Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Sharing Van Gogh's Creative Process

In conceiving the narrative for Becoming Van Gogh, one of the Denver Art Museum's main goals was for visitors to connect with Vincent van Gogh personally, as someone struggling to be an artist.

We shared information with our audience about his background and his progress in becoming an artist through a series of interpretive panels. Each one hung in the gallery to introduce the works in the space with an invitation from Van Gogh himself in the form of a quote. We then elaborated on the artist himself, his surroundings, and his influences in relation to the paintings on view in the space. The panels revealed that although Van Gogh was systematic and deliberate in his approach, his forward trajectory didn’t always follow a straight line—it involved detours, missteps, abandoned directions, and the revisiting of various ideas and subject matter.

In the beginning, VG’s intense spiritual conviction framed his motivation to draw and paint. 

As a result of his intense spirituality, his subject matter tended to focus on humble subjects with an acute reverence and an innate preciousness.  He viewed people as types, favoring depictions of the humble, peasant-type individual involved in daily activities.  He revered old masters such as Millet and Israels and strove to mimic their moral convictions in his own works.

Van Gogh started learning how to build larger multi-figured compositions through diligent single-figure studies. He read instruction manuals like those published in Boys’ Life: copying Bargue’s images and dressing regular people up as peasants to model for him.

From the exhibition: During his years in Holland Van Gogh methodically followed the steps laid out in a series of art instruction manuals. He also learned by trial and error, experimenting with and combining a variety of techniques and materials. For example, he’d draw with black chalk—which he loved for its rich velvety effect—and then add details with pencil before applying a fixative made of milk and water. He might then finish the drawing with washes of ink.  After visiting Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 1885, Van Gogh began to embrace the emotive potential of color. He found kindred spirits in Old Masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Frans Hals, who gloried in color and surface effects. Switching from drawing to painting and concentrating his efforts on mastering color, Van Gogh showed that he preferred to learn the elements of art one at a time and in a logical order—though he also detoured to follow where his passion led.

Van Gogh continued to work out technical problems using different media—as he also did with figures—and began experimenting with mark-making and color.

From the gallery: Van Gogh surprised his brother Theo by arriving in Paris unexpectedly in March 1886. Immediately he began to adjust his style to contemporary French tastes, but he did so in his own personal way. The still-life paintings in this gallery show how he transformed his coloring from somber, monochromatic compositions to flower paintings bursting with color. Moreover, his focus had evolved from thinking about how to convey moral messages to how to achieve artistic effects.  Many of these still lifes exhibit Van Gogh’s debt to the French painter Adolphe Monticelli (1824–1886), whose floral compositions, painted with a thick surface called “impasto," served as models for the young Dutch artist. His discovery of Monticelli’s works reinforced his own preference for “rough” paint handling and built-up surfaces.

After his arrival in Paris, Van Gogh decided to give the academic method of drawing from plaster casts of classical sculptures a shot. Classes were led by an established artist, and although he worked diligently on his academic studies during this period, he ultimately abandoned the academic method and aesthetic for good, opting to develop his own style instead. 

Van Gogh, although initially turned off from the Impressionists, responded selectively to the trends that surrounded him in Paris.

From the gallery: "Van Gogh initially avoided adopting the palette and paint handling of the Impressionists since he thought their “prettified paintings” lacked integrity. Additionally, he wasn’t interested in capturing the effects of light, one of the signature characteristics of the Impressionists. He preferred the stippling techniques typical of the Neo-Impressionists Paul Signac and Georges Seurat, whose paintings he saw at the Salon des Indépendants in April 1887. Soon he began working the surface of his canvases with flicks and dabs of paint in a similar fashion.

He also borrowed selectively from the works of Camille Pissarro and younger artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard. In doing so, he built upon his extensive experimentation with materials, media, and techniques from his earlier years in Holland. The results showed a dramatic difference. His painting was becoming more abstract and decorative, more personal and unique. He was becoming Van Gogh."

He played with color theory and applied many of the techniques, namely the dots and dabs of Seurat and pointillism and the repetitive lines and markings of Lautrec. 

From the gallery: Throughout 1887 and into 1888, Van Gogh participated, in his own way, in helping to define the direction of modern art. He never became a complete adherent of Neo-Impressionism with its dogmatic use of dots and unmixed colors, nor did he fully embrace the opposite ideal of smooth flat areas of color exemplified by Japanese prints. Instead, he experimented with characteristics of both. Brilliantly, he combined these two seemingly incompatible approaches, as his paintings from this period show.  Van Gogh surprised perhaps even himself as he created something utterly new. He managed to merge bold color harmonies with a remarkable handling of line. In essence, he succeeded as a colorist through his deft draftsmanship.

Van Gogh began to explore the flatness and outlines of Japanese prints, also used in the works of his much-admired peer and friend, Bernard.

The exhibition closed with a rich and colorful presentation including several of Van Gogh’s mature works, reveling in the style for which he became so well-known, and celebrating the artist that he had finally become. 

From the gallery: Van Gogh’s self-guided artistic path was more of a labyrinth than a promenade. His highly organized mind was driven, and occasionally tripped up, by unpredictable creative impulses. He loved some materials and neglected others; he preferred drawing for a while, dropped it entirely, then returned to it. Sometimes his drawings were preliminary studies for oils and sometimes they followed. He didn’t consider one material or technique more important than another. He knew when he succeeded. He understood when he failed. Looking closely at his artistic decisions is a good way for us to begin to understand how he became not just an artist, but one of the most celebrated artists of our time.

Kristin Bonk Fong is the curatorial assistant for the Denver Art Museum’s painting and sculpture department. Kristin has been at the DAM since 2006. She recommends that visitors see the Gustave Doré painting in the European and American art galleries on level six in the North Building—it is a recent addition to the collection and should not be missed!