Van Gogh’s Vegetable Gardens at Montmartre (1887)

Art historians have remarked that while van Gogh accurately recorded the layout of this scene in Montmartre he was not precise.1 Faced with the quandary of why a great artist would both record and fictionalize a contemporary scene, scholars have generally concluded that he wanted to capture the atmosphere of the place.2 It is one of those mysterious answers that makes no sense but which we art lovers, like the congregation of an Established Church, accept on faith.

Vegetable Gardens at Montmartre by Van Gogh is another example of an artist basing a landscape on the underlying form of a self-portrait. Here the plot of land resembles the shape of van Gogh’s chin in an earlier portrait. Not only that, but the direction of the brushstrokes echoes the hairs of his beard. He must, therefore, have chosen the motif in Montmartre for its resemblance to the lower part of his own face. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Vegetable Gardens at Montmartre (Spring 1887) Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

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Compare the two images at left. Just above his “chin”, Van Gogh marked the horizontal line of a fence to position his mouth. Further up he placed chimney smoke on the horizon, symbolic of creative dreaming, to indicate his right eye. The smoke, billowing upwards to the left, forms an acute angle with the horizon, thus positioning the inner corner of his right eye precisely. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Diagram of Vegetable Gardens compared to a self-portrait from six months earlier

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His left eye is less obviously marked by a matching angle on the other side, a slight hill rising above the plain. There is no nose because the presence of his "face" resonates without it while remaining invisible to most viewers. With his eyes on the horizon, his “mind”, quite naturally, is in the sky. Indeed the difference in facture between the lines and dots of the land and the blurred sky, a stylistic difference noted by others, is probably intended to characterize the difference between the the physical description of his face and the interior reality of his mind.

The appearance of van Gogh’s features in works other than self-portraits is not surprising. Vincent constantly portrayed his own face and art scholars have often noted how he projected himself into his paintings. In 1963 H. R. Graetz wrote that an early drawing by Van Gogh “is, like every drawing and painting, a self-portrayal; this does not require the artist’s own features, and, in fact, the subject need not even be a human figure. Landscapes, still lifes, compositions – like handwriting – can convey the inner condition of a human being.”3

Notes:

1. Vincent van Gogh: Paintings (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh) 1990, p. 72

2. 100 Masterpieces in the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) 2002, p. 25

3. H.R. Graetz, The Symbolic Language of Vincent van Gogh (London: Thames & Hudson) 1963, p.17

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 20 Apr 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.