Printer Friendly

Vincent van Gogh: visiting near Arles.

Looking Carefully

In Fishing Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, van Gogh shows his skill and excitement through the language and simplicity of fine. The high horizon places emphasis on the sea captured in various lines portrayed with rhythmic motion. The sea beneath the boats has the power to rock the vessels firmly yet gently. The lines alter in width, length and value, creating variations on the concept of a horizontal, wavy line. The sail of the closest boat curves against the wind as the sailor leans into the work of steering his craft. The size of the distant boats and the lines of the water create a deep perspective. Even the dots of the sky are tinier at the horizon, adding to the illusion of deep space. The clouds repeat the angle of the sail and show us the direction of the wind which powers each craft.

The water nearest the viewer appears frothy--as if it is about to roll up to the shore and touch the viewer's feet. Some lines are thin and grouped as a diagonal mass to show the underside of a wave about to break the water. The dots mix with backward s-curved lines and negative space as the water rushes up and into a foam. The lines this drawing change in value in what seems a planned yet random manner. The line value darkens where a wave might have appeared dark to van Gogh. The darker values in the distant water appear at random to create the realistic ebb an flow of this fluid surface.

Van Gogh was impressed by the Japanese prints exhibited in France since the 1860s. Recreating the spirit of his Japanese mentors, he used a reed pen and brown ink on wove paper. The tubular reed was cut to a point either blunt or sharp, wide or fine. When dipped into ink, it acts as a reservoir for the ink. Applying more pressure increases the flow of ink and thus darkens the value of the mark.

Fishing Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a drawn version of a painting van Gogh created during a visit to the small village near Arles in southern France. The drawing is half the size of the painting which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The drawing varies slightly from the painting. In the drawing, the sail tops bend more than in the painting, the figure in the boat is more apparent, and the linear clouds seem more in motion.


The Chofu Tama River in Musashi Province by Ando Hiroshige was created in 1857. This woodblock with ink and color on paper may have been among the images van Gogh saw as he examined the tantalizing Japanese prints that had come to France. He was intrigued with the simple way the Japanese portrayed nature in shapes, lines and areas of color. The calligraphy on the print shows the fluid lines--both bold and fine. The lines of the print define the shapes and textures of the scene, and portray the volume of the clothing. Horizontal feather-like strokes indicate the vegetation on the hill far away. Dots texture the ground near the water and the edge of the hut's roof. The water's sheer tranquility is disturbed only where the cloth is dipped into the current.

The lines of the calligraphic writing compare to the fluid lines of the water van Gogh created. The thin to thick and dark to light change gives each line a unique appearance. The dots on the shore of the print resemble the dots of the froth on the waves at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Van Gogh wrote in March 1888, "This country seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects are concerned. Water forms patches of a beautiful emerald or a rich blue in the landscape, just as we see it in the crepons [a type of Japanese print]." It is said that van Gogh had the unique ability to create a pen drawing with the impression of color.

If van Gogh indeed saw this print, he no doubt would have noticed the use of negative space in the water near the cloth and in the landscape where the mist might appear. The spaces between lines had functions in his drawings as well. It is in the negative space that we see the frothiest part of the wave, the shimmer on the water and the bulk of the clouds. Van Gogh used line, shape and negative space skillfully. The way he used these tools can be related to the work of the Japanese and his true admiration for them as artists.

Stylistic information

The Japanese government cut off contact with all other nations in the 1630s to keep order within the country. Japanese could not leave the country, and foreign sailors who shipwrecked on their shores were killed. This action prompted an 1853 voyage by American Commodore Perry to open diplomatic and trade relations. An agreement was made and agreements between Japan and various European countries followed. By the 1860s, Japanese prints were seen in Paris. Van Gogh, like the Impressionists, was taken by their simplicity of line and color.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, ". . . We like Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the Impressionists have that in common; then why not go to Japan, that is to say to the equivalent of Japan, the South?" Van Gogh stayed in Arles from February, 1888 to May, 1889. During this time, he produced 200 paintings, over 100 drawings and watercolors, and wrote some 200 letters. This creative period is considered the greatest of his career. Van Gogh spoke fondly of Arles, and his admiration for Japanese artists. "...I wish you could spend time here, you would feel it after a while, one's sight changes, you see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel colour differently. The Japanese draw quickly, very quickly, like a lightning flash..."

While in Arles, van Gogh decided to make a short visit to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Through his letters, the visit can be pinpointed to late July in 1888. He was inspired enough to create three paintings and nine drawings at this location.

Key Concepts

* Vincent van Gogh visited Arles for fifteen months between February, 1888 and May, 1889. This period of artistic activity is considered a career climax for van Gogh.

* Van Gogh used line to express a concept without depending on color.

* Van Gogh wrote many letters which frequently contained artwork. This correspondence has given us an accurate record of his life and works.

* Japanese prints began to appear in Paris during the 1860s. Collected and admired by artists, these prints influenced how French artists worked during this period.

* Different locations can inspire and stimulate artists creatively.

* Moving the horizon above the halfway point in Fishing Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has given particular emphasis to the water in the composition.

Suggested Activities

The following activities may be adapted for both elementary and secondary students.

* Locate Arles and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on a map. Locate other southern cities which attracted artists, i.e., Avignon, Martigues, and Aix-en-Province. Use the latitude on a globe, to find comparable locations in the United States.

* Van Gogh wrote, "I envy the Japanese, the extreme clearness which everything has in their work. It is never tedious and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing and they do figures in a few sure strokes, with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat." Discuss why van Gogh might write this. What might he have learned about Japanese life that would lead him to say this?

* Van Gogh liked the reed pen because the Japanese had also used it. What characteristics does reed have which make it qualify as a good art tool? Explore other tools used by the Japanese such as woodblocks, bamboo brushes and rice paper.

* The Japanese have recently been very interested in buying the works of van Gogh and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. Create a bulletin board of articles discussing such purchases.

* Using a pen and sepia ink, recreate the boat from van Gogh's drawing and a portion of the drawing around it. Look carefully at the lines and try to make them thick and thin, light and dark, as the artist did. For a true challenge, cut a reed or feather to create the pen.

* Set up a still life for students to do a line drawing. Do one version of the setup with a strong light source such as a 150-watt bulb. Do a second version with a weaker light such as a 25-watt bulb. How do the drawings differ? Are the lines closer together or thicker in one version than the other? The same effect can be achieved by drawing a landscape on two very different days--one sunny and one overcast.

* Divide the class into groups and let each group examine a book of Japanese prints. The students should write a list of characteristics of these prints such as "shapes with very few interior lines" or "faces have few lines for expressions." Have the class combine efforts in one list. Post the list and use it as a guide while students create their own compositions.

* Ask all the students in the class to write the same nonsense words (groups of letters that don't mean anything). Display the words so the students can observe the different styles of handwriting. Encourage them to see how letters slant differently, some loops are larger than others, etc. Show Japanese calligraphy from more than one artist. Ask students to compare the lines. What can they learn about the language by just looking at the lines? Discuss how the lines of cursive writing or calligraphy might be interesting to an artist.

* Research Commodore Matthew C. Perry's role in opening trade with Japan. Determine or imagine how trade with the outside world changed life in Japan.

* Divide the class into small groups, giving each a letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Ask each group to respond to the question "What can we learn about Vincent van Gogh's life from his letters?"

* Read further about van Gogh's stay in Arles. Have students locate reproductions of paintings or drawings he created during this time period.


Hammacher, A.M. and Renilde. Van

Gogh. New York: Thames and

Hudson, 1990. Lucas, Eileen, Vincent Van Gogh.

First Book Series, Watts, 1991. Pickvance, Ronald. Van Gogh in Arles.

New York: The Metropolitan

Museum of Art, 1984. Raboff, Ernest, Vincent Van Gogh.

Art for Children Series. New York:

Harper-Collins Children's Books, 1973. van der Wolk, Johannes, Vincent Van

Gogh: Paintings and Drawings. New

York: Rizzoli International, 1990.

Slides of artworks in this article and many others are available for a small fee from the Resource Center at The Saint Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63110-1380; (314) 721-0067, ext. 226.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hellwege, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Contour, color and cowboys too!
Next Article:The flower as mandala.

Related Articles
Art from art.
Video viewing.
Face and Figure: Special Delivery.
Van Gogh for the visually impaired.
Van Gogh's cat; wanders in to the starry night.
Rencontres d'Arles: Various Venues.
Van Gogh's bedroom.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters