But rather like the oddball at school whom everybody admires but tries to avoid, few would actually accept Vincent’s invitation to join him in Arles.
Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) did. The two self-taught artists were friends from Paris and shared an ambition to move on from the strictures of Impressionism.
For six weeks they competed and cajoled, each pushing the other to greater and greater artistic heights.
By the time of their infamous row and the ear mutilation episode (it is believed that Vincent fled to a brothel after a particularly heated argument and sliced off part of his own ear), both men had succeeded in their missions: Van Gogh had laid the ground for a new, more expressive movement, while Gauguin was heading for somewhere rather more exotic.
Van Gogh’s art is as familiar to us as his life story, although it was largely unknown when he was alive.
But familiarity does not prepare you for your first encounter with one of his paintings.
It’s like the first time you hear the Berlin Philharmonic play or visit Rio during the Carnival: another dimension is added by being in the presence of a great life force.
Such entities can only be truly experienced unmediated: you have to be there.
With the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s the depth of sound that hits you, while Rio’s energy is its irreproducible factor; and with Van Gogh it is the object.
Because many of Van Gogh’s great paintings are not simply pictures, they’re more like sculptures.
From a few metres away some of his later paintings start to take on a three-dimensional quality. Move a bit closer and you can see that Van Gogh has shovelled great lumps of brightly coloured oils on to his canvas.
He’s caked on the paint like a drag queen on a Saturday night, and then shaped it, not using a brush, but with his palette knife and fingers. The technique wasn’t new.