Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Van Gogh the lefty--verified!

I posted several weeks ago about my reasons for portraying Van Gogh as a lefthander in my novel. My choice was based solely on Van Gogh's personality profile, backed up by my amateur's knowledge of the theories of handedness. (And, admittedly, some personal projection, as I myself am lefthanded.) What a pleasant surprise then to receive an email from Svend Hendriksen, a Danish gentleman currently living in Greenland, who has looked into the question of Van Gogh's handedness with considerable attention. Svend tells me I'm right: Van Gogh was undoubtedly a lefthander! And the evidence can be found in the paintings themselves. Svend calls my attention most particularly to an 1888 self-portrait by Van Gogh. (That's it over there). Notice that Van Gogh holds his palette in his right hand, indicating that he paints with his left. Now many would (and do) look at the portrait and say that since Van Gogh must have employed a mirror while painting the picture, what we see is a mirror (that is, reversed) image of the man. Thus, they conclude, he painted with his right hand. And Svend reports that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam does describe Van Gogh as being righthanded. However, Svend points out that the button on Van Gogh's coat is on the same side as the palette he holds, and on men's coats of the period this button would have always been situated on the right side. In other words, this evidence suggests that Van Gogh in real life, not just in the portrait, held the palette with his right hand. It's perfectly possible that for the sake of his painting he corrected the reversed image to show the world how he really worked: with his left. From what I know of Van Gogh generally, it is not hard to imagine him being stubborn on this point.

Svend has passed along a number of other interesting tidbits about Van Gogh, for instance that photographs of the man's paint box reveal that he kept it quite full. As Svend says, it's "a huge volume for a poor man's palette." Well, certainly paint was dear, an expense that Van Gogh avoided for years by concentrating solely on his drawing. But when he began painting he sacrificed almost everything else--food included--to keep himself supplied. And looking at his effusive, glorious pictures, especially from the Paris and Arles periods, it certainly looks as if he operated with a full box. Svend's comments make intuitive sense.

Svend, by the way, was not trained as an art historian but as an explosives engineer. He served for years in the Danish army. Yet he now brings his mechnical know-how to the study of paintings. His story reminds me of a phenomenon that I find profound: There is something about Van Gogh--his story, his paintings, his personality--that draws people to him like a magnet. Not only professional art historians but informed amateur sleuths and everyday idlers alike. For instance, the man who owns the house at which I stay when I visit Arles, a science teacher and devoted amateur astronomer, has done considerable work studying Van Gogh's use of constellations in his night paintings. He has even advised academics from America on the matter. Amazing how this Dutch painter, who struggled so and was so little known in his lifetime, has attacted and keeps attracting such a broad, enthusiastic audience. Perhaps this simply proves that Van Gogh knew exactly what he was doing all along: painting not for his time but the future. Indeed.


  1. Everyone should consider at least reading Dr. Lubin's book; "A Stranger on the Earth. A brilliant piece of work which makes a psychological assessment of Van Gogh throughout his lifetime. A Stranger on the Earth is a good title for a book about a man (Vincent) who may have had a hard time being accepted by others;constantly fighting rejection which he experienced early in life; and who may have felt very different from others. Perhaps he transferred those feelings onto his canvases. For example, an early 1885 painting which he created has two left shoes resting side by side. Now two left shoes do not make a pair in the classical sense. They are both shoes- they are both for the same purpose- but if you look closely they do not really go together...and if you try the pair on...well one shoe will simply not feel quite right or even fit. So here is a good exaple of the "left" argument. Maybe Vincent was trying to tell us something----maybe that two of the same is not si good...maybe the real "fit" comes when there is a difference.
    Now look at another painting- the one of two young men shoveling the earth. Both of those young men's right hands are gripping the lower shaft of the shovel and thus providing the scooping motion. Then look again... both of those same men's left hands are placed on the upper grip where the force comes from whilst shoveling. Note, this is not just one man using a lefthanded approach to shoveling-but rather both men.
    So what's the point? Well the whole "left hand thing" need some further scholarly attention. I would prefer to go by what Van Gogh himself painted with his self portraits rather than the likes of Gauguin and that painting of Vincent painting sunflowers with his right hand hyper extended. By the way...the sunflower painting that Vincent is painting in Gauguin's work...was that particular sunflower painting made prior to Gauguin's arrival at the Yellow House???? Is the timing right for when Vincent painted the original painting to that of the time when Gauguin painted his work of Vincent. Finally, Russell's painting is a great work...but did Vincent sit for it or was it done from memory? Lots of questions which are hard to be 100 percent certain about unless written or painted by Vincent. Now please don't get too excited here...I am asking questions, not making any claim with certainty.
    I think Mr. Hendriksen's observation about Vincent being left handed needs to be really explored as well as the whole- and often subtle- left hand/sided reference in several of his paintings....I tried the "mirror" argument that I have read about and it does not work in the instances where Vincent is using his right hand to hold the palette...Hendriksen is right....the coat(s) that Vincent are wearing button to the right side under, and into the left hand side...and whilst at the same time the palette is being held in right hand, and in more than one painting.
    At the end of the day...we may discover that Vincent was neither right handed nor was he left handed....rather he was BOTH- and could use them interchangeably depending on the task. One thing is for certain- the "left" must be investigated further.

  2. Thank you very much for your input, Stuart. Lots to think about. Btw, Van Gogh painted the Sunflower series before Gauguin arrived in Arles, as a way of decorating the Yellow House for Gauguin. The letters he wrote surrounding Gauguin's arrival paint a fascinating picture about his attitude toward, and idea of, the man. So, anyway, no you can't assume that Gauguin's painting of Vincent painting is in any way "straight." Almost nothing Gauguin did was straightforward, in my opinion. G. was a great artist but a liar and manipulator. There I go with my anti-Gauguin bias, not an unusual phenomenon among Van Gogh admirers. Your idea about Van Gogh possibly being ambidextrous seems perfectly possible, and psychologically it makes a kind of sense too. He did what he had to to get the work done; maybe that meant painting with both hands! (Not at the same time, of course.)

  3. Van gogh is not a lefthanded. He looks like lefty is because he painted himself by looking in the mirror. Please look at his painting 'self portrait with bandaged ear. You can see his injured ear was the right ear. But in fact, it was the left ear.

  4. I was looking at his 5th painting of the Olive Grove tonight at the Minneapolis Institute of Art's Delacroix Influences and I'd have to conclude that he was a righty. When I stood to the very right of the painting, his painting marks are very deep and the painting and colors look very different in the way they catch the natural light on those edges. As I walked to the front and then to the very left the painted looked more muted. He was very heavy handed with that right.

  5. The comment of KIKI - Van Gogh's left ear was cut off then Van Gogh being lefty couldn't do this. I am lefty and it would be all most impossible to cut my left ear off. The right ear would be possible. With all the hand gestures in Van Gogh's paintings such as the shovels and palette's-it all points to Van Gogh's was lefty and innocence of cutting his ear off.

  6. Was van Gogh a left handed painter?

    If he wasn't why would he produce so many self portraits looking like lefty. Portraits for people to see.

    And how many self portraits from other artists show right handed painters...are these people all left handed painters because they used a mirror.

    Maybe Gaugan painted van Gogh from memory because it does't look like him

  7. Hi John,
    I am into a revised draft on a film script on Vincent & am interested in sending you an email & talking further. I'm interested in what you would have to say to a few things I'm finding out and believe.