October 26, 2019 -­ February 2, 2020

Van Gogh.

Still Lifes

“Painting still lifes is the beginning of everything,” Vincent van Gogh told his students. In the few years he was active as an artist between 1881 and his death in 1890, he painted more than 170 still lifes. Never before has an exhibition been devoted exclusively to this theme. Yet, so much can be learned from a consideration of Van Gogh’s still lifes. The genre reflects his rapid artistic evolution – from his first experiments with sombre colors to his late canvases, full of expressive power and vitality. This journey – our digital prologue to the exhibition Van Gogh: Still Lifes at the Museum Barberini – takes us from the Netherlands via Paris to the South of France, charting the oeuvre of one of the great pioneers of modern painting.

At the beginning

of making something


Vincent van Gogh was already 27 when he turned to painting in 1880. In 1881, after a year of self-study and drawing exercises, he switched to the brush and palette. He took lessons from his cousin Anton Mauve, a highly esteemed painter of the Hague School. Still life was a rewarding gateway into his new profession and would always remain a framework for his artistic experiments. Numerous letters from Vincent to his brother Theo van Gogh offer insights into his life and the evolution of his painting. 

Vincent to Theo van Gogh,
December 1881

“I truly believe there’s something sound and real in them, more at least than in what I’ve made up to now”

In the Old Masters’




In his first still lifes from the period until 1885, Van Gogh focused on objects associated with everyday life in the country: household utensils and, depending on the season, natural produce such as apples, pears, pumpkins or potatoes. He confined his palette to a few muted tones, mostly shades of brown to which he occasionally added red or green. Initially, he explored the spatial relationship between the objects, but he soon began to address contrasts and nuances of colour.

Vincent to Theo van Gogh,
October 1885

“I made my studies specifically as gymnastics, to fall and to rise in tone”

Orange with blue,red with green, yellow with violet



When he moved to Paris in 1886, Van Gogh left not only the Netherlands behind, but also earthy tones and themes drawn from rural peasant life. In the two years he spent in the French capital, he developed a lighter, richer palette and a personal style. He paved the way for this artistic breakthrough in his floral still lifes, of which he executed more than 30 while in Paris. The motif gave him an opportunity to maintain his links with nature in this new urban setting.

Vincent van Gogh to Horace Mann Livens,
September 1886

“As for the work, I’ve been painting a lot of still lifes lately, and I like it enormously”

Carnations, poppies,

Imbuing objects



Apart from Japanese colour woodcuts, works by the impressionists and pointillists were among Van Gogh’s major artistic discoveries in Paris. Although he felt no allegiance to either of these movements, he drew salient input from their various approaches. By the time his stay in Paris came to an end in 1888, he had forged his own distinctive style: he was shifting away from simply depicting reality and injecting dynamism into the purportedly static genre of still life, as if the painter’s emotions had been absorbed by the objects shown and as if the colours had a life of their own.

Vincent to Willemien van Gogh,
October 1887

“It’s curious that my painted studies look darker here in the city than in the country”

Catalysts for a new style

A symphony



In February 1888, after two years in Paris, Van Gogh decided to escape the big city. In Arles in the South of France he hoped to set up an artists’ community with his friend Paul Gauguin. Fascinated by the Southern light and ebullient vegetation, he worked primarily on landscapes. For many years he had longed to create a painting that consisted entirely of shades of yellow, and he finally achieved this in what is probably his best-known series, the Sunflowers.

Vincent to Theo van Gogh,
August 1888

“Not just anybody can do that, it takes an individual’s whole and entire energy and attention”




In late 1888 the two-month collaboration with Paul Gauguin in Arles came to a dramatic end. During a fierce argument with him, Van Gogh cut off part of his left ear and had to be treated at the local hospital. In January 1889 he returned to work. His mental state was fragile, however, and a few months later he sought voluntary admission to a psychiatric clinic near Saint-Rémy. There, within the short space of a year, Van Gogh made about 140 paintings, most of them landscapes and very few still lifes.

Vincent to Theo van Gogh,
etwa January 1889

“It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it”

An oblique self-portrait

In the rush



After one year in the clinic near Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh moved to Auvers near Paris in the spring of 1890. There the blossoming chestnut trees must have conveyed a sense of great vitality to the artist, who was always receptive to impressions of nature. In his tireless desire to create, his expressive technique reached its peak. Up until his death on 29 July, he painted almost 80 works in just two months, amongst them ten still lifes.

Vincent to Willemien van Gogh,
June 1890

“The whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour”

Experts talk about Van Gogh

The Barberini Prolog showcases the current exhibition. This mini-site summarizes narrative threads, themes and works and is perfect for preparing a visit or recommending the exhibition to a friend. The Barberini App is a personal companion before, during and after a visit to the Museum. In addition to audio tours, the App provides details of the services, information about events, e-tickets and useful content such as biographies of artists and video interviews with experts. Download the Barberini App free of charge from App Store or Google Play.