Montmartre put the colour in Van Gogh’s life and art

When he arrived in Paris in 1886 Vincent van Gogh was just another wannabe. When he left in 1888 he was ready to change the world. William Cook reports

Friday 07 January 2022 01:07
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<p>Vincent van Gogh self-portrait in Paris, 1887 </p>

Vincent van Gogh self-portrait in Paris, 1887

I’m standing on a busy boulevard in Montmartre, staring up at a third-floor apartment that changed the course of modern art. This apartment block doesn’t look like much. Indeed, it looks much the same as countless other apartment blocks all over Paris. However, its significance in art history is immense, for it was here that Van Gogh became a great artist.

When Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris, in February 1886, he had less than five years left to live, yet he still only had a handful of notable paintings to his name. He’d been trying to make it as an artist since 1880, but he hadn’t sold a single picture. Yet during the two years he spent here, everything came together – the difference is plain to see. By the time he left Paris, in February 1888, he was painting masterpiece after masterpiece. So what took place in Paris during those two years? What happened here in Montmartre that transformed this anonymous oddball into an artistic genius?

Vincent was in his late twenties when he decided to become an artist, already rather old to be starting from scratch. When he arrived in Paris, shortly before his 33rd birthday, he’d been painting obsessively for six years, yet he had precious little to show for it. His paintings were powerful, but his style was clumsy and his subject matter was unremittingly austere.

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