In August 1882 Theo gave Vincent money to buy materials for working en plein air. Vincent wrote that he could now "go on painting with new vigour". From early 1883 he worked on multi-figure compositions. He had some of them photographed, but when his brother remarked that they lacked liveliness and freshness, he destroyed them and turned to oil painting. Van Gogh turned to well-known Hague School artists like Weissenbruch and Blommers, and received technical advice from them, as well as from painters like De Bock and Van der Weele, both of the Hague School's second generation. When he moved to Nuenen after the period in Drenthe he began several large paintings but destroyed most of them. The Potato Eaters and its companion pieces are the only ones to have survived. Following a visit to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh wrote of his admiration for the quick, economical brushwork of the Dutch Masters, especially Rembrandt and Frans Hals.[note 12] He was aware that many of his faults were due to lack of experience and technical expertise, so in November 1885 he travelled to Antwerp and later Paris to learn and develop his skills.
Van Gogh drew, and painted with watercolours while at school, but only a few examples survive and the authorship of some has been challenged. When he took up art as an adult, he began at an elementary level. In early 1882, his uncle, Cornelis Marinus, owner of a well-known gallery of contemporary art in Amsterdam, asked for drawings of The Hague. Van Gogh's work did not live up to expectations. Marinus offered a second commission, specifying the subject matter in detail, but was again disappointed with the result. Van Gogh persevered; he experimented with lighting in his studio using variable shutters, and with different drawing materials. For more than a year he worked on single figures – highly elaborate studies in black and white,[note 11] which at the time gained him only criticism. Later, they were recognised as early masterpieces.
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They contain a wide array of physiognomical representations. Van Gogh's mental and physical condition is usually apparent; he may appear unkempt, unshaven or with a neglected beard, with deeply sunken eyes, a weak jaw, or having lost teeth. Some show him with full lips, a long face or prominent skull, or sharpened, alert features. His hair may be the usual red, or at times ash coloured.
There have been numerous debates as to the nature of Van Gogh's illness and its effect on his work, and many retrospective diagnoses have been proposed. The consensus is that Van Gogh had an episodic condition with periods of normal functioning. Perry was the first to suggest bipolar disorder in 1947, and this has been supported by the psychiatrists Hemphill and Blumer. Biochemist Wilfred Arnold has countered that the symptoms are more consistent with acute intermittent porphyria, noting that the popular link between bipolar disorder and creativity might be spurious. Temporal lobe epilepsy with bouts of depression has also been suggested. Whatever the diagnosis, his condition was likely worsened by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia and alcohol.
Limited access to life outside the clinic resulted in a shortage of subject matter. Van Gogh instead worked on interpretations of other artist's paintings, such as Millet's The Sower and Noonday Rest, and variations on his own earlier work. Van Gogh was an admirer of the Realism of Jules Breton, Gustave Courbet and Millet, and he compared his copies to a musician's interpreting Beethoven.
Van Gogh made several painting excursions during visits to the landscape around Arles. He made paintings of harvests, wheat fields and other rural landmarks of the area, including The Old Mill (1888); a good example of a picturesque structure bordering the wheat fields beyond. At various points, Van Gogh painted the view from his window – at The Hague, Antwerp, and Paris. These works culminated in The Wheat Field series, which depicted the view from his cells in the asylum at Saint-Rémy.
In December 1888 he painted La Berceuse – a figure that he thought as good as his sunflowers. It has a limited palette, varied brushstrokes and simple contours. It appears to be a culmination of portraits of the Roulin family completed in Arles between November and December. The portraits show a shift in style from the fluid, restrained brushstrokes and even surface of Portrait of the Postman to the frenetic style, rough surface, broad brushstrokes and use of a palette knife in Madame Roulin with Baby.
In 1892 Émile Bernard organised a small solo show of Van Gogh's paintings in Paris, and Julien Tanguy exhibited his Van Gogh paintings with several consigned from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In April 1894 the Durand-Rue Gallery in Paris agreed to take 10 paintings on consignment from Van Gogh's estate. In 1896, the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited John Peter Russell on Belle Île off Brittany. Russell had been a close friend of Van Gogh; he introduced Matisse to the Dutchman's work, and gave him a Van Gogh drawing. Influenced by Van Gogh, Matisse abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright colours.