Reaction Paper: Color and Van Gogh

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Color and Van Gogh

Van Gogh's careful reflection on choosing a palette and especially his focus on contrast define the mood and set the tone in two of his paintings, the Sower and the Night Cafe. Although there are several human beings in the latter, the main impression in this scene is that of loneliness since even the only couple in the image is meant to take away all hope. The other couple in the former, the working man and the tree appear to be more on the allegorical side in spite of their earthiness.

The Night Cafe is the depiction of an interior where everything seems to take life away from its sources and transform it into something that is of little value, therefore the shades of greenish yellow are dominating the scene. When there are bright colors, such as the yellow glow coming from the hanging lamps, they are meant to hurt the eye, not to cast light upon a subject. At the other end of the spectrum, quite contrary to what the painter meant to illustrate in the Night Cafe, the Sower strikes as the study of life's sources along with its mystery. The first impression upon viewing it is powerful. The dark tree silhouette crossing the painting from the lower right corner, on a diagonal, up to the farther left corner, along with the dark silhouette of the sower clearly dominate and strike as intriguing at first. Then one notices the earthy tones that creep up the tree's trunk and extend to the sower's otherwise featureless face and hands. This brown, slightly yellow clay color, is strongly and intently coming over through the human flesh and the bark and leaves of the tree and not from the soil itself.

The two paintings are equally powerful in their message, although their subjects are as different as day and night. The stale, still, cruelly illuminated interior of the cafe leads to the idea of life's futility, whereas the bright rising sun in the foreground of the Sower inspires hope. The fertile soil in the latter develops into hues of grey, blue, black yellow and green, while the green and the blue are reflected in the sower's clothes. This painting feels highly symbolical, almost like a haiku on a canvas. The landscape is clearly there for a less than the classical decorative purpose. Ironically, in one of his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh's put it in his own words: "I am decidedly no landscape painter. When I make landscapes, there will always be something figurative in them"(Van Gogh, 1882).

Artists have tried to catch the endless aspects of life and its decay for millennia, but what Van Gogh appears to have been looking for in his Night Cafe is the meaningless of life. The sources of life in the painting, the humans and the flowers in the vase are there to make a point against it instead of reinforcing it, as in a conventional painting. The bright yellow light of the hanging lamps leaves nothing to the imagination, it presents it in its bare ugliness. The doors in the background, painted in olive green, yellow, brown and blue, appear to be leading to a hopeless space. The dominant yellow greens and olive greens in the lower half of the painting are cut only by the white of the owner's coat. Even his hair is the color of absinthe. The pool table does not bring any joyous note into the picture. It appears to be there as a tomb or as a dissecting table at the morgue. The white coat of the only man standing in the room further suggests the coroner waiting for his next body. The cylindrical dark shape of a tall empty table on the left reinforces the idea of a scene dedicated to the end of life, suggesting a flower stand at a funeral parlor. The empty chairs are there to witness those who are left and sitting around the room, in a defeated pose, as if waiting for the end to come.

Back to life in its germinating form, as opposed to the frozen image of life's meaningless version in the Night Cafe, the stark contrast between the tree and the sower's silhouettes and the brightly colored soil, sky and the leaves are not necessarily meant to bring relief. Contrast sets the general tone and the tree and the figure of the man dominate and qualm. The first impression, from a distance, is that they are a deep black, their shapes, especially that of the man look as if he could be something far more intriguing than just a peaceful sower in the setting sun. His shape suggests that of the devil himself. This impression is sustained further through the horn shaped twigs that are growing on both sides of the trunk. At a second glance, the man and the tree do not appear as frightening anymore. The man's big working hands, especially, in their earthy tones, moving to spread the seeds on the ground, bring some relief and bring one closer to the peace such a scene usually depicts. Still in the spirit world, but away from the evil, the man and the tree could be the morning spirits that spring from the air of night in the early morning and bring everything back to life on earth in the daylight. As if in a reversed image, the sky is light green with spots of pink and the earth, on the right side of the tree, is bright blue. The perfect yellow disk of the sun, barely over the horizon line is there to pause for a moment before taking a break from its warming, life nurturing task for the day. Contrary to the Sower in "Sower with Setting Sun," this version of the sun is glowing only in itself. Some of its yellow is picked up in every detail of the painting, but indirectly. Nothing is as obviously overflown with the sun's light as in the Sower with Setting Sun.

Considering the painter's inner struggles and his depression, one cannot overlook the unsettling aspect of his paintings. In such cases as the one of the Night Cafe's interior, there is nothing left for interpretation in the sense of enlightening. The light is cruel and its brightness is there only to present the interior of a morgue like room. The door leads to nothing better. The walls are as Van Gogh himself described the color, painted in "blood red," the perspective is odd and unsettling. Humanity appears to have vanished from it all, the clock is there, up on the wall not to count the hours, but to show a scene frozen in time and doomed to stay like that forever. There is something unsettling about the Sower, too, but it is presented in a far milder manner. The painter plays with parallelograms and rectangles to depict the patches in the fields, just as he plaid with them on the walls of the cafe, but the mood is different and hence the outcome. There are no faces to be distinguished in both pictures, but there is no need for them to add something to the subject the artist had chosen. The worker in the fields works with nature and hopes this one will not blow its rage at one of those key moments for his crops. The few leaves left in the tree turned brown and are still hanging there like vestiges of a previous glorious era. The seeds are supposed to have the power to reinstall that era, but there is a long way back to that. The massive dark figure of the man rests almost completely against the fields' backdrop, with just the top of his head against the yellow sun. The summarily sketched house and vegetation on the line of the horizon add a degree of relaxation to what would otherwise look tense because of the contrasts discussed above. It makes one feel more comfortable knowing there is something else there beside what otherwise could be an image from a far distant barren planet. In this lack of ornate details, the painter lets one distinguish the small chimney on the greenish house. This detail along with the green shrubs and the taller thin elegant green silhouette of a tree bring the whole picture to a warm familiar place, inhabited by humans, a small village in a picturesque setting.

The Sower with the Setting Sun, on the other hand, is entirely dedicated to capturing the color. It is also highly symbolical, but in a different way. Blue and yellow are playing the major parts here. The gold of the sun overflows everything just as the blue in the sky has somehow found its way out of its natural place and taken over the earth, the house in the background, the sower's clothes and the shrubbery on the opposite side of the house. This time the house does not bring relief.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/color-van-gogh/8631664.