Van Gogh's Draughtsman's Fist / by Jeannine Cook

I am not sure that I made the best choice of reading material as I sat in hospital rooms with my husband for the past weeks, but nonetheless, I was glad to read the book.  Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written a masterful biography, Van Gogh, The Life. Detailed, thoughtful and exhaustive, it brings to life every twist and eddy of Van Gogh's complex and tortured life.

I had never before thought deeply about how much mental illness and dysfunction there was in the entire Van Gogh family.  It was sobering to learn of it all and to measure just how amazing his creativity was, in spite of or despite all the incredible hurdles he faced in his short life.

For a start, given his astonishingly individualistic fashion of drawing towards the end of his life, masterpieces that are so readily recognisable, it is instructive to remember how much difficulty he had with draughtsmanship.  He worked and worked at drawing and tracing, redrawing and reworking, using his cumbersome perspective frame to deal with perspectives that otherwise daunted him completely.

Some of his early, painfully drawn works are worlds away from later work.

Diggers in Torn-up Street, The Hague, pencil, April 1882 (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands)

Sorrow, April 1882, chalk on paper

This famous image of his mistress, Sien Hoornik, is one of a large number of versions of the drawing that he traced and retraced, working at its awkwardness, distilling its essence.

Head of a Peasant Woman Bareheaded, Nuenen, Dec-Jan 1884-85 (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands)

Landscape with Willows and Sun shining through the Clouds,  Nuenen, mid March 1884, ink (Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Van Gogh always seemed to gravitate to the ugly and exaggerated in human types when he was working in the North, partly because he had great trouble in obtaining live models who would consent to pose for him.  He was far more comfortable with nature, which he knew intimately and loved all his life.

Writing to his brother Theo, he once said, "I really have a draughtsman's fist, and I ask you, have I ever doubted or hesitated or wavered since the day I began to draw? I think you know quite well that I pushed on, and of course I gradually grew stronger in the battle." The later drawings bore out his statement - his mature drawings are amazing in their mark-making, organisation and frenetic energy.

Street in Saintes-Maries, June 1888, reed pen and ink on paper

The Zouave, June 1888, pen and ink

 The rock of Montmajour with pine trees, 1888. (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Starry Night, June 1889, pen and ink (Image courtesy of the Museum of Architecture, Moscow)
Tree and bushes in the garden of the asylum, May-June,1889. (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) 
Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape, June 1889, pen and ink

For any artist aspiring to draw in whatever fashion, Vincent Van Gogh is an example of sheer dogged persistence and courage. He teaches us all that we can evolve, refine our artistic voice, strengthen our skills and achieve a powerful, individualistic "draughtsman's fist" that allows others to relate to what we are trying to say.