Soleil and Noir

Drawings of van Gogh and Redon

by James F. Cooper

Vincent van Gogh Cypresses, reed pen and ink, graphite, 1889 Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

“Drawing is the root of everything.”
—Vincent van Gogh, 1883

The recent retrospectives of drawings by Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Odilon Redon (1840–1916), at the Museum of Modern Art, reflect different visionary strains of modernism. Van Gogh began his art studies at the ripe age of twenty-eight in the foreboding darkness of the coal mines and slag heaps of the Borinage in the Netherlands, where he languished as a failed Dutch Reformed minister. Through Herculean effort, his work evolved into the furiously beautiful, sun-drenched colorful landscapes by which the world knows him best today. Redon, on the other hand, was a child prodigy nurtured in the cloistered embrace of French provincial life. He was attracted to the comforting darkness of small rooms, musty alcoves, solitary stunted trees, edges of beach where mollusks, shells and polyps glistened in the brine and misshapen rocks embedded in the night sand resembled decayed corpses. These two contemporary artists, in very different ways, had an uncanny ability to dramatize a world beyond the visible one we inhabit.

Neither van Gogh nor Redon employed the process of drawing in the traditional manner, to outline a painting. They regarded their drawings as finished works, a more direct mode of communication from their interior worlds. In his letters, van Gogh speaks of his drawings as works to be exhibited or marketed. Almost all Redon’s prints and many of his paintings are essentially drawings. Both drew incessantly from nature. Redon selected those elements that served his own pictorial vocabulary of strange hybrid creatures, unfamiliar flowers and disembodied mythological creatures. He created an aesthetic of the imagination in deep velvety blacks and swirls of atmosphere. From the beginning, however, van Gogh drew from nature in order to understand nature and how to translate it to a two-dimensional plane. From Redon’s drawings we learn about the mysteries of the soul; from van Gogh we learn about the mysteries of art. Redon’s touchstone is his imagination; van Gogh’s touchstone is his faith. Redon’s world reflected the moral, social and industrial decline of France accelerated by the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Van Gogh came from a rural background, rooted in the religion of his father, an orthodox Dutch Reformed pastor. Yet his work transcended regionalism and religious orthodoxy. Redon, like the other symbolists and, in a different way, the novelist Marcel Proust, created a private and often arcane refuge tainted by decadence and the anxieties of an uncertain age.

Van Gogh’s work can be categorized by distinct time periods, styles, subject matter and travel—Holland, England, Belgium and France. Redon’s oeuvre—although he lived almost twice as long as van Gogh—remained remarkably focused on certain dark themes throughout his life. The phantasmagoric drawings by Redon here are familiar friends, all from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection and previously reproduced in many books and catalogues. The van Gogh drawings, however, come as a revelation even to those familiar with the artist’s career. Van Gogh’s works on paper are larger than one might expect, often the size of comparable paintings on the same subject, but very delicate; they rarely travel, and many are housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. To say they are stunning is an understatement. Few old masters draw equal praise for their paintings and drawings. Among this select group are Rembrandt and Leonardo, who produced drawings of such high quality that, had they never lifted a brush, they would still be recognized as great masters. Van Gogh belongs in this company. His 1,100 drawings have such power and beauty, that, even without the 800-or-so painted works we are familiar with, he would still be appreciated as one of the great modernists. Having seen the van Gogh retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 and 1987, I confess I was totally unprepared to be so moved again.

The 113 drawings in this third retrospective at the Metropolitan do more than reinforce his reputation as an expressive artist; they reveal a tenacious rational mind. Together with the thousands of letters he wrote, they provide remarkable insight into the thinking process and education of an artist. They are compelling evidence to dispel the idea that the 2,000 works he produced in ten short years—from his first awkward figurative pencil and chalk drawings at the Borinage and Antwerp, to the visionary works at Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers—can be attributed solely to religious zeal, neurological disorders or hallucinatory seizures. Indeed, what these dynamic works reveal is a courageous spirit in pursuit of knowledge and excellence without regard to personal cost and fortune, eager to take on new challenges of unfamiliar materials.

At the start of his career Van Gogh did not try to make handsome drawings. His gaze was fixed solely on the object before him, the tree, the weaver, the miner, the plaster cast. For the first three or four years, he worked twelve to fourteen hours a day in order to make up for lost time; his drawings appear crude and stiff when compared to those by Rembrandt and Jean François Millet that van Gogh diligently copied. But they reveal purposefulness, a strength, an integrity that would in a remarkably short time allow van Gogh to hone his sensibilities and unleash the creativity that characterizes great art. Few artists have begun so humbly, seemingly so bereft of aesthetic skills, and achieved so much. Paul Cézanne was another. Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Giotto and Dürer all displayed such precocious talent in adolescence that it was a foregone conclusion to their contemporaries that they would become great artists before the age when van Gogh took up a carpenter’s pencil to make his first drawings.

Van Gogh had early trained to work in his uncle’s art gallery. Although he failed at this trade, he developed an educated appreciation for traditional art. His brother Theo would become a successful Parisian art dealer. Vincent’s initial objective was to acquire the knowledge necessary to illustrate the moral and religious iconography that inspired him in works by Rembrandt and Millet. Early 1881 charcoal and black-chalk studies, such as Boy with a Sickle, Woman Sewing and Windmills near Dordrecht, seem labored and over drawn, but by 1882 he has made remarkable progress, with the now famous Worn Out, a study of an old man resting in a chair, his head sunk into his gnarled hands. In the previous months he had experimented with many different mediums and papers. The old man is drawn with graphite on watercolor paper. “There has been a change in my drawings, both in the way I set about them and in the results,” he writes Theo in September, 1881. “I find Ingres paper twice as thick as the ordinary kind .…[but] before beginning to draw on the white paper, one must first wash the whole page with a flat tone.”1

There are hundreds of similar references in his letters, which include thumbnails of larger drawings and note his progress with different tools and mediums. He tells Theo he has switched to conté-crayon, using a stump to work the surface of the paper, and has begun working with brush and India ink. The exhibition reveals many different experiments with the art-making process. In three years he made remarkable progress, revealed in a series of studies of birch trees on his father’s land. In Pollard Birches (1884) the artist expresses his life-long fascination for these trees, with their top branches cut back to force new growth; their twisted limbs resemble tortured human figures. In this pen-and-ink drawing the woven texture of the watercolor paper is used to advantage in creating a pattern of vertical straight lines, a technique the artist repeats in the quill-like shafts of the grassy field below. It is an important breakthrough, as content and style begin to mesh together. Van Gogh is not only looking at nature, he has created a linear style which captures the essence of various kinds of vegetation. He extends and anchors the trees’ branches to the top edge of the paper, reflecting the visual effect of the grassy spikes connecting to the bottom edge of the paper. It is a composition worthy of a Dutch master, clearly influenced by copies of Rembrandt prints.

In this series of birch tree drawings, van Gogh introduces subtle pen-and-ink crosshatch patterns into the cloudless sky, an acknowledgment of his growing appreciation of the physical marking that constitutes a drawing. He is learning to paint with a pen, enriching the empty spaces between objects with formal compositional elements. His dedication to observation is undiminished, but by 1884 he has become increasingly aware of the characteristics that belong to the visual arts alone. The stroke of the pen, and later those of hollow reed and brush, opened van Gogh’s eyes to the sensuous experience of drawing. He has fallen in love with the elements of art. He compressed a decade of work into four short years. From the outset of his learning process, beginning in 1880, he made innumerable copies of the Charles Bargue lithographs of the human figure created for students of the French Academy. Indeed, he returned to them many times over the next decade and requested them from his brother when he was confined at the asylum of Saint-Rémy toward the end of his life.

With the completion of the early painting The Potato Eaters (1885) he moved to Antwerp to study drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts. In the ensuing year he faced his greatest crisis, the clash between the traditional classical approach to the human figure favored by the Academy and his conviction that art served nature and God. There are only four drawings from this period included in the exhibition, including a torpid study of a Discus Thrower (1885) from a cast of a c. 450 B.C. work. He spent the next two years in Paris, joining his brother Theo and seeking to absorb the shock of Impressionism. Again, only a few drawings from this period are included in the exhibit, although as always he labored intensely. These works, which now employed color, show the strong influence of works by the Impressionists and the Japanese ukiyo-e prints by Utagawa Hiroshige favored by the early modernists. The Japanese influence was crucial to his future development, particularly in the flattening of space, decoration, rich colors and simplification of detail. He was assimilating important visual information, but the drawings and paintings from this period are somewhat tentative in draftsmanship and observation. After two years of increasing frustration, van Gogh suddenly departed in February 1888 for Arles in the south of France. In the two and half years remaining in his short life, he created all of the several hundred masterpieces—wheatfields, sunflowers, cypresses, starry nights—by which we know him. Most of them were done while he was confined in the private asylums of Saint-Rémy and Auvers, where he suffered from horrible seizures and hallucinations, possibly from epilepsy or a neurological disorder caused by his careless handling of paint and solvents.

The walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art suddenly burst into flame as the visitor encounters one beautiful drawing after another. All the skills of draftsmanship he acquired during the previous seven years and what he learned about color from the Impressionists come together in the most glorious combinations of line, form, texture and color. In Arles he returned to drawing with greater passion, freed from all restraints of theme and theory except those he imposed upon himself. He began drawing with a pen fashioned from hollow bamboo reeds, which allowed the ink to flow faster and whose nib allowed greater flexibility and variance in line. The last two thirds of the exhibition are devoted to this short, intense period.

In contrast to the prodigious progress achieved by van Gogh, Redon quietly recorded his dark visions and strange fantasies over the next sixty years. “As a child,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I sought out the shadows…taking a deep and unusual joy in hiding under the big curtains and in the dark corners of the house.”2 His preference for shades of black and morbid pictorial vocabulary remained remarkably unchanged. Working almost exclusively in charcoal well into his fifties, his imaginary resources seemingly inexhaustible, he began to transfer his drawings into lithographs, later working with black conté and ink directly on stone. He created portfolios on subjects drawn from literary texts by kindred spirits such as Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe and Gustave Flaubert, which he offered for sale, often as portfolios of prints. All the work in the exhibition—from adolescent graphite and chalk studies of trees and rocks, through the disembodied heads, smiling spiders and frightful creatures created in old age—reflect the same existential melancholy. The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1896), based on Flaubert’s novel, is a mesmerizing series that seems to filter the medieval world of Bosch through Goya, as a curious menagerie of forms emerges from Redon’s eloquent mass of smudges and shadows. He did not explore the use of color until his sixties, when he worked primarily with pastel drawing sticks.

Odilon Redon, The Haunting lithograph on chine applique, 1893 Museum of Modern Art, New York CityVan Gogh, on the other hand, experimented with many mediums and techniques. Previously, van Gogh drew from nature with graphite, conté, charcoal and chalk. When he used pen and ink he often combined it with wash and graphite, using opaque white as a highlight. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Arles two things happened which transformed his past accomplishments. He discovered Abécédaire du dessin, a drawing manual by Armond Cassagne published in 1865.  For a long time Vincent had complained in letters to Theo about the difficulty of drawing a landscape with his present tools. Conté-crayon he found “indifferent” and “unwilling,” watercolor was downright “exasperating”; charcoal was “too easily effaced,” and graphite had too much “sheen,” which forced him to douse his drawings with milk.3 Cassagne praised the virtues of a type of reed pen frequently used by Rembrandt, because of its broad stroke and ease of application to paper. Coincidently, the finest, most elegant and firm reeds for these pens were to be found growing in the south of France. Van Gogh immediately acquired several and began to draw. The broad nib shed a lot of ink, which is why the implement had been abandoned during the middle ages by scribes and artists. But this is precisely why van Gogh loved it. “I see things like pen drawings,” he once confided to another artist.4

After the tightly composed graphite drawings of van Gogh’s early years, we are now presented with Orchard with Arles in the Background (1888). In terms of subject matter and composition, it closely resembles Pollard Birches (1884), but instead of painstakingly rendering hundreds of vertical lines in pen and ink and graphite, van Gogh uses a relatively few broad strokes of his reed pen to depict branches and grass. Each downward stroke of the nib creates myriad variations in the quality of line, so that the entire drawing is enriched aesthetically. Innumerable drawings quickly followed, and he introduced these pen “strokes” into his oil paintings. He uses the same reed pens to compose his letters to Theo, which are filled with hundreds of thumbnail drawings of his paintings. The second thing that happened on his arrival in Arles was equally revelatory. For the previous eight years van Gogh had employed a wooden and metal artist’s “perspective frame,” constructed by a blacksmith, to help him ascertain the correct perspective when he viewed a landscape. He now abandoned the instrument and allowed his imagination and the canvas to suggest how to organize the perspective of a scene. Van Gogh was privy to what great masters practice in their art, the private language of give-and-take of the artist, the object and the formal qualities of the artwork.  He was free, not only from the traditional rules of the Academy, but from the ideological theories of modernism itself. The joy, the exuberance we see in these remarkable drawings of wheatfields, arbors, gardens and sunflowers extends to bridges, boats, even portraits of townspeople. At last, after eight years of intensive study, everything came together for him, A sense of certitude now guided his hand so that, no matter what liberties he began to take, each element of his drawing as inextricably tied to the rest of the composition. One can almost feel the pulse in the glorious, writhing, undulating forms of line and texture.

Increasingly intense seizures limited van Gogh’s productivity and often prevented him from working outdoors, but it did not dampen his creative spirit. He faced his illness, which threatened his life and sanity, with the same resoluteness he confronted a blank sheet of paper. In a letter to Theo he enclosed a drawing of his painting The Reaper (1889): “The reaper [is] fighting like the devil in the midst of the heat to get to the end of his task—I see in him the image of death. . . .But there is nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with the sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold….I don’t let go my hold.”5 That same summer of 1889 he began a series of drawings and paintings of cypress trees. Cypresses (1889), the artist wrote, is “a splash of black in a sunny landscape. It is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk.”6 In the exhibition, displayed next to the painting Cypresses is a large reed-pen ink drawing of the same subject, if possible more beautiful, more powerful and succinct in its bold use of roiling lines and curves. The drawing, a copy of the painting, resolves and simplifies what the artist had been working on in oil. The dialogue between painting and drawing accelerated in the remaining months of his life. Between May and June 1890 van Gogh produced an astonishing seventy-five paintings and fifty drawings, including two remarkable drawings, Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman and Landscape with Houses.

Redon’s connection to nature is less obvious than van Gogh’s. In his noir works, living creatures are usually strange or hybrid denizens of the sea. But Redon did add a new subject when he finally turned to color: floral still lifes. Radiant as stained glass, his bouquets may have nature at the root, but even in these flowers one senses an existential unease and spatial ambiguity as strange as any work of fantasy. In the pastel drawing Roger and Angelica (c. 1910), depicting figures from a literary classic, the artist successfully introduces intoxicating, luminous blues, purples and mauves into a dark monotone formerly reserved for drawings such as And All Manner of Frightful Creatures Arise (1888) and The Haunting (1893). His real world remained his dream world. He was content, he wrote, “to spend his life alone, in the full isolation of the country” on his family estate Peyrelebade, quietly translating these dreams to paper.7 Within these self-imposed limitations, he was as radical as the other symbolists, and anticipated the surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dalí. Redon lived long enough to see his darker vision confirmed in the horror and nihilism of World War I.

To call Redon a literary artist and van Gogh a landscapist would downplay their visionary powers. They did much more than illustrate texts and document picturesque scenery. They also—technically and imaginatively—expanded the definition of drawing, to place it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture. Both museum catalogues—Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon (Museum of Modern Art) and Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings (Metropolitan Museum of Art)—are handsomely produced, scholarly studies that will enrich the minds of future generations long after these once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions close.


1. Vincent van Gogh, “Letter to Theo van Gogh,” Aug/Sep 1881, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Volume I (Boston: Bullfinch, 1991).
2. Jodi Hauptman, Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), p. 27.
3. Susan Alyson Stein, “Arles, 1888–89: The Synthesis,” Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings (New York: Metropolitan Museum of New York, 2005), p. 146.
4. Stein, ibid.
5. Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987), p. 135.
6. Vincent’s letter to Theo van Gogh, June 25, 1889, Marije Vellekoop, “Saint-Rémy, 1889–90: Taking Asylum,” Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings (New York: Metropolitan Museum of New York, 2005), p. 314.7. Starr Figura, “Redon and the Lithographed Portfolio,” Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilion Redon (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005), p. 78.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2006, Volume 23, Number 1