The Conflict in Van Gogh’s Portraits

Contrapunto, counterpoint, the centre of conflict, the arrow that pierces the eye or the mind of the viewer. It could be inside or outside a work of art, but today I will show you two examples of CONTRAPUNTO inside a picture. Many, and I, for one, believe that without conflict, it can never or seldom be interesting.

This is the portrait of a postman by Van Gogh. Look at it closely (click on it to get a bigger picture, it opens in a bigger size) and think where is the counterpoint.

Few people find it quickly or at all, but most would admit they lingered around the eyes.

Yes, the Centrepoint is there, in the sitter’s eye, where all the colours used in the painting come together. There, in the eye, they would sometimes complement each other, giving you a sense of harmony, or they clash, putting you on edge. Sometimes, harmony and fight get united, when the conflict in the sitter’s soul resonates with the viewer’s, not just intellectually, but emotionally too.

Here’s another portrait of the same man by Van Gogh who used a very different palette, and created the counterpoint with colours of a different tone and intensity.

Again, let’s focus on the eyes, which are a mirror of the soul in a very literal sense for Van Gogh:

Using just the colour conflict in a straightforward frontal composition, Van Gogh could communicate a very complicated mix of emotions whirring in the soul of the sitter, in his own mind that would resonate with the heart of the observer.

It is tremendously difficult NOT to make this conflict superficial, as if plastered on the portrayed face. It takes a colour genius to do it right.

And now a fun exercise. I promised that I will be showing artists I like, collect, and know – at least once a week. But this blog is not about watching art. It is about understanding and feeling it. About getting your personal kick out of it. So, let’s try it. Can you see the conflict in this still life by Sevostianov, the artist I introduced not so long ago, aptly named “Black Apples”?

I will be back with my view on it in my next post.

11 comments

  1. Yesterday night I had the reason to think about this Contrapunto again. I was watching some movie about Mozart, not W.A., but his sister Maria Anna to be precise. When their father was teaching them to compose music he mentioned there always had to be some contrapunto and harmony in each great opus. I was kind of ‘of course!’ but must admit I didn’t go beyond painting before that. So obvious, stupid me)

  2. It’s incredible the power that color can have. Kind of like the way that smells are supposed to evoke the most powerful memories. The subconscious is a fascinating thing.

    1. It has never been proven that the subconscious exists 😉 I like the smell analogy. I’ve used it recently when asking people to describe the smell of peaches painted against white and violet cloth. You know, the smell came out differently )

      1. Wonderful post. Provocative. I can smell my room. I can feel a presence in my head experiencing the smell, something
        beyond my brain. The me in here controls my mind, “most of the time” and I can sense in a very real way something beyond intellect, something beyond conscious thought. Do I need to prove that?

  3. Thanks both for your kind words about my MoMA post and for inviting me to read yours on these Van Gogh portraits–you truly pointed out several things I had never noticed in paintings I thought I knew rather well. Looking forward to reading some of your other observations!

    1. Well. thank you again! My blog is recent, but observations are many. I will try to have them posted at least weekly. Please check out the post that followed Van Gogh today – also about a centrepoint. I trust you’d find it interesting ) See you soon and see you often! )

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