LONDON - Vincent van Gogh’s profound humanity, his gift of speaking directly to each and every one of us, continues to reverberate through the ages. It is indeed a sign of van Gogh’s scope and genius that his core human message endures while successive generations reinvent their own van Gogh, forging an image of the artist that mirrors the preoccupations of the age. A hundred years ago the Expressionists created a passionate, tortured van Gogh, whose vibrant paintings were understood as outpourings of uncontrolled emotion. Today the focus has changed as art historians and curators attempt to ‘rescue’ van Gogh from his legend by placing a new emphasis on his studio practice, the clarity of his intellect between bouts of illness and, above all, the paintings themselves.

A photograph found in the early 1990s in an antique store is thought to be of artist Vincent van Gogh. Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.

This current trend has generated new interest in van Gogh’s so-called ‘copies’ or variations, both of his own iconic paintings and those he made of other artists’ work – which includes his version of French salon artist Virginie Demont-Breton’s L’homme est en mer that will be included in the Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London this February. Several current exhibitions and publications such as Martin Bailey’s The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, examine van Gogh’s sequences of paintings with a single subject. This month two of his spectacular Sunflower paintings – originally made to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom in Arles – will go on special display at the National Gallery London, while across the Atlantic the exhibition entitled Van Gogh’s Repetitions – at the Phillips Collection and subsequently the Cleveland Museum of Art – takes an in-depth look at van Gogh’s practice of copying his own compositions. With the help of X-radiographs, it is possible to distinguish in some cases between the ‘original,’ painted on site, and the more stylised ‘copy.’ Exhibition curator Eliza Rathbone points to the fresh insight this affords into van Gogh’s creative methods, suggesting that repetition and copying gave him “the freedom to invent.” Tempering our image of van Gogh as a spontaneous artist directly responding to nature, Rathbone notes how the repetitions imply that “imagination, colour, design, ideas and feelings” played an equally important role.

L’homme est en mer belongs to a series of copies van Gogh made, not of his own paintings but rather of works by other artists he admired, during the year he spent as an inmate at the hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence from May 1889 to May 1890. As a self-taught artist van Gogh had frequently copied other artists’ works at the beginning of his career, but in the intervening years he came to associate copying with stale academic training. The Romantics’ insistence on originality and imagination, which inspired van Gogh and other innovative artists of his generation, eclipsed the importance of technical proficiency and respect for tradition – factors that underlay the practice of copying art from the past.

Nevertheless, circumstances in Saint-Rémy encouraged van Gogh to resume, and ultimately transform, the art of copying. While recovering from his nervous attacks, van Gogh spent long periods inside his hospital room without models, isolated from the contact with artists he had enjoyed in Paris and craved in Arles. He turned to the collection of printed reproductions he brought with him to the hospital for company. Initially he set out to replace a damaged print of a Delacroix painting with a copy in oil, explaining his attraction to making copies in a letter to his brother Theo: “I started making them inadvertently and now find that I can learn from them and that they give me a kind of comfort. My brush then moves through my fingers like a bow over the strings of a violin – completely for my pleasure.”

Van Gogh compared himself to a musician or translator in his interpretations of the works of artists he admired, such as Rembrandt, Delacroix and Millet. Originality was not a matter of content and composition – which were givens in his copies – but rather style and expression, with brushwork and colour as the central focus. Working exclusively from his stock of black and white reproductions, which Theo supplemented by sending postcards and illustrated magazines, van Gogh was free to translate tonal effects into colour. He explained to Theo how reproductions of Delacroix or Millet “pose for me as a subject . . . and then I improvise colour on it, not, you understand, altogether myself, but searching for memories of their pictures – but the memory, the vague consonance of colours that are at least right in feeling – that is my own interpretation.” In van Gogh’s fraught discussions with Gauguin, which preceded the artist’s mental breakdown in Arles, he had strained to come to terms with the demands of painting from memory rather than nature. Copying works by other artists apparently helped van Gogh to resolve this struggle: it allowed him to retain a model in reality that was nevertheless removed from nature, which he could infuse with his own interpretative memories and associations.

Van Gogh‘s L’Homme est en mer from 1889 is a version of a work by Virginie Demont-Breton. Estimated at  £6,000,000–8,000,000, it will be part of the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale this Febraury.

Van Gogh came across what he described as a “very pretty” full-page reproduction of Virginie Demont-Breton’s salon painting L’homme est en mer in the July 1889 issue of Le Monde Illustré. He must have been struck by how the subject not only chimed with his ambition to portray the simple life of the countryside – where he believed human experience could be found at its most direct and sincere – but also recalled artists he admired, such as Jozef Israels and, above all, Millet. Theo’s recent marriage may well have made van Gogh extra-sensitive to the comforts of family life that had eluded him; certainly the subject of a mother tenderly cradling her child, with its religious associations, was a source of solace and security, despite the father being ‘en mer,’ or away at sea. Van Gogh would have doubtlessly associated this with his painting La Berceuse, which he intended as a comfort to Breton fishermen on the dangerous seas. Indeed, the artist’s own situation of loneliness, suffering and hope of recovery during the months at Saint-Rémy frequently influenced his choice of paintings to copy.

Van Gogh seized the opportunity to reinvent this attractive subject in his own innovative style. Removing anecdotal details such as the discarded fisherman’s net the woman has been mending, he focuses on emotions, emphasising the harmony between the sleeping mother and child. In terms of colour and brushwork, van Gogh also weaves the surface of the painting into a harmonious unity: although his palette is based on complementary blues and orange-yellows, he threads luminous reflected firelight through the sombre blues to modify the colour contrasts. This results in what we might term an interpretative or ‘original’ copy, invented by van Gogh and initiating a tradition of creative copying that stretches from Picasso to Bacon. Van Gogh’s highly personalised version of Demont-Breton’s painting is thus, above all, a reflection of his own concerns, exemplifying the core ambition he outlined in a letter to Theo: “to paint men or women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolise, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our colouring.”

Van Gogh’s copies such as L’homme est en mer throw a fresh light on this great artist’s creative methods and studio practice, subjects that are central to the current reassessments of his oeuvre spearheaded by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Everyone involved in the van Gogh world would agree that the detailed research undertaken by this museum’s scholars and conservators has opened up exciting new avenues of enquiry into one of the best-known and best-loved artists of all time. But just as the Expressionists invented their own van Gogh, so too is today’s van Gogh a product of our times; our interest in his variations and copies, for example, undoubtedly relates to issues of appropriation and self-reference in contemporary art. For curators like Leo Jansen at the Van Gogh Museum and Bice Curiger – in her new capacity as artistic director of the Van Gogh Foundation in Arles – this is integral to van Gogh’s startling modernity, which they will demonstrate by juxtaposing his work with contemporary art in their new installations. In this way the past is made present, and the universality of van Gogh’s extraordinary vision is discovered anew by each succeeding generation.


Jill Lloyd is an independent art historian and curator specialising in German and Austrian art. She curated the exhibition Van Gogh and Expressionism for the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and Neue Galerie New York in 2006–7.