Paintings of flowers are generally the most approachable works. There is rarely a complex story to read in the details. Instead, the purpose of the work is just an attempt to portray the beauty of the object, the fleeting nature of its existence, or the impression you feel when you observe them. Take for example your average Dutch Golden Age floral painting; it contains exquisitely detailed technique and keen observations, each delicate blossom frozen in time. Or for example, an Impressionist garden or floral scene, the nodding blooms painted with a vibrancy and dynamic quality which mimics the way you observe them. However, today I want to talk about a floral still-life which breaks these notions and instead offers an emotional and deeply complex read : “Cineraria in a Flowerpot” (van Gogh), 1886.
Van Gogh is well known for his emotionally-charged works painted with swift and gestural execution. I used to think that van Gogh painted things without care for their detail or true likeness. If you spend more time with his work, and his biography, you begin to see that van Gogh painted the exact amount of details he wanted you to see, in fact he painted only what was important to the story. Everything else got in the way. Van Gogh was also known for selling only one painting during his life, often relying on his brother, with whom he had a very close relationship, for support and sponsorship. His life was often chaotic and unpredictable, due to poverty and mental instability, among other things. So his subjects are not often of the richest variety. They are sometimes sad and lonely, figures and objects in singularity, often rich in meaning parallel to his own life.
“Dirty shoes and roses can both be good in the same way.” – van Gogh
Cineraria, which I got to spend some time with at Boymans van Beuningen gallery in Rotterdam, was painted during a period where van Gogh lived in Paris under the support of his brother, Theo. During times of financial insecurity van Gogh often directed his gaze at cheap still-life objects such as flowers as he could not afford models 1. His focus of floral paintings during this time are partly due to practical aspects, but conversely seen as an attempt to lighten his palatte and his perspective 2. His brother suggested to him he paint something of lively subject and colour ie)the cineraria, to cater to the taste of potential buyers 3. What is different about this work than some of the other floral paintings, is its unnatural and awkward perspective, as if the flowerpot itself is tumbling forward. The colours are very dark and muted, as if to counter your preconceived notion of a flower. The choice of flower itself, the cineraria, a low shrubby plant, lacking ornate or showy qualities. This humble and lowly plant finds no nourishing beam of sunlight, instead is confined to darkness. It fills the frame.. in fact is barely contained by it, which acts to both illustrate the overwhelming importance of the object, and to hint at its unhappy confinement. The muted colours of the plant are tinged with grey and yellow, exemplifying the withering of the plant, his situation and his outlook.
Continuing the theme, I offer another painting for consideration, “A Pair of Shoes” (van Gogh), 1886 from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. This is another painting which by observing and painting a simple object but choosing which details to concentrate on, gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the underlying story of the work. Van Gogh bought the pair of work boots at a flea market in Paris, possibly because he needed shoes, but I lean toward the more romantic notion that he just liked the impression he was given by them. Plus they didn’t fit him at all. “He wore the boots on an extended rainy walk to create the effect he wished for this painting” 4 and afterwards used them only as a prop.
The shoes are unlaced, the right shoe flopped open as if they were just removed. They exist in a timeless and uncertain space, as if to imply they could belong to anyone. The shoes, worn with age and use, tarnished with mud, sigh quietly as they are discarded from the tired feet of some faceless workman. They represent age, and fatigue, but also the wilting away of life and mental vitality. The painting is both a tribute and a dirge to the working man. As with the cineraria, the painting could also be symbolic for Van Gogh’s “difficult passage through life” 5.
From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself. 6
6 The Origin of the Work of Art (1935): Martin Heidegger