Monday, March 26, 2012

Is This the Sun? An Examination of Van Gogh Up Close

Is this the sun?

If not, what is it?

Is this a cloud?

If not, what is it?

I ask you these questions because they came up in a recent class I taught at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Wilmington.

This was the 7th class, and I was feeling buoyed by the progress of my 70 students.  They "were getting it," or so I thought.

Since many of them had either gone to see or were going to see Van Gogh Up Close at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I showed them the following two pictures by Vincent van Gogh.  In both, he used olives trees as his subject. 

Olive Trees, 1889, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Olive Trees, 1889, Museum of Modern Art
During this class, I explained how a picture is born.  I used this chart, which you may remember from the post “What’s the Matter”:

My students indicated by their responses and questions they understood the following points:

1.     An artist encounters a subject, and it acts on him, and he acts back on it: at that moment, he sees something in that subject that interests him and everything changes.

2.     At the moment of that first “interested” look, the artist discovers an idea, a purpose, an intent, a goal—this is not verbal; it is a color idea. 

3.     To make the picture, he invents new “matter” (I call this “color stuff”) by creating new relationships among light, line, color, and space (his means).

4.     He works all this out by painting the picture.

5.     When he is finished, as Matisse said, he looks at the picture as a mother looks at her newborn baby: with the hope of understanding it.

All good, so far.

Then a student raised her hand.  She said, “I think the difference in those two pictures is the weather.  In one, it was sunny; in the other, it wasn’t.”

Such is the seduction of the subject.

So, I ask you again: is this the sun?

No, of course it isn’t.  It is a flat series of small, rectilinear yellow and orange color shapes that spiral around a series of small, rectilinear yellow color shapes that spiral within an orange-banded circle.

Is this a cloud?

No, it isn’t.  It is a curvy series of yellow, light blue, pink, and tan lines that swirl into light mounds and float from left to right.

We started again.

I turned both pictures upside down and asked them to examine the composition of each, the light, line, color, and space in each, and then state the picture idea of each of them.

 I reminded them of what Matisse said:

“The object [subject] is an actor, . . . it must act powerfully on the imagination. . . . The artist’s feelings, expressing themselves through it, must make it worthy of interest; it says only what one makes it say.”   (quoted by de Mazia, in “Subject and Subject Matter,” Vistas, Spring-Summer 1980, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 48)

And I reminded them of what John Dewey said: “The work is formed matter.” (Art as Experience, p. 114).

In other words, van Gogh made pictures.  He made them based on the meaning of his aesthetic experience as he interacted with his subject.  He made pictures, not olive trees on a sunny or a cloudy day. 

Now I ask you to do what I asked them to do:  look at these two pictures and describe what you see.

Send me your perceptions by e-mail (click here). 

In the next post, I will review your submissions and continue this discussion.


  1. The "sun" picture: Warm, yellows and burnt hues, wavy lines, lots of curves, three somewhat triangular pieces/planes wedged together

    The "cloudy day" one: Blues, colder (but still warm when compared to other pictures), blues and greens, wavy lines, four bumpy planes sandwiched and stacked on top of each other

  2. I enjoyed your lesson. Back to painting again and am very in-tuned with the objective method. Your lesson inspires students to ask question and to respond with more accuracy about what they see. The subject vs the subject-matter becomes visual within the minds eye. The next step of taking the art from the classroom to the museum is well connected. Always, enjoyed taking your class and now that I am back to painting I visualize more while I interpret what I see.