oise is now much more built up than in van Gogh’s painting, the railway is electrified and today it is part of Line H in SNCF’s Paris-centred Transilien network.
A little over a month later, van Gogh was dead, at the age of 37, in what was presumed to be a suicide attempt. For most people he will always be the artist that painted the sunflowers. But his transport-related works are just as good, and hardly anyone knows about them. They can be our little secret.
how to find van Gogh’s transport paintings
the links in the caption of each painting will take you to the relevant WikiArt page, which includes the gallery where the painting currently hangs.