Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vincent's Crabs

Let’s start out easy, with an artist almost everyone is familiar with:

Vincent van Gogh

While I could have chosen this . . . or this . . .

or this, or this, or this . . .

I chose Two Crabs, a relatively little known work most scholars think was painted in 1889.

Two Crabs, 1889, oil on canvas, 47 x 61cm.

I first saw Two Crabs while in London visiting the National Gallery in 2007. While it was a small piece surrounded by legendary Post-Impressionist paintings, its intense color and careful sense of modeling pulled me in. I spent the rest of my visit lurking behind a group of toddlers who had plopped themselves down in front of the object of my desire.

Since then, I’ve done some research into the history of the painting and have come to have a deeper appreciation of the insights it offers into van Gogh’s life and emotional state. While some scholars, perhaps correctly, believe van Gogh painted Two Crabs between 1887 and 1888, I’m going to stick with the 1889 date because it makes for a better story. Plus, there are letters and possible Japanese influences that suggest 1889 anyway.

But to get to Two Crabs’s significance, we need to back up a little first. Van Gogh had spent the last months of 1888 living and working with fellow Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. He had hopes of founding a utopian artists’ collective, but his health and relationship with Gauguin quickly deteriorated. In December, he was taken to the Arles hospital after what I will only refer to as “the Ear Incident.” (“The Ear Incident” is a whole ‘nother story, shrouded in legend. I’ll leave you to look it up on your own.)

We think van Gogh painted Two Crabs right after his release from this hospital. He’d gone through a traumatic experience, but, as he explained in a letter to his brother Theo, he was ready to “get back into the habit of painting.”

It’s this transition period that Two Crabs captures so well. Its composition is made up of vibrant hatching brushstrokes that fancy-shmancy art history people call “taches.” The crabs’ crisp edges and van Gogh’s juxtaposition of complementary colors make it seem like the scene could move. The green, sea-like background undulates while the upper crab flails its legs. With the ground tipped almost vertically, the crabs look like they could tumble out of the painting at any second. Whether intentional or not, van Gogh was in effect illustrating his own tumultuous and uncertain situation at the time.

Crab on its Back, 1888, oil on canvas, 38 x 46.5cm.

That a similar painting exists showing only one crab suggests that van Gogh may have painted the crabs in Two Crabs from the same model. With this in mind, the painting's message could be hope for the future. On top, the crab, like van Gogh, struggles to get on its feet again. On the bottom, it has recovered itself, overcoming its recent crisis.


  1. Well, I just learned a crap ton about something I didn't know existed. Keep up the good work!