Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh is one of the greatest Post-Impressionist painters. Born in Holland in 1853, Van Gogh did not become a painter until later in life. In fact, it was at the age of twenty-seven that he decided to devote himself to art, after which time he produced some 1500 oil-paintings, watercolors and drawings during his short career (from 1873-1890). It is said of Van Gogh that "he felt through his eyes and showed his feelings with his paintbrush" (Richardson, 71). Taking his own life, he died in 1890 at the age of thirty-seven. Throughout his life Van Gogh was often poor, sick and hungry, and he did not receive any real recognition of his work even among most of his peers during his lifetime. Now he is one of the most popular painters of all time.
The Night Café, 1888
Van Gogh painted this picture while living in the southern French town of Arles. He loved the beautiful countryside around this small provincial town and would walk for hours looking for open air scenes to paint. Bringing all he had recently learned in Paris about using light and color, Van Gogh painted grassy sun-soaked landscapes, agricultural scenes, fishing boats on the coast and blossoming fruit trees of spring during the day. At night, instead of resting, he would go out to paint more. He often chose café scenes. Candles that he had stuck in his hat provided him with necessary light by which to paint at night.
The Night Café
takes us indoors to the Café de l'Alcazar, where Van Gogh lived from April to September, 1888. In fact, he painted it for his landlord in lieu of rent. Van Gogh's intent was to present the darker side of the café-world at night. In this painting he "explored the terrors of the night's underworld in strident colors" (Wallace, p.113). Van Gogh knew well the many temptations of the bars and brothels in Arles. The dark reds and greens are meant to express, as Van Gogh himself describes, "the terrible passions of humanity" (Schapiro, p.70) and contribute to the stifling atmosphere of the room. This café is a place for those with no home in which to find refuge, and we see drunken figures slumped over tables. The clock above informs us that it is after one in the morning The empty chairs pushed aside were earlier used by those who have long since gone home to bed. Overhead are lamps encircled with wild haloes of light. The strong perspective of this picture leads the viewer to the bright yellow doorway, the silhouette of which seems to match that of the man hovering near the billiard table. (Some critics suggest that this doorway leads to other forbidden enticements). In a letter to his brother, Theo, Van Gogh explains that in
The Night Café
he sought "to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime" (Wallace, p.93). His purpose, however, is to warn rather than indict, and his particular emphasis on strong color is meant to convey a feeling of hopefulness rather than of despair. But Van Gogh's use of bold colors also probably reflected his mental imbalance. Soon after completing
The Night Café
he suffered a mental breakdown.
Born in Figueras, Spain, in 1907, Salvador Dali had his first drawing lesson at the age of ten. During his younger days his primary interest was in Impressionism. As a student in Madrid, Dali went on to experiment with a variety of styles, including Dadaism and Cubism, but by 1929 he had become a leading figure in the Surrealist movement and remained so during the next ten years. Dali, with his trademark handlebar mustache and flamboyant manner, brought a flair for showmanship to his approach to modern art. His most famous paintings are typically dreamlike landscapes filled with bizarre, puzzling objects. He referred to these productions as 'hand-painted dream photographs' and they have otherwise been described as "a handmade color photography of concrete irrationality" (Weyers, p.19). Dali died at the age of eighty-five. He is one of the twentieth century's most popular and most unusual artists.
The Persistence of Memory, 1931
Salvador Dali got the idea for this painting after an evening meal when he found himself staring intently at the remains of runny camembert cheese. He projected this image using drooping forms of clocks as well as the 'soft self-portrait' melting on rocks underneath it, and added them to the barren landscape. In contrast to these elements of softness and perishability are the gaunt rocks and strange blocks to be found in the painting. All that is man-made or human has been conquered by time, including the artist's own self, while the cliffs in the background (the landscape of Cap de Creus) covered with bright light, display a permanence where the true 'persistence of memory' lies. In this painting with its haunting, dreamlike reality, linear time as measured by mechanical clocks is not important, as all things human are transitory. When compared with the eternity of the landscape, technical measurement of time has no value or importance. The live ants crawling on the solid clock have been said to suggest our inevitable death. We are all conquered by time. "The 'soft watch' acts as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of mankind, our inevitable decay and our subsequent obsession with the nature of time set against us" (Bradbury, p.70).
Born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881, Pablo Picasso showed a phenomenal talent for drawing and painting when very young. His father, a painter and art teacher, encouraged his son's pursuit of art and he went on to become one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. At the beginning of his career he moved to Paris, and it was in France that he would spend most of his life. Picasso is probably most famous for the incredible number of styles and genres his work went through during his long and prolific career. His work can best be studied in terms of the particular women (wives, mistresses) that he happened to have relationships with during particular phases of his life. He was always eager to try something new in his art and he was at the forefront of the development of modern art (along with the artist, Georges Braque, he founded the Cubism movement). He was celebrated not only for his paintings but also for his sculptures, drawings and prints. "Picasso brought a new sense of freedom to both painting and sculpture" (Mason, p.5). Up until he died at the age of ninety-two, Picasso continued to explore and experiment with new ways of artistic expression.
First Steps, 1943
during World War II when France had been occupied by Nazi Germany. Instead of fleeing the country as many did, Picasso chose to stay in Paris and continue his work there. Inevitably his work reflected the grim atmosphere of that time-period-reflected in the grayish colors of this painting. But life goes on, and maternity was always a strong and recurrent theme in Picasso's artwork.
shows a mother guiding her child (personified by his maid, Inez and her son) as he makes his first attempts at walking. She lovingly bends over him, holding both hands to give him the support he needs to step forward. In both the sad eyes of the mother and the jagged tense lines of the child's straining body Picasso is expressing the heavy burden and terrible toll that the war had taken on the people of France. His choice of dark blues, grays and maroons conveys a very somber mood. However, Picasso offers us hope in this touching scene of a child learning to walk. "Through his drawing, composition and magnified scale, Picasso suggests the momentous drama of the scene" (Barr, p.232). The Cubist distortions serve to convey this drama from the child's perspective with all the insecurity he must feel in trying to walk for the first time. The mother is painted very large as the child would see her. The reassuring closeness of the mother helps the child to overcome his apprehension (as evidenced in his puckered face). With determination he lifts his left foot and steps forward. Picasso's characteristic style of distorting and dislocating the subjects in this painting is very effective and "serves to enhance the original subject rather than destroy it" (Barr, p.232).
Edward Hopper is considered the twentieth century's foremost American realist painter. He was born in Nyack, New York, in 1882 and began drawing at an early age. The blackboard his mother gave him for Christmas when he was seven became his first easel. After high school he went on to study art illustration and then painting under the direction of Robert Henri, who encouraged Hopper to look at life around him and paint what he saw. And so he did! Hopper painted the streets of New York, storefronts, gas stations and interior and exterior views of buildings. As is true of many self-made artists, Hopper was slow in reaching maturity. It was only in his early forties that he started to express himself fully in his painting. It wasn't until then that he began to achieve real recognition for his work (p. 39, Goodrich). Hopper painted the ordinary things he saw around him but he managed to instill in them a quality of drama and mystery that greatly dignified their existence. The salient mood of many of his paintings is the alienation of the individual within societya universal theme which accounts for his enduring popularity. Hopper died in 1967 at the age of eighty-five.
Sunlight in a Cafeteria, 1958
"Although Hopper did not offer political or social statements in his art, he was profoundly interested in mood and human interaction" (Levin, p.49).
In Sunlight in a Cafeteria
, which Hopper painted in his later years, the feeling is one of loneliness and isolation. Two people, a man and a woman, sit at separate tables in a sunlit cafeteria. The view is one of being inside the room looking out. The eyes of the two subjects do not meet and, in fact, there is no interaction between them, and the warm sunlight that fills the room "serves to create the frozen stillness of this composition" (Berkow, p.78). While the woman sits in the full light, the man is placed in a semi-shadow. There is an unmistakable emotional tension created between them in which the viewer hopes one of them will break the silence and strike up a conversation. But the room with its empty, polished tables does not encourage such an interaction. Even the sunlight seems to act more like a barrier between them. Hopper effectively expresses how lonely our modern, urban life can be. People remain strangers toward each other even in close proximity.