Van Goghs Favorites I: Xylographism unbound – The influence of illustrated journal graphics on the art of Vincent van Gogh.

Only in recent years has one gained the insight that Vincent van Gogh was not only a collector of Japanese graphic prints, like many of his artist colleagues, but was also imbued by a passion for the pictorial art of illustrated journals of his times. This was mainly thanks to two exhibitions: One, in spring of 2003 in Amsterdam, was dedicated to the broad complex of his pictorial influences, [1] and the other, in 2005 in The Hague, more specifically to his collection of illustrated journal graphics. [2] In the catalogue of the first exhibition it is stated that it is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of graphic arts for Vincent van Gogh [3] , but one could say that this is precisely what the editors bring about. They illustrate the catalogue mainly with paintings of sufficiently known reference artists, from Rembrandt to Millet to Signac, leaving for the most part to obscurity the large complex of illustrated journal art, which Van Gogh called his visual “Bible”, and the “illustrateurs,” whom he urgently wanted to be treated equally in artistic terms. It is hard to avoid the impression that research on Van Gogh – as far as its dealing with illustrated journal art is concerned – is lagging far behind its own claims.

During his almost two-year tenure in London as an art- trade apprentice, [4] during which his view of the purpose of art underwent a radical religious change, it was above all the graphics in the big illustrated journals, the “London Illustrated News” and its recently founded competitor, “The Graphic”, which made a deep impression on him. It was so lasting that Van Gogh, even ten years later, admitted to an artist friend, Anthon van Rappard: “Sometimes it seems to me that there is no stretch of time between those days and now – at least my enthusiasm for those things is rather stronger than it was even then.” [5]

Van Gogh, 1884

Van Gogh, 1883

At the beginning of his artistic career in the early 1880s, he also built up his collection of wood engravings and social reportages, which in the end comprised around 1,700 sheets. He invested a significant portion of the support payments of his brother Leo in purchasing not only individual sheets of illustrated journals, but entire bundles of volume issues.     [6]     He took great care to orient his collection internationally. The basis was formed by larger collections of English illustrated journals that were distributed worldwide at the time, to which he then added picture material from Dutch     [7]    , French   [8]  , German   [9]   and American illustrated journals.   [10]   So as to gain a better overview of the development of individual draughtsmen and engravers, he separated the anthologies and archived the individual sheets attached to cardboard according to thematic aspects as well as the names of the artists and engravers. He analyzed the stylistic features of the individual artists so as to be able to more clearly classify the often unsigned sheets, and compiled long lists of monograms.

He was in regular exchange with his artist friend Rappard, with whom he shared his liking of illustrated journal prints. In other contexts, he met disconcertment regarding his interest in illustrated journal art with other colleagues. The board of the art cooperation of The Hague, “Pulchri”, turned up their nose at his offer to give an evening lecture on this topic with the argument that they didn’t want to be bothered with “[t]hose things one sees now and then in the South Holland café.” [11] In a letter to Rappard, he complains about the condescension of the art trade and the successful artists of the works of illustrated journal graphic artists, who wanted to hear nothing of the “drivel about what is called ‘the illustrative’.” [12]

It was precisely the directness and the popular availability of these “masterpieces one gets … for one’s 50 centimes”, as he called them [13] , that fulfilled his ideal of a democratic art that crossed class borders; an Arte Povera that appeared not to be tinged with the shadow of pretension and was not subject to an elitist distribution mechanism aiming at exploitation, but “that could indeed come into the public’s hands” and be “brought within everybody’s reach.” [14]

The foundation phase of the illustrated journals and thus also the orientation of their pictorial art were indeed characterized by the mass enlightening and social-revolutionary spirit of the period preceding the March revolution. However, the 1870s, Van Gogh’s formative years, mark a turning point from the hitherto more anonymous illustrated journal graphics to artificiality. Due to new photo-technical transfer possibilities, the draughtsmen began emancipating themselves from their dependency on the guild of engravers and developed a self-awareness that increasingly stressed authorship and aimed at developing an identifiable style. This tendency was particularly pushed forward by the young publisher William Luson Thomas who attempted to challenge the monopoly of the “London Illustrated News” with an editorial concept that granted the visual part even more space and attached great value to the development of an expressive, artistic handwriting [15] .
The founder of “Graphic” was a trained xylographer himself, a student of the engraver and poet William James Linton, whose social-revolutionary professional ethics, like a ferment. effected the development of the later Arts & Crafts movement. Thomas gathered a group of artists around him, most of whom were young academy graduates who appeared predestined for fulfilling their picture reportage commissions due to their social-revolutionary artistic ambitions. Thomas, who like most of his artists was also a great admirer of the emotional social prose of Charles Dickens, confronted the draughtsmen predominantly with topics from the dark sides of Victorian society. The most vivid works of the “Graphic” artists were created in poorhouses, shelters for the homeless, and on the streets and markets of London.

Hubert Herkomer, Blind Basket-makers, The Graphic 1871
right: H. Herkomer, Study for Blind Basket-makers, ca. 1870 (Collection MePri)

It was above all the contemplation of the “Graphic” social reportages that encouraged Van Gogh to cast aside the academic corset of his student years and seek his motifs on the streets and in deprived neighbourhoods. He responded to his brother, who reproached him because he broke off his academic exercises: “I put the question, where do the draughtsmen who work for the Graphic, Punch, etc., get their models? Do they personally hunt for them in the poorest alleys of London – yes or no? And their knowledge of the people, were they born with it – or did they acquire it in later years by living among the people and paying attention to things that many another overlooks… ?” [16]

Hubert Herkomer, Study, ca. 1870 (Collection MePri)
Van Gogh, 1882

However, Van Gogh’s works from this period mustn’t only be counted as an artistic adaptation of social-realistic illustrated journal graphics. For many years, he seriously thought of finding work as an illustrator, [17] and many of his drawings were certainly created to “fill my portfolios” in the “hope to get employment.” [18] The motive of gaining financial independence may have been a predominant one, but another and certainly equal motive was to evade the trap of the art business he hated, by being employed as a newspaper draughtsman, while at the same time gaining entrance to a community of artistically equal-minded people.

Especially since he read an essay by Hubert Herkomer, [19] one of the leading draughtsmen of the early “Graphic”, in which the author expressed discontent with the decline of the art of drawing in the illustrated journal trade, the artistic conditions in the early days of this illustrated journal appeared to him in an all but mystically transfigured way: “You know I would have counted it the highest honour – an ideal, in fact – to contribute to what the Graphic started.” [20]

Van Gogh, Portrait, 1884 ,  Hubert Herkomer, Portrait, undated

In a kind of daydream he hallucinated “something holy, something noble, something sublime. Then look at that group of great artists, and think of foggy London and the bustle in that small workshop. Moreover, I see in my imagination the draughtsmen in their several studios, starting their work with the best enthusiasm.
I see Millais running to Charles Dickens with the first issue of the Graphic. Dickens was then in the evening of his life, he had a paralyzed foot and walked with a kind of crutch. Millais says that while showing him Luke Fildes’s drawing ‘Homeless and Hungry’, of poor people and tramps in front of a free overnight shelter, Millais said to Dickens, ‘Give him your Edwin Drood to illustrate,’ and Dickens said, ‘Very well.’ Edwin Drood was Dickens’s last work, and Luke Fildes, brought into contact with Dickens through those small illustrations, entered his room on the day of his death, and saw his empty chair; and so it happened that one of the old numbers of the Graphic contained that touching drawing, ‘ Empty chairs’ – there are many of them, there will be even more, and sooner or later there will be nothing but empty chairs in place of Herkomer, Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, William Small, etc. … It is the same with the Graphic as it is with many other things in the realm of art [21]

Empty Chairs

Six years later, in November 1888, Van Gogh took up this motif of the empty chair again, which the “Graphic” artist Luke Fildes had drawn on the morning of Dickens’ death in the latter’s study. Widely spread through its publication in the illustrated journal, this sheet had gained enormous popularity and become an icon of absence, which was preferably used in the 19th century for the obituaries of prominent personalities, above all heads of state.
[22] For Van Gogh, however, this motif was connected to the very special meaning of place-holding within an ideal-socialist community of artists, to which the “Graphic” artists and the other social-realist “illustrateurs” of his collection also belonged. The desertedness of the two chairs, his own as well as that of his artist friend Gauguin, in their existential finality and inevitability, amounted to an expulsion from this community. The resulting deep despair and the tragic events that ensued rank as the most prominent building blocks of Van Gogh’s legend as an artist.

However, the picture world of the illustrated journal, from which he had taken this image of absence, this encyclopaedic “Bible”, which every artist should “have … around continually in the studio” [23] , disclosed itself to him not only on the surface as an inexhaustible canon of motifs. During his many sleepless nights, in which he went through his collection by candlelight, [24] he also immersed in the structures of the printed sheets.

One can gather from many of Van Gogh’s remarks that it was not only the distributive possibilities of printing that fascinated him but that the – for him – affordable, democratic character of mass graphics connected itself with certain formal features of the techniques to form an aesthetic ideal which he placed higher than the form in which originals manifested themselves. When he writes in a letter to his brother about a newly painted picture that it looks “like a chromolithograph from a cheap shop” [25] , he does not describe a deficiency but a form of manifestation that he is striving for. Also the many peculiar copies he painted after Delacroix, Doré, Hokusai, Millet, and others, are not to be understood – as he often stressed – as copies in the familiar sense, where the aura of the original is adapted, but as “interpretations” or “translations” of engravings reproduced in black-and-whit; painterly versions, that is, of popular graphics. [26]

 Van Gogh, The Exercise Yard (after Doré)

Van Gogh, Bridge in the rain (after Hiroshige)

The wood engraver was also a translator and interpreter in his eyes. “The old-fashioned style” of engraving [27] era of which ended in the 1870s, embodied for Van Gogh the ideal of a joint, guild-like production of art, in which both sides, the drawing artist and the interpreting craftsman take themselves back and support each other so as to create a “simple and true” result. The fact that he also considered taking on the profession of an engraver, next to that of a draughtsman, as he informed his brother Theo of in a letter from February 1881, [28] is only logical in view of this ideal of art production based on the division of labour. He thought about the different transfer possibilities from drawing to woodblock. The wood engraving itself, as he wrote in a letter dated March 1883 [29] to his colleague Rappard, is a medium with a “soul” and a has very special character.

By joining Hubert Herkomer in complaining about the decline of illustrated journal graphics, [30] he also intervened in the commencing debate on the change of xylography, a debate which became more fierce towards the end of the century due to the emerging Arts & Crafts movement. Through the increasing use of photochemical transfer methods of the models to the woodblock, and the inflationary use of lining machines in the 1870s, the powerful and rustic character of the wood engravings of the early years had almost totally disappeared in favour of xylographic illustrations, which in Herlomer’s view mainly consisted in demonstrations of skills and effects. His admonition directed to the publishers to again attach greater importance to artistic quality instead of pure entertainment value, and his appeal to the draughtsmen to counter the tendencies of dissolution by reverting to a simpler and more honest understanding of drawing, was realized by Van Gogh, who felt himself directly addressed, in a very specific but also consistent way in that he integrated the characteristic, xylographic lineament as a structural element in his drawings and paintings.

In the works of the early 1880s, he was still strongly oriented towards the style of Herkomer, Fildes and other “Graphic” social realists as far as the use of hatching and outline drawings was concerned. The late Van Gogh, with his dynamic, often vortex-like bundling of lines, then more and more approached a view one can describe as a wild, unleashed xylographism.

What is lacking, is a fundamental phenomenological study on the influence of xylographic structural elements, highly present in the 19th century, on the various movements of modern art – from Impressionism all the way to Futurism and kinetic abstraction. Already in the late work of Thomas Bewick, long counted as the inventor of xylography, the hatched elements become more complicated. By printing two plates upon each other, in his last engraving “Waiting for Death” (1828), he achieved a shimmering scale of graphic shadings that were hitherto never reached in print graphics. In the course of this development, which Herkomer and Van Gogh expressly disapproved of, these xylographic lineaments became ever more differentiated and refined, and detached themselves more and more from the graphic framework of objectivity. An often microscopically fine texture of undulating waves, informal vortex elements and nervous, pointillistic flickering permeated the image world of the prints in the 19th century, in a similar temporal progression as the material world revealed itself as a dense network of physical waves, vibrations and rays of all kinds. The occult, mesmerist side of the late 19th century is entangled in these fluidal xylographic fabrics, just as much as the technical-mechanical side along with its obsessions for microscopic precision engineering and chased border ornaments.

In the evolution of a dynamic-expressive xylography, Van Gogh indeed had concrete models. When they met with like-minded engravers, sheets of quite a few of his preferred “illustrateurs” such as Sydney Prior Hall or Paul Renouard appeared, which were characterized by highly distinct and expressive print lineaments. The works of the artist Arthur Boyd Houghton, who had also worked for “Graphic” for years, reveal an astonishing closeness to Van Gogh’s late style. Van Gogh regarded him highly and – due to the ghostly qualities of his sheets – compared him with Goya. The fact that Boyd Houghton was not even worth mentioning in the catalogue of the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum, can be considered as an indication that research regarding the influence of wood engraving on Van Gogh has not progressed beyond purely motif-related analogies.

Xylographism unbound – Details of Works of Van Gogh & the Wood Engravings
from”Graphic America”, 1870 ( Boyd Houghton del. / Joseph Swain sc.)

Only at a very late point in time, starting in 1885, did Van Gogh encounter Japanese colour wood engravings, which with 300 sheets take up a considerable portion of his collection and whose influence on his painting cannot be overlooked. The great improvisational achievement of Vincent van Gogh’s work is not made up by a picturesque, emotional furor in regard to nature, but consists in a synthesis, which he created between the two large complexes of 19th-century popular graphics – the colourful spatial dissolutions of Eastern Ukyio-e woodcuts and the fluidal-kinetic abstraction of Western wood engravings.

The index of the collected correspondences of Van Gogh can be read as a “Who is Who” of those involved in international illustrated journal art of the 19th century. In regard to its achievement of systematically exploring and stylistically characterizing individual artists, it goes far beyond that which, several years later, the author and illustrator Joseph Pennell published in his survey works on the international art of illustrated journals.

In the series “Van Gogh’s Favourites”. MePri will present several draughtsmen who were especially important to the collector and artist Van Gogh: Hubert Herkomer – Arthur Boyd Houghton – Paul Renouard – Frederick Walker – Gustave Doré – Felix Regamey – Edwin Abbey & George Boughton – Georges Charles Montbard – Xavier Mellery.

In the MePri Collections:

Vincent´s choice: the Musée imaginaire of Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, 2003
Ronald Pickvance, English Influences on Vincent van Gogh, Nottingham,1974
Matthias Arnold, Van Gogh und seine Vorbilder, München 1997
Vincent van Gogh, Sämtliche Briefe, hrsg. Fritz Erpel, Berlin 1965
Frederic G. Kitton, Dickens and his Illustrators, London 1899
William Luson Thomas, The Making of the Graphic, in: Universal Review, 1888
Eric de Mare, The Victorian Woodblock Illustrators, London, 1980
Vincent van Gogh, Die Rohrfederzeichnungen, Munich 1990


[1] “Vincent´s choice: the Musée imaginaire of Van Gogh”, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, 2003

[2] “Meesterlijk uitgedruckt- Van Goghs Haagse Prentenverzameling”, Museum Mesdag, The Hague 2005

[3] Hans Luijten, “Rummaging among my woodcuts – Van Gogh and the Graphic Arts”, in: Vincent’s Choice,

ed. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 2005 / on the same topic: Ronald Pickvance, “English Influences on Vincent van Gogh“, Nottingham,1974, “Die Wirklichkeit in Black & White: englische Holzstiche” in: Matthias Arnold, “Van Gogh und seine Vorbilder”, Munich 1997

[4] 1873 -75

[5] Letter R 20, February 1883

[6] A total of  21 volumes, among them 10 volumes of  “The Graphic”

[7] De Hollandsche Illustratie

[8] L’Illustration, Le Monde Illustré, L´Universe Illustré, La Vie Moderne

[9] Illustrirte Zeitung

[10] Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly

[11] Letters 184 und  240, 1882. “South Holland café” refers to a kind of low dive. Van Gogh interprets the statement of the committee as a verdict on the alcoholism of both the readers and producers of illustrated journal art.

[12] Letter R 13, October 1882

[13] Letter  406

[14] Letter 240, November 1882

[15] “The originality of the scheme consisted in establishing a weekly illustrated journal open to all artists, whatever their method, instead in confining  my staff to draughtsmen on wood  as had been hitherto the general custom.” (W.L. Thomas, The Making of the Graphic, American Review, 1888)

[16] Letter 190, 1882

[17] Letter  140, January 1881 : “Now without in the least pretending to compare myself to those artists, still, by continuing to draw those types of working people, etc., I hope to arrive at the point of being able to illustrate papers and books.”

[18] Letter 241

[19] Hubert Herkomer, Drawing and engraving on wood, Art Journal, 1882.

[20] Letter 252

[21] Letter  252

[22] In 1889, the motif was used in the “London Illustrated News” on the occasion of Gladstone’s resignation, for example. It originally goes back to an illustration of Daniel Chodowiecki on Goethe’s “Werther” (1775 edition), where the empty desk chair is meant to symbolize Werther’s suicide.

[23] Letter R 25, February 1883

[24] Letter 229, September 1882

[25] Letter 574, dated 1/28/1889. He repeatedly describes his paintings created in Arles as “pictures like Japanese prints”. (letters 554 and 555)

[26] Letter 607 / 613

[27] Letter R17

[28] Letter  141.

[29] Letter R 30

[30] Letter 240, November 1, 1882

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