Feeling Blue: Art History Essay

Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh were the most prominent artists of the 19th and 20th century, even if their genius was not appreciated in their time. Claude Monet, a French impressionist, was very influential both in his time and today. In his day, he broke the mold of traditional art, and started to paint landscapes in a chaotic and free fashion. His brilliance is still celebrated centuries later. Van Gogh, a Dutch impressionist, was an outcast of the art world. His paintings were considered trash in his day, and he barely ever sold a piece. Today, his art is on display in some of the most famous museums in the world, such as the Musee d’Orsay. Ask anyone on the street if they’ve heard his name before, and nearly all of them would say yes. Even though these artists were remarkably talented, their lives were not easy. Monet’s wife had a serious illness that caused her much pain and suffering, resulting in financial problems and the onset of Monet’s anxiety issues; and Van Gogh had clinical depression, as well as epilepsy and bipolar disorder. Their suffering and pain is what influenced their passion, and can be seen through their works. They vocalize their crippling misery by using many different shades of blue. This is what is called a blue period, and throughout their lives, at one time or another, they faced their own. Even though they encountered the same monochrome spell, the reasoning behind the two men’s blue interval is different, and they used different styles to convey these overwhelming feelings they experienced.

Monet knew that he wanted to become an artist at a young age. He graduated art school and moved on to Paris, where he fell in love with the Louvre, and also with a young model, Camille. He used her as a model for his paintings first in 1865, and soon after in 1867 their first child, Jean, was born. They were married in 1870, and moved to England. They moved around a lot, and lived a very content life, until 1876, when Camille came down with a terrible case of tuberculosis. Even though she was sick, their second child, Michel, was born in 1878, weakening Camille’s declining health even more. She continued to get sicker and sicker until late 1878, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. There was only a matter of time before she had to let go. After suffering for another year, she finally was laid to rest in 1879, leaving Monet alone with the children, and also with a crippling financial debt. Monet’s servants started to quit, and no one was available to keep the children occupied. In this time, he needed his art more than ever. Thus began his blue period. His first painting was of his dead wife in a light blue veil. The blue brought across a peaceful and nostalgic feeling for Monet, and reminded him of his wife  in both life and death. The blue he felt was the blue he put on the canvas, forcing others to live his pain. He then began an affair in the spring of 1880, with a woman named Alice Hoschedé. She breathed life into his dying spirit and his colors began to brighten up. He started using more yellows, pinks and reds in his paintings, creating picturesque landscapes on his canvas. Soon after his life started to get better, Monet’s vision began to falter. He developed cataracts, inhibiting his world view, and allowing him to only see the bright colors such as red and orange. He was scheduled for surgery to remove them, and he was promised it would go without a hitch, but his vision was forever ruined after the surgery. “It’s filthy,” says Monet. “It’s disgusting. I see nothing but blue.” For the last years of his life, Monet could only see blues and violets unless he used special glasses to help him see certain pigments and hues of bright colors. This was another cause of his blue period, which lasted him for the entire second half of his life. This sounds like a long time to be so sad and see so little, but Van Gogh experienced this his whole life.  

Although his brother would try to help him, Van Gogh was a lost cause. No matter how many therapists and doctors were sent to him, his mind could not be fixed, and the void within could not be filled. The sadness overcame him, and the only way to escape was through art. As a result of the crippling emptiness he felt, he used very dark and heavy blues in his paintings, unlike Monet who was versatile in the shades he utilized. When Van Gogh began painting in the Netherlands, his subjects were always poor, lost, desolate souls- peasants, miners, beggars and squanderers. His brush strokes were long and aggressive, and he mixed ebony blues and earthy browns together. The subjects were always hiding in a shadow created with the dark colors, creating a devastating aura around them. These paintings wouldn’t sell, and drove Van Gogh to bankruptcy. He was put in a position very similar to Monet’s. In 1886, he had to leave his cottage in Belgium and move away to Paris. While in Paris, his spirits were high, and he looked to be getting better. He moved on to painting beautiful landscapes and bright buildings- a style Monet introduced to the world- yet the blue within his work still persisted. Although he was happier, he still wasn’t fully recovered; he felt the bright yellows and reds that he used, but he still bore that blue inside of him. He never really loved the ambiance of a big city, so in 1888 he moved once again to Arles. While in Arles, his condition worsened. He experienced uncontrollable fits of rage, as well as random seizures. As a result, the townspeople thought he was blasphemous and evil, and were so horrified by him and his work that they exiled him and treated him as an outcast. His work suffered and his blues became ever gloomier. This continued until 1889, when he was admitted to the Saint Paul asylum. There is where he painted the now world famous piece, Starry Night; but only after becoming so depressed that he started to eat yellow paint in order to feel joy. Over the year he was at the asylum, his brush strokes became shorter and more violent- the abrupt strokes moving his style ever closer to that of Monet’s. It was almost as if he was in a hurry to finish. He used blues that were mysterious, and so deep and unilluminated they almost looked black. When he got out of the asylum and moved to Auvers with a nurse in 1890, his paintings were still very dark and very blue. However, in this last year of his life, he painted more paintings than he ever had. He had not yet lost the will to create, but his soul was so desolate that he needed to fill the pit faster and more often with work. Here at Auvers in a wheatfield, he painted his last painting, and shot himself; dying two days later. These blues, no matter how light, persisted throughout his entire life, right up until his dying day. Although his last painting was luminous and full of yellow, the imagery of the crows predicted a death- his own.

Van Gogh and Monet had very similar life stories, and their paintings were alike in style and subject; but their reasonings for their blue periods were disparate. Although they both went through depression in their own way, Monet also had cataracts, which only allowed him to see shades of blue and violet. Van Gogh’s use of blue was only because of his many mental health issues- bipolar disorder, clinical depression and epilepsy- and lasted through his entire life. Monet’s emotional blue period only lasted him five years, but because of his cataracts, it seemed to go on for the last eight years of his life as well. The painters both used blues in their works to communicate their emotions, and centuries later, people still are able to feel that emptiness, that depression, that misery; and they relish in the power of the pieces.

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