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Was Vincent van Gogh an Impressionist?

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Van Gogh’s experienced a shift from tonal Rembrandt inspired work to Impressionist Color techniques. But did his ideas change?

Vincent van Gogh underwent some major stylistic changes throughout his career, but none more dramatic to his sudden use of Impressionistic painting techniques in around late 1886-7. So what is his style defined as?

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Vincent van Gogh's self portraits showing his varying painting styles

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Van Gogh’s more ‘Realist’ work is more akin to Rembrandt van Rijn or Peter Paul Rubens in style and color range (see similar colors and tones below in Rembrand and Ruben’s work with Van Gogh’s ). The use of browns, yellow ochres and black displays a clear connection with is influences at that time. The somber posture and expressions also consistent throughout the works. When we mention the term ‘Realist’, it is not to be confused with ‘Photo Realism’ or representational art. Although many Realists were very accomplished representational artists, Realism’s aim was to tell a story of what ‘real life’ was like. Images of hardship, suffering, the harvest, the lost family member, the war etc. often populated the Realist’s catalogue. Capturing accurate representation was not paramount and fell second in priority to telling the story.

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Peter Paul Rubens Self Portrait

Peter Paul Rubens: self-portrait Peter Paul Rubens, self-portrait in oil, c. 1638; in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Van Gogh Watercolor of a woman

Scheveningen Woman – Vincent van Gogh – 1881 Source: Wikiart

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Man with a Magnifying Glass – Rembrandt van Rijn – 1629

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Old Women of Arles (Mistral), oil on jute by Paul Gauguin, 1888 (Source Britannica)

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His later style, even though it appears to be using a similar color palette to the impressionists his work is more commonly considered to be ‘Post-Impressionism’. Not because of the techniques, but the ideas. Van Gogh possessed a preference for more personal expression of ideas and storytelling in his works, which was a large part of the Post-Impressionist movement. By contrast, the Impressionist painting style, which aesthetically influenced Van Gogh’s work when he became exposed to around 1886-7 after meeting fellow Post Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin in 1886, was more focused on creating realistic science based light effects using mixed colors and tones. Telling a story in impressionist work was secondary to the techniques themselves. So even though he used Impressionist techniques in his later works, he was still a Post-Impressionist.

This preference to tell a ‘realistic’ story in his work was consistent throughout his artistic journey. In fact, genre of ‘Realism’ is more accurate as an overarching way of thinking or theme that persisted for Van Gogh, despite his stylistic changes.

Man in a Golden Helmet by Rembrandt

Man in a Golden Helmet – Rembrandt van Rijn – 1650

Vincent van Gogh Self portrait in dark felt hat.

Vincent van Gogh – Self Portrait with Dark Felt Hat – 1886

What are the differences between the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists?

Although the Post-Impressionists were attracted to the techniques of the Impressionists like Monet and Seurat, the Post-Impressionists were seeking a more personal story in their works. Vincent van Gogh is a great illustration of this, who was inspired by everyday life around him. The gritty, earthy browns of his earlier work clearly showed the hardships and ‘reality’ of his surroundings. Something the Impressionists appeared to avoid. Rather preferring idyllic renditions of the landscape and lifestyle. Their focus appeared more on technical aspects of painting than storytelling.

Claude Monet Grainstacks

Grainstacks – Claude Monet at Giverny – 1888-1889

See Monet’s Grainstacks (above), and Van Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters’ (below) both typical works for each artist of the time, both in their own way telling a story of rural life. But that is the end of the similarities. One is an an idyllic sunset vista displaying bursting abundance of the harvest. Note the colors and tones being used. By contrast, the dark almost sub-terrain cave of the Potato Eaters is hardly the celebration of the harvest we see in Monet. Long faces, muted colors, stooped postures. Yet a clear influence is present of work by the likes of Rembrandt and a powerful story is being told. One artwork would hang in a dining room with it’s joyous exploration of the optical stimulation that can be enjoyed via skillful positioning of complementary colors. The other would be be displayed in a room of deep contemplation such as a reading room or study. The muted colors and low key contrast draws you into a world of hardship and survival.

In conclusion, it’s clear Van Gogh took influence from the technical elements of the Impressionists, but also yearned to tell the story of his environment. Perhaps this perfect blend of beautiful handling of color combined with heartfelt and meaningful storytelling is why Vincent van Gogh is still incredibly popular to this day?

Vincent van gogh Painting The PotatoEeaters

The Potato Eaters – Vincent van Gogh – 1885

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