Back to school resources
School Resource

Van Gogh and the Seasons

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces 2017

Year 7 to Year 12

Teachers are invited to adapt the following for pre-visit, visit and post visit discussion and activities tailored to the needs of their students.

Teacher’s Notes

  • Introducing Vincent Van Gogh

    Vincent van Gogh (b. 1853 The Netherlands, d. 1890 France) is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art.

    In just over a decade he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life

    Van Gogh’s subject matter includes workers, gardens, landscapes, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits.

    From an early phase of darker, tonal paintings and drawings, Van Gogh developed a distinctive style characterised by bold and expressive colour and mark making.

    Questions for students

    What do you already know about Vincent van Gogh? Record what you know individually or as a group.

    After you have done further research and/or visited the Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition discuss what you now know about Van Gogh and how this compares with your earlier understanding of the artist.

    What is the most interesting/surprising thing that you discovered about Van Gogh through viewing the exhibition?

  • About the exhibition

    Van Gogh and the Seasons invites viewers to learn about Van Gogh’s life and experiences through the artist’s observations of the seasonal changes within nature.

    The exhibition includes 36 paintings and 13 works on paper which span the artist’s entire career.

    Many of the artworks in this exhibition depict important places in the artist’s life

    • the Dutch region of Brabant, where Van Gogh was born in 1853 and lived for much of his early life;
    • Arles, where the artist experienced his most defining period of creativity;
    • Saint-Rémy de Provence, where he was treated for mental illness in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum;
    • Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh died in 1890.

    Van Gogh and the Seasons features works lent by leading international museums. The works are presented within sections devoted to each of the four seasons.

    Additional documentary material, including illustrations and prints collected by Van Gogh, and a selection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints from the NGV’s own collection show ‘the seasons’ as a subject of perennial interest to artists of many different cultures and eras. They also provide an insight into important influences on Van Gogh’s work.

    Questions for students

    Van Gogh and the Seasons has been curated to focus on a particular theme in Van Gogh’s work. What are the advantages of looking at an artist’s work in this way, particularly for an artist such as Van Gogh whose work is widely known?

    Look closely at several of the works in the exhibition online or in books before you visit. Look closely at these same works in the exhibition. What did you notice about the original works that you did not notice in the reproduction?

  • Family and early life

    Vincent van Gogh was born in the Brabant village of Zundert on 30 March 1853. He was the first child of the Protestant minister Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Carbentus. He was the eldest of three sisters and two brothers: Anna, Theo, Wil, Lies and Cor.

    The Van Gogh family were very close knit, as they were one of only a small number of Protestant families in a Catholic area.

    The Van Gogh family went on frequent walks in the area around Zundert, helping to instil a great love of nature in the future artist.

    Van Gogh’s mother cultivated a garden at the parsonage which was used by the family for both recreation and religious instruction.  Reverend Theodorus equated the natural cycle of the seasons with the stages of human life.

    Questions for students

    How might an understanding of an artist’s early life help us understand an artist’s work?

    After researching Van Gogh’s work and viewing the exhibition, identify two or three facts about Van Gogh’s early life that add to your understanding of his work.

  • Van Gogh at school

    At the age of eleven, Van Gogh transferred from the village school in Zundert to a boarding school in Zevenbergen. He was deeply unhappy at boarding school, but managed to complete his elementary schooling. He drew from time to time, but there was little sign as yet of any special artistic talent.

  • The young artist - art and religion

    After a difficult education Van Gogh left school at 15.

    In 1869, when he was 16, he joined the firm Goupil & Cie, a firm of art dealers in The Hague. The Van Gogh family had long been affiliated with the world of art. Vincent’s uncles, Cornelis and Vincent, were art dealers. His younger brother, Theo, spent his adult life working as an art dealer and, as a result, had an incredible influence on Vincent’s later career as an artist.

    While working with the art dealership, Van Gogh started to collect prints. He assembled them in portfolios and also hung them in his room. Van Gogh added to his collection continuously throughout his life. His collection included reproductions of artworks as well as illustrations from newspapers and magazines. Van Gogh often turned to these prints and illustrations for inspiration. A collection of the prints that Van Gogh collected are on display in the exhibition.

    Van Gogh worked in the offices of Goupil & Cie for seven years. He worked for the company in both London and Paris before being dismissed in 1876, after an awakening religious zeal led him to struggle with his work.

    In 1876 Van Gogh began teaching at Rev. William P. Stokes’ school in Ramsgate, outside London, focusing on religious education. In his spare time Van Gogh visited galleries and admired the many great works of art he found there. He also devoted himself to studying the bible – spending many hours reading and rereading the Gospel.

    The summer of 1876 was a time of spiritual transformation for Vincent van Gogh. Although raised in a religious family, it wasn’t until this time that he seriously began to consider devoting his life to the Church.

    After a short period studying theology at university in Amsterdam, in 1879 Van Gogh moved to a deprived coal mining region in Belgium, The Borinage, where he began work preaching to the coal miners and their families.

    Vincent often included little sketches or drawings of what he had seen, in the letters he sent home to his brother Theo. This eventually led to a turning point in his life, when Theo advised him to concentrate more on his drawing.

    Vincent now became convinced that he could also serve God as an artist. He moved to Brussels in October 1880, where he began to work on his drawing technique and came into contact with other artists. He no longer had a paid job, so Theo sent him regular money.

    Sometimes I long so much to do landscape, just as one would for a long walk to refresh oneself, and in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul, as it were.

    To his brother Theo from The Hague, 10 December 1882

    Questions for students

    How do you think Van Gogh thought that he could ‘serve God’ through art?

    In what way might art have religious / spiritual value?

    Study the range of prints in the exhibition that Van Gogh collected. What does this collection reveal about the artist’s interests?

    What images inspire your own artmaking practice? Where do you find these images and how and where do you display them?

  • The young artist - art and family

    In 1881, Van Gogh moved back in with his parents, who were now living in Etten, also in Brabant. The Van Gogh family did have an understanding and respect for art, having two close uncles working as successful art dealers, but Vincent’s parents were extremely disappointed that their eldest son failed to be respectable in anything that he did. During this period, there was much tension between Vincent and his parents.

    In the meantime Van Gogh worked very hard to develop his skills as an artist. Van Gogh deeply admired the work of the Realists, and had collected many reproductions and prints of Realist artworks during his time working at the Goupil & Cie art dealership. Realism is broadly considered the beginning of modern art, due to its conviction that everyday life and the modern world were suitable subjects for art. Realist painters such as Jean-François Millet (1814 -1875), Jules Breton (1827 – 1906) and Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884) often depicted seasonal scenes of rural labour, elevating the plight of the lower classes.

    In 1882, Van Gogh took lessons from the Realist painter Anton Mauve (1838 – 1888), a family friend. He practised drawing and frequently worked out of doors. His brother Theo had been appointed manager of an art dealership in Paris. He supported Van Gogh financially so he could focus entirely on his art.

    Questions for students

    Vincent Van Gogh had great respect for the work of Jules Bastien-Le Page, and wrote of his admiration for Bastien-LePage’s October (1878) in his letters to Theo. This painting is held in the National Gallery of Victoria’s public collection. View this artwork in the NGV or on the NGV website. Compare October (1878) to Van Gogh’s early artworks within the exhibition, what similarities can you find?

  • Paris and Impressionism

    Van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo in Montmartre in 1886.

    Theo van Gogh was the manager of Goupil & Cie art dealers on the Boulevard Montmartre in Paris, the art centre of Paris in the 19th Century. He introduced his brother to the colourful work of prominent Impressionist artists like Claude Monet (1840-1926).

    Van Gogh’s style underwent a major transformation during his two-year stay in Paris (February 1886–February 1888). In response to seeing the work of the Impressionists first-hand, he lightened his palette and experimented with looser brushwork and spontaneous ‘wet-on-wet’ application of his paint.

    The themes he painted likewise changed, with rural labourers giving way to cafés and boulevards, the countryside along the Seine and floral still life in seasonal hues.

    He also tried out more ‘commercial’ subjects, such as portraits. Van Gogh mostly acted as his own sitter, however, as models were relatively expensive. In Paris, he completed more than twenty self-portraits that reflect his ongoing exploration of complementary colour contrasts and a bolder style.

    During his time in Paris Van Gogh also classes in the studio of Fernand Cormon for several months where he met other avant-garde artists including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

    Questions for students

    Compare Van Gogh’s Terrace of a Café on Montmartre (La Guinguette) October 1886 wth Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather 1897.
    Suggest how this comparison might reveal a transformation in Van Gogh’s style?

    Compare Horse chestnut tree in blossom 1887 by Vincent Van Gogh to Vétheuil 1879 by Monet 1879.
    Consider
    • use of art elements and principles (ie. as colour, texture, space);
    • use of art materials and techniques (ie. application of paint);
    • ideas and meanings expressed in each work.

  • Van Gogh and Neo-Impressionism

    In Paris Van Gogh was also influenced by a group of artists often described as Neo-Impressionists. Neo-Impressionism is the name given to style developed by Georges Seurat (1859-91) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) and their followers who, inspired by optical theory, painted using tiny adjacent dabs of primary colour to create the effect of light. Van Gogh met Signac on painting expeditions along the river Seine in Paris and became friends with him. The influence of the Neo-Impressionists can be seen in Van Gogh’s adaption of dotted and dashed brushstrokes to create structure, and his use of bright, often complementary colours placed side by side on the canvas, to create a shimmering effect.

    Questions for students

    Look at a range of Neo-Impressionist paintings.

    Identify a work by Van Gogh in the exhibition that you believe reflects the influence of Neo-Impressionism.

    Describe what characteristics may have been influenced by Neo-Impressionism.

  • The influence of Japan

    Japan showed its virtually unknown goods at World’s Fairs in London in 1862 and Paris in 1867. Following this, there was huge craze for all things Japanese in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.

    Colourful woodcut prints known as ukiyo-e featuring popular landscapes and everyday life in Edo Japan were widely collected and inspired many artists including Van Gogh.

  • Van Gogh and Japanese prints

    Van Gogh saw Japanese woodcut prints as equal to the great masterpieces of Western art history. They inspired a turning point in Van Gogh’s career: they taught him a new way of looking at and representing the world.

    Van Gogh was an enthusiastic collector of Japanese prints. He bought his first stack of Japanese woodcuts in Antwerp and pinned them to the wall of his room. He described the city to his brother with these exotic images in mind.

    Western artists learned new ways of arranging visual space in their compositions from ukiyo-e. Japanese artists often left the middle ground of their compositions empty, while objects in the foreground were sometimes enlarged. They regularly excluded the horizon too, or abruptly cropped the elements of the picture at the edge.

    Van Gogh was also inspired by the clarity and bright flat colour of Japanese prints, including the abstract patterning and use of organic lines to define features.

    Questions for students

    Research nineteenth century ukiyo-e prints focusing on
    • subject matter
    • techniques
    • use of art elements and principles including colour, line, shape and space.

    View examples of ukiyo-e in the exhibition and discuss how this artform differs from the European painting tradition.

    Find an example of a work by Van Gogh in the exhibition that you believe reflects the influence of ukiyo-e. Give reasons for your choice.

  • Nature and the seasons

    It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring. It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplace. And to feel – this has always been so and always will be.
    Vincent van Gogh, Nuenen, 1885

    Throughout this career, Van Gogh returned to the theme of nature and the seasons. By studying his different approaches to depicting seasonal scenes over the course of his career, we learn more about Van Gogh’s life and the development of his artistic style. We also learn about what the seasons meant to Van Gogh, emotionally and spiritually.

    In the evening, when we rode back from Zundert over the heath, Pa and I walked a way, the sun set red behind the pines and the evening sky was reflected in the marshes, the heath and the yellow and white and grey sand were so resonant with tone and atmosphere.
    Vincent Van Gogh to Theo from Etten, 22 July 1878

    Questions for students

    Why do you think the seasons have been such a source of inspiration for artists throughout history? Curate your own collection of artworks that depict the different seasons. Try to include works from different cultural and historical contexts.

    Discuss different symbolic or metaphoric meanings associated with the seasons, and the change of seasons.

    How do you think cultural background, and the time and place we live might impact our understanding of the seasons?

    Do you think the seasons/weather still affects on the way we live? Why/why not?

    Compare The parsonage garden in the snow January 1885 Nuenen with Pine Trees against a Red Sky with Setting Sun 1889.
    Consider
    • key characteristics of Van Gogh’s style in each work, including use of colour and painting technique;
    • what ideas or meanings each work expresses.

  • Winter

    During his time in Amsterdam in 1877-78 Van Gogh had visited galleries and museums and admired the works of Dutch Old master painters such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709).

    After deciding to become an artist, in 1881, Van Gogh began painting lessons with a relative, the landscape painter Anton Mauve (1838-1888) in The Hague. Mauve worked mainly in grey and blue tones. Most Dutch artists painted ‘tonally’ at this time, meaning painting in various shades of one colour. This was the kind of work Van Gogh saw around him, so that’s how he began to paint too.

    Van Gogh moved in with his parents in Nuenen, the Netherlands in December 1883 to dedicate himself to developing his skills as an artist. He initially worked in a small studio at the back of the house, but after a few months, he rented a larger space elsewhere in the village.

    Nuenen was home to many farmers, rural labourers and weavers, who Vincent sketched and painted at every opportunity. The rhythm of the changing seasons and the different seasonal work of the farmers inspired Van Gogh, such as reaping the wheat (summer), sowing a crop and harvesting the grapes (autumn) and gathering wood in the snow (winter).

    Van Gogh’s scenes of rural life were influenced by depictions of peasant workers in Realism, an art movement that began in the 1840s. Influential artists associated with Realism include Jean-François Millet (1814 -1875) and Jules Breton (1827 – 1906).

    Van Gogh had a great deal of respect for farmers and labourers, he felt he should approach painting with the same level of dedication that peasants approached their work on the land, stating: One must undertake with confidence, with a certain assurance that one is doing a reasonable thing, like the farmer who drives his plow… (one who) drags the harrow behind himself. If one hasn’t a horse, one is one’s own horse.

    In his early winter scenes, Van Gogh is attempting to master traditional painting skills in depicting perspective, realism and tone.

    Van Gogh proposed in early 1884 that he should start giving Theo the works he produced in return for the allowance provided by his brother.

    The idea was that Theo would sell the paintings on the Paris art market, but the plan was unsuccessful, as French customers preferred colour, and Van Gogh’s work was distinctly dark in tone.

    Most of the money Theo sent went on artist’s materials. Later that year, Vincent decided to enrol at the academy of art in Antwerp and left the Netherlands, never to return.

    Questions for students

    Look at images by Van Gogh related to Winter. List different meanings and ideas that these works suggest. What is it about the works that suggest these meanings and ideas?

    Which work related to Winter do you find most interesting/appealing? Explain why.

    View the work of Dutch Old master painters such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682) and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) at the NGV or on the NGV website. Based on your observation of van Gogh’s early work, suggest what you think Van Gogh admired about these artists.

    Research the work Jean-François Millet, Jules Dupré (1811-1889) and Émile Breton (1831-1902). Compare a work by one of these artist to an early work by Van Gogh related to Winter such as Shepherd and his flock 1884 Nuenen or The parsonage garden in the snow January 1885. What similarities can you find?

    Describe and interpret the differences in style between these early winter paintings and the winter paintings from later in Van Gogh’s career, such as Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet) January 1890.
    Consider
    • use of art elements and principles (ie. as colour, texture, space);
    • use of art materials and techniques (ie. application of paint);
    • ideas and meanings expressed in each work.

  • Spring

    Having moved to Paris in 1886, Van Gogh saw first-hand the work of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist artists. He also saw a ceiling mural by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1963) in the Louvre. It was a revelation: now he knew how bright colours could work together.

    Van Gogh’s art grew steadily brighter in Paris. He used brighter colours and developed his own style of painting, with short, obvious brush strokes.

    Van Gogh sought out and found nature in the midst of urban Paris, and incorporated scenes of new spring growth, blossoms and bright blue skies within his paintings over this 2 year period.

    Questions for students

    Look at images by Van Gogh related to Spring. List different meanings and ideas that these works suggest. What is it about the works that suggest these meanings and ideas?

    Which work related to Spring do you find most interesting/appealing? Explain why.

    How did Van Gogh’s style change in response to new artistic influences after his arrival in Paris in 1886? Compare one of Van Gogh’s early works related to Winter with one of the works he created after his arrival in Paris to demonstrate how the artist’s work changed.

  • Summer

    It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.
    Vincent Van Gogh to Theo, 21 February 1888

    After two years, Vincent began to tire of fast-paced city life in Paris.

    He longed for the peace of the countryside, for sun, and for the light and colour of landscapes that reminded him of the Japanese woodblock prints he collected.

    He hoped to find such landscapes in Provence, in the South of France. Following a train journey that lasted a day and a night, he arrived on 20 February 1888 in Arles, a small town on the River Rhône.

    Van Gogh was delighted by the light, colour and landscapes he found in Arles, and he was inspired to create many works during this period.

    His style became looser and more expressive. Vincent corresponded with Theo about his plan to set up a ‘Studio of the South’ in Arles for a group of artists whose work Theo could sell in Paris.

    Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was the only artist to travel there and stay, and together the artists worked on some incredible collaborations, but the artists had very different opinions on matters of life and art.

    Gauguin worked mainly from memory and his imagination, while Vincent preferred to paint what he could see in front of him. Their very different characters caused the tension between them to rise steadily, and in 1888 Gauguin left Arles. This departure contributed to Van Gogh’s declining state of mental health.

    Questions for students

    Look at works by Van Gogh related to Summer. List different meanings and ideas that these works suggest. What is it about the works that suggest these meanings and ideas?

    Which work related to Summer do you find most interesting/appealing? Explain why.

    How do artists express, evoke or suggest emotion through art elements and principles in a painting?

    What evidence can you find in paintings related to Summer that Van Gogh’s style ‘ became looser and more expressive’ after his arrival in Arles in 1888?

    Read the following poem by 19th Century Parisian poet, Arthur Rimbaud, while viewing Van Gogh’s paintings of summer. Write your own poem evoking the sensations and thoughts that a Van Gogh painting of Summer communicates to you.

    Sensation
    On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
    Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
    In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
    I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

    I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
    But endless love will mount in my soul;
    And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
    Through the countryside – as happy as if I were with a woman.

    Arthur Rimbaud
    March 1870.

  • Autumn

    In the months that followed his fall out with Gauguin, Van Gogh’s mental health fluctuated dramatically. He voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy in May of 1889.

    On days when his health was good, Van Gogh would often paint in the institution’s walled garden and he was later allowed to work outside the hospital too. He was also given an extra room inside the clinic to use as a studio, where he produced a series of works.

    Vincent left the hospital in Saint-Rémy in May 1890 and headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise. Auvers offered Vincent the peace and space he needed, while being close enough to Paris for him to visit his brother Theo. There was a doctor there too, Paul Gachet, who could keep an eye on Van Gogh’s health.

    Despite the peace of the countryside in Auvers, Van Gogh’s health continued to decline and on 27 July 1890, he took his own life. Theo rushed from Paris to Auvers and was present when his brother died of his injuries on 29 July. Vincent was buried at Auvers on 30 July 1890. His legacy was a large body of art works: over 850 paintings and almost 1,300 works on paper.

    Questions for students

    Look at works by Van Gogh related to Autumn. List different meanings and ideas that these works suggest. What is it about the works that suggest these meanings and ideas?

    Which work related to Autumn do you find most interesting/appealing? Explain why.

    Compare Stone bench in the garden of Saint-Paul Hospital, November 1889 with Spirit Dreaming through Napperby country, 1980, by Australian indigenous artists Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

    What similarities and differences can you find in the way the landscape is portrayed in each work? Suggest reasons for the similarities and differences you find.

  • Inspired by Van Gogh

    Questions for students

    What have you learnt from viewing Van Gogh’s art that can inform or inspire your own artmaking?

    Research the influence of Van Gogh’s art on later artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Franz Marc (1880-1916), Grace Cossington-Smith (1892-1984) and Brett Whiteley (1939-1992). Why do you think Van Gogh has had such a significant impact on the work of other artists and has made such an impact on the history of western art?

    Consider different ways that Van Gogh and his work have been represented in popular culture, including advertising. How have these representations shaped understanding of the artist and his work? Do these representations fit with the understanding you have developed of the artist’s work through viewing the exhibition?

    What more do you want to know about Van Gogh? How will you go about finding what you want to know?