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Boulevard de Clichy, 1887

Boulevard de Clichy, 1887
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Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884
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Vincent's travelogue

In his short 37 years, Vincent lived in decadent cities, grim industrial wastelands and quiet countryside. All found a place in his pictures in what became almost a pictoral diary

North Brabant

Vincent was born in Zundert, a tiny Protestant area of Holland that pokes into Catholic Belgium. He spent the first 16 years of his life here, recorded in his early drawings. Later in his life he would move to a more northerly village, Etten. In the 19th century the North Brabant area was growing more industrialised, with textile production being a major industry.

Vincent's disturbed psyche could, perhaps, have had its roots in the region's troubled past. After the signing of the Union of Utrecht in 1579, Brabant had been a battlefield between Catholic Spain, occupying the southern Netherlands, and the protestant Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. The Peace of Westphalia brought the northern part of Brabant into the Netherlands.

The Hague

When Vincent was 16, he went to work in his uncle's gallery in The Hague, the capital of South Holland, with the city centre bordering the old forest of The Hague. Linked by canal with Amsterdam and Rotterdam, The Hague grew around a 13th century castle, Hall of Knights. Like most cities in the region during the 19th century, it was booming economically. It was a cosmopolitan city. Vincent would have seen the former Portuguese Jewish area at the north eastern canals, with its impressive 18th century synagogue, designed by French Huguenot architect Daniel Marot.

The Yellow House, 1888

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

The Yellow House, 1888
Oil on canvas, 76 x 94cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

click to enlarge

London

In 1873, 20-year-old Vincent arrived in London, the largest city in the world, with a population of four million. It was crowded and dirty, the filthy rich living alongside the filthy poor. It was a tense, vibrant place, where businessmen, refugees, entertainers, artists and criminals from all races and religions rubbed shoulders. It was the London of Charles Dickens and Dore, who opened Vincent's eyes to the endemic poverty, crime and violence. Lawbreakers were given little sympathy, often finding themselves subjected to the brutal regime of Newgate Prison.

Rising above this however were the most advanced industries and confident architecture – King's Cross Station, designed by the architect Lewis Cubitt and built in 1851-1852; the Victorian Gothic St Pancras Station, built in 1863-1865 with its daunting roof designed by RM Ordish and WH Barlow; and Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition in 1851. There were innovative thinkers in every corner – from socialist revolutionary Karl Marx to pioneering English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday.

Influential artists included John Everett Millais (1829-1896), a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and French Impressionist Camille Pisarro (1830-1903). It was the worst of everything and the best of everything.

Paris

Two periods of Vincent's brief life were spent in the French capital. As other European cities, Paris was rapidly expanding as a result of the Industrial Revolution. During the 40 years from 1850, its population doubled in size to more than two million people. The Eiffel Tower would not dominate the skyline until 1889, just one year before Vincent's death, but its designer was hard at work elsewhere. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) designed the Bon Marche department store, a shop ahead of its time in its aesthetics and selling methods.

When Vincent arrived in Paris the second time, Impressionism was 10 years old, with the likes of Degas, Monet and Manet almost mainstream. He joins the artistic community, clustered in the vibrant and seedy area of Montmatre.

In the rich artistic tapestry, sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) dominated. From writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) came the social critique Germinal and influential political pamphlets such as J'accuse, in support of Alfred Dreyfus who was suffering at the hands of military anti-Semites.

Ramsgate

Ramsgate in Kent was one of the great English seaside towns in the 19th century. Fishing and tourism dominated the local economy. King George IV made the harbour the UK's only Royal Harbour after a visit in 1821. It was one of the main embarkation points during the Napoleonic Wars.

View of the Sea at Scheveningen, 1882

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

View of the Sea at Scheveningen, 1882
Oil on canvas, 34 x 51cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

click to enlarge

Amsterdam

Built on 90 islands circumnavigated by canals, the city had been a significant port since the 14th century. In the 17th century it also became a major financial centre and a focus for the diamond industry, and by the time Vincent arrived it was growing at a staggering rate. Its population grew from 224,000 in 1850 to 317,000 in 1879 and 408,000 in 1890. Amsterdam was in the middle of a huge building project to provide homes for its new inhabitants.

However because of laissez faire economic policies of the time, much of the building was produced on the cheap, leading to badly constructed working class ghettoes.

Art had been a significant factor in Amsterdam life even before Vincent's arrival, spreading influence throughout the world. Van Gogh spent days at the Rijksmuseum, admiring Rembrandt and Hals in particular.

Nuenen

This notoriously poor farming area in the south eastern part of the Netherlands, near the Belgium and German border, was dominated by the potato in the 19th century. Poverty-ravaged peasants became a major theme in Vincent's work, along with the landscape and the plunging avenues of poplars.

Antwerp

Antwerp is just 25 miles from Vincent's birthplace in Zundert, but in a different country, Belgium, and a different world from the one Vincent had left. As a port, it had become an important commercial and financial centre in the 16th century and during Vincent's lifetime it was famous for art, beer and diamonds. Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569) had joined the Antwerp guild, although he went on to produce most of his influential work in Brussels, another of Vincent's destinations. In the early 16th century, the city had also become home to a group of painters called the Antwerp Mannerists, who specialised in affected poses.

Arles

Arles was the manufacturing centre of French railway rolling stock. Belying its reputation for its beautiful women – the Arlesienne – belching chimneys matched the numbers of church steeples. The town was also home to a garrison of troublemaking French soldiers, Zouaves, from Algeria, inveterate drinkers and brothel-goers.

However, in the bright Provence countryside, the humble cash crop the sunflower was elevated to new heights by Vincent's brush while medieval ruins and the plain of La Croix were also avidly recorded. Dominating the city was the bullring (caredas) to which Vincent was a frequent visitor.

Auvers-sur-Oise

This small village just to the north of Paris follows the River Oise along its long, thin valley before climbing steeply up the valley's sides in clusters of cottages to a vast stretching plateau of wheat fields. The small church at the top of the hill overlooking the village was given grander dimensions in Vincent's famous painting. Probably intended as just another staging post in Vincent's itinerant life, it was here that he spent the last 69 days of his life, before shooting himself.

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