Van Gogh's Role As A Social Criticism

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When most people first hear the name Van Gogh, they think of the Van Gogh portrayed by popular culture – brilliant, tormented, and driven to insanity by his artistic dedication. Yet this portrayal of Van Gogh fails to acknowledge his role as a social critic – a critic considerably influenced by his socioeconomic circumstances. Even modern-day art historians, those people deemed most likely to consider Van Gogh from every possible viewpoint, often reject this facet of the artist. They instead attribute his creative genius to either his desire to participate in the era’s leading artistic movements or his inherent mental instability. While art historian Griselda Pollock, for example, calls Van Gogh’s first major work The Potato Eaters (1885) a …show more content…
Most people are well aware of Van Gogh’s mental issues towards the end of his life, and numerous works by historians, doctors, and psychologists have attempted to examine the effect of Van Gogh’s health on his ability to paint. This attempt to analyze Van Gogh’s mental well-being undoubtedly influences our interpretation of his works, however subtly. For instance, in his book Ways of Seeing, writer John Berger poses an experiment to his readers, showing them a landscape containing a cornfield of birds. He then shows the same landscape on the following page accompanied by the words, “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself” (28). While we may not be able to quantify the effect of those words on our interpretation of the painting, our interpretation definitely changes after we learn about Van Gogh’s decision to commit suicide, for better or worse. Yet an in-depth examination of Van Gogh’s personal circumstances suggests this rebuttal – the idea that Van Gogh gained his inspiration from his mental instability instead of from his socioeconomic surroundings – seems improbable. While Van Gogh’s mental volatility may have swayed the direction of his works, Van Gogh’s cognitive issues were not the main impetus for The Night Café. In a correspondence to his brother Theo, for instance, Van Gogh complains somewhat flippantly about his financial issues with the owner of the night café. Forcing Van Gogh to request a 300-franc loan, these financial issues also form the immediate motivation for The Night Café. In this letter, Van Gogh himself tells Theo that “I’d told [the owner] that to get my own back on him for having paid him so much money for nothing, I’d paint his whole filthy old place as a way of getting my money back” (“Letter 676”). While Van Gogh later claims to have no

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