Van Gogh could not paint at all!





by Georg Rode

To be blunt, I don’t hold this view, but I find the idea interesting.

The sciences have defined standards for dealing with their various research objects. Art does not have that; there are no usable criteria for “good” or “bad” art. If you start from the price of artworks, you have a category for comprehensible comparisons, but they relate to market value, not to the artwork itself. There is no difference to stamps. While the sciences work with theses and arguments, which are often confused with opinions during reception, art seems to be mainly open to opinions. How could one arrive at arguments there?

Perhaps if one asserts the opposite to a generally accepted assessment and is thus forced to justify the dissenting opinion. The idea came to me while looking at the early work of Van Gogh, of which the picture of the potato eaters is probably the best known.

Vincent Van Gogh, Die Kartoffelesser,F-number: F0082, JH-number: JH0764, Object number: s0005V1962, 1985, © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Five people form a circle around a table, the two tall people on the left and right have almost comic-like features, the man on the chair looks wrong in perspective. The left woman in the back looks in the direction of her table neighbor, but past him, the man in the back looks in the direction of his neighbor, but in such a way that you can’t see exactly what his gaze is on. The woman in front closes the oval of heads, it is not certain whether she is sitting or standing. She is too small in relation to the others, because she should be the tallest as the one in front. However, it gives her a view of the table on which a drink is poured into cups on the right and on which a bowl with potatoes is placed on the left, where the persons on the left take hold of it with forks. The painting is in the dark earth tones typical of this creative period.

I have included this description, which is still not thorough, to show that the picture contains errors according to certain criteria, at least not clear design decisions, so that one could conclude that the painter could not paint. In terms of content, Van Gogh was concerned with depicting humble people eating with their hands the potatoes they planted and harvested themselves, as he wrote in a letter to his brother. Further he says: “I do not want then at all that everyone would find it equally beautiful or good.” An objectively “correct” representation was not in his sense, which is not surprising with Van Gogh, however.

What am I saying now, that perhaps he couldn’t paint, but then he could? We see, I mean, Van Gogh here not superficially with an artistic representation of realities. We observe him abandoning superficial accuracy for the conveyance of the life situation of “simple” people who live from their hands work. Potatoes are an exemplary example of this, eating an unspectacular, private situation. We see him not only making pictures, but learning an expression that the pictures should convey. In this way, he initially differed from the Impressionists.

Van Gogh then arrived in the south of France via several stations, where the bright light of the south entered his paintings. Interiors are rarely seen in his work, but he painted his room in Arles three times.

Vincent Van Gogh, Das Schlafzimmer, Arles, October 1889, Credit Line: Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection; Reference Number: 1926.417: CC0 Chicago Museum of Art;

Technically, there are deviations from an exact representation here as well. The curved transverse lines of the parquet on the right side, lines of alignment that do not all meet in one point, a bed that protrudes into the door, a crooked table do not show an inability, but a play of representation, in which exactness is not unknown, but secondary. That he has mastered these regularities very well is shown in his drawings. (see below) Further elements, which on closer inspection, however, do not contradict any regularity, such as the pictures on the wall, the slightly open window, the mirror on the sloping wall and the chairs, seem to virtually provoke the impression of a false representation.

In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote that he wanted to convey calm by means of the muted color scheme, which probably goes back to Japanese models. The muted complementary colors prove the successful implementation, although it must be added that the current light blue was a meanwhile faded violet, which contrasts with the yellow elements. His main goal here was also expression, calm, even modesty, against the dominance of the real.

Vincent van Gogh, Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Accession Number: 48.190.1; © The Metropolitan Museum of Arts 

“The painting was meant to contrast with Van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe,” which has a sharp contrast between red and green. Here the painter used the complementary colors of ochre yellow and violet, which are more soothing than the signal colors.”

Vincent van Gogh, Nachtcafé, 1888, © Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA

About said night café Van Gogh wrote to his brother; “I have tried to express with red and green the terrible human passions. The room is blood red and dull yellow, a green billiard in the middle, four lemon yellow lamps with orange and green radiant circles. Everywhere is struggle and antithesis […]”

On his way to the south, he became acquainted with pointillism in Paris, which is still recognizable in the Sower. Completely different, however, is now the sunlit atmosphere of the south, which show numerous pictures that were painted there.

Vincent van Gogh, The sower, circa 17-28 juni 1888, exhibition 005129A, 214 (Van Gogh 1980), F 422; JH 1470, © stichting kröller-müller museum, indien van toepassing, kontakt opnemen met Pictoright, Amsterdam (

Vincent Van Gogh : La méridienne, entre 1889 et 1890 (RF 1952 17), Paris, musée d’Orsay, accepté par l’Etat à titre de donation sous réserve d’usufruit de Mme Fernand Halphen en 1952; ©photo musée d’Orsay



Once it was the night that he painted, it also shone, like on the café terrace in Arles or in his starry nights.

With the advent of light, he shows his affiliation with Impressionism, but nevertheless goes his own way by allowing the play of forms to take on a life of its own and applying his colors with emphatic impasto. This way of working shows a great expressive energy, which probably reinforced the impression of madness that was attributed to him.

What I want to say now is based on a short excursion into linguistics. There, at one time, there was a methodologically rigorous approach, formalism.

Vincent Van Gogh : La nuit étoilée, en 1888 (RF 1975 19); Paris, musée d’Orsay, donation sous réserve d’usufruit de M. et Mme Robert Kahn-Sriber, en souvenir de M. et Mme Fernand Moch  en 1975; ©photo musée d’Orsay

He examined languages mainly according to the formal criteria and worked out the most coherent system of rules that characterizes a language. The opposite of this direction is represented by functionalism, which examined how language is used to communicate, how it functions. This duality could also be summarized as form and content.

That Van Gogh’s paintings still appeal to today’s viewer is probably undisputed; their effect is received, in what I see as a successful communicative, content-related act. Van Gogh, however, continues to work on the basis of his earlier method of working, be it awkward or not. Every artificial image is inferior to reality in its fullness, so it is no longer important to represent it as accurately as possible. At this point, modernism in painting is born and it moves away from the communicatively oriented pleasing. In Van Gogh’s work, not the least of which is his retention of simple, peasant subjects, one sees the evolution of his initial quest into an increasingly coherent system. Systems, I think, become necessary through the inadequacy of the given. Not a copy of reality, nor the impressionistic impression it leaves, but the expressive expression of what reality and its impression do for Van Gogh characterizes this way of working. That he has been described as insane is almost consistent, for he created a new system, piecing it together like a jigsaw puzzle from the remaining possibilities that remained to him and to art, to form a consistent whole that was new in this form.

That was what made him a great artist in my eyes. Precisely because he was perhaps not yet able to paint so well at the beginning.

for Vincent
Literature and picture rights
Upon request, we will send the complete text including footnotes by e-mail to interested readers.


Letter 404 to his brother Theo dated 30.4.1885

-Letter 533 to his brother Theo, September 8, 1888.
-Summary of the linguistic contents at: at: Gerhard Helbig Geschichte der neueren Sprachwissenschaft, p. 119ff, p. 162ff, Leipzig 1986.


Image right background caption:

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Peeler (reverse: Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat), Accession Number: 67.187.70b, © The Metropolitan Museum of Arts

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