As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts showcasing some “Not the usual Van Gogh’s” (and here), we are often given the impression that an artist’s oeuvre is much smaller that is really is because art publishers and even museums tend to emphasize an artist’s “greatest hits” over and over, at the expense of exploring a wider range of work.
This is particularly evident in the case of Vincent van Gogh, whose famous works are so familiar as to be cultural icons, but whose more extended range of works lies largely unknown to the general public.
In particular, Van Gogh’s more than 1,100 drawings, which represent over half of his known works, don’t get nearly the exposure they deserve.
I remember being particularly struck by his drawings when I had a chance to see a number of them in person as part of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art some years ago. They were larger and more accomplished than I expected from seeing them in reproductions, and I found them exceptionally captivating.
Van Gogh has been quoted as saying “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.” and he devoted much time and effort to drawing.
He went through numerous periods of concentrating exclusively on drawing — sometimes out of financial necessity, sometimes out of a desire to return to core principles and concentrate on the fundamentals. He seemed to find drawing a kind of artistic anchor in times of uncertainty.
Van Gogh’s periods of devoting himself entirely to drawing include the beginning of his efforts to train himself as an artist. During that time, he wisely focused on learning to draw, understanding that it would be the necessary foundation on which painting would be based.
In his early drawings, which are often figures and faces as well as landscape and other subjects, you can see him struggling with the basics of proportion and perspective, relentlessly working to master the skills.
In his later period of more accomplished works, his drawings blossom into astonishing marvels of texture, created with energetic variations of line and stipple. These drawings, even monochromatic ones, have a feeling of color, in somewhat the same way as monochromatic Japanese and Chinese ink paintings.
I count Van Gogh’s landscapes of farms and fields to be among my favorite drawings. Though never as accomplished as masters of draftsmanship like Rembrandt or Raphael, Van Gogh’s personal vision and devotion to nature produced an approach to landscape drawing that is unique and visually entrancing.
Many of his drawings are of familiar compositions — copies after the fact of existing paintings sent home to his brother or other artists. He often added drawings to his letters, and you can see in the Van Gogh Letters site maintained by the Van Gogh Museum. You can also search through the museum’s extensive online catalog of his work, filtered for “drawings”.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an essay on his drawings, and offers a publication, Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings, that can be read online, downloaded as a PDF or ordered as a book.
Wikimedia Commons has a section of Drawings by Van Gogh; and the online Van Gogh Gallery can be sorted to show a list of drawings, though without thumbnails. The Web Gallery of Art has three sections for Van Gogh drawings (toward the bottom of the list), arranged by period.
You can also search through individual museum website collections for Van Gogh, and filter for “drawing”.
In researching this post, I came across a very nice five part series of posts on “Vincent van Gogh Drawings” on the Art and Artists blog, which gives a nice overview and goes into much more detail than I can here. (Look for links to the other posts in the series in the right hand column.)
Van Gogh’s drawings are a record of his life and career, perhaps even more than his paintings. They are personal, intimate and often show a clarity of observation and artistic focus that serve as a defining example of the core principles of artistic endeavor.