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Vincent van Gogh, Factories at Clichy, 1887. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 28 5/8 in. (53.7 x 72.7 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum. Funds given by Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg by exchange. Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum, 579:1958.

Nature and Artifice: A Portrait of Vincent van Gogh Not Seen Before

David Ebony interviews Michael Lobel, author of Van Gogh and the End of Nature

In his latest book, Van Gogh and the End of Nature, author Michael Lobel situates Vincent van Gogh in the midst of the industrial era in 19th-century Europe, and explores the artist’s often fraught relationship to that period. For most art lovers, Van Gogh, the myth, is the guru of nature worship, reflecting in his famous paintings and drawings an emotional and passionate homage to nature in its purest form. Without sacrificing any reverence for the unparalleled achievement of this beloved artist, Lobel examines the life and work of Van Gogh from the viewpoint of our own times, and especially, in terms of our present preoccupation with climate change and the precarious state of the environment. Recently, I met Lobel via Zoom to explore his revelatory pragmatic study of this most spiritual of artists.    

David Ebony The title of the book, Van Gogh and the End of Nature is kind of startling, maybe suggesting something apocalyptic. How did you come up with the idea for the book, and the title? 

Michael Lobel Like many people, l thought I understood Van Gogh, and that there wasn’t much left to say about him. But I happened to be in Paris some years ago, and a friend mentioned that she and her husband had visited the gravesite of Vincent and his brother Theo at Auvers-sur-Oise. She said that they both burst into tears when they saw the graves. I thought they were being overly sentimental. So, at one point when I was in Paris—this was before the pandemic—I went to Auvers-sur-Oise early on a Saturday morning, and there was almost no one around. There was a fog enshrouding the town. I walked up the hill and past the church, which is well known from one of Van Gogh’s paintings. I went to the graves and stood there, and I found myself in tears as well. I was profoundly moved. So, I began to get interested in Van Gogh again. I started by writing a book about Van Gogh—about a single painting by him.

Ebony What was the painting?

Lobel I’d rather not say, because I’d still like to work on that project. But it is about an early painting, and not very well known—from his Dutch period. Then I started another book, about the unknown Van Gogh, organized according to the places he had lived: The Hague, Paris, Arles, and elsewhere. The chapter on his time in Arles kept getting longer and longer. I eventually realized it was a book unto itself, and that was the genesis of this project. I had no intention of writing about Van Gogh in relation to industrial pollution and climate change. But the material kept presenting itself to me in a way that made it clear that there were significant connections between Van Gogh and what we’re seeing in our world in terms of current environmental realities. As for the title, it relates to a book by the environmentalist Bill McKibben called The End of Nature, which he wrote in the late 1980s. It’s a kind of prelude to what we’re confronting right now with climate change. It’s an important book for people who study the environment. And McKibben traces a lot of these problems back to the 19th century, and Van Gogh’s time. You mentioned apocalyptic, but for me the “end of nature” suggests the limits of how we think about the definition of nature in relation to Van Gogh’s work.

Ebony You have a funny anecdote in the introduction about how you were kind of responding to the clichés about Van Gogh capturing “the soul of nature,” and things like that.

Lobel Now that this is my fourth book, I feel like I may be leaning more into my essential personality, which is perhaps a little bit grouchy or dyspeptic.

Ebony Wait till you get to be my age.

Lobel I was reading a piece by a scholar about a painting Van Gogh made in The Hague in the early 1880s, and he describes it as the artist “capturing the soul of nature.” I always say to my students that when we look at works of art, we really should try to confront what is actually in them. In keeping with that principle, my book’s epigraph is a George Orwell quote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” When you look at the particular Van Gogh work that writer characterizes as capturing the soul of nature, it’s actually an image in which nature or natural elements are being played off against industrial structures. There’s a railway depot, there’s a locomotive, there are gas lamps. There’s actually a railway signalman, who Van Gogh talks about in one of his letters. And so, for me, this was the kernel of what I was trying to get at in the book, which is, let’s go back and actually look at these artworks. The book is an attempt to point out to people that Van Gogh often plays nature off against industry in his work. That’s a basic premise of this project.

Vincent van Gogh, Pollard Willow, 1882. Watercolor, gouache, and pen and ink on paper, 14 7/8 x 21 7/8 in. (37.7 x 56.2 cm).

Ebony: You present a kind of proposal for an exhibition, “Van Gogh and Smokestacks,” with thirty-plus major paintings, and I don’t know how many drawings. You start out focused on the word “nature” itself, the complexity of the word. Can you just say a little bit about that?

Lobel In the literature on Van Gogh, there is a lot of discussion about his use of the term “nature” in his letters. Van Gogh is a fascinating artist to write about because of the letters he left behind, an incredible body of correspondence we can use to glean information about his pictures. And we can try to get a sense of his state of mind from the letters, although as a professional art historian I’m skeptical about some of those claims. But at least you have this vivid record, in which he writes a lot about his encounters with the natural world. The issue is that if you read scholars and theorists of the environment on the idea of nature, you begin to realize it’s a very complicated notion. When I went back to Van Gogh’s letters, I started realizing that it’s not just about this artist going out into the fields and communing with natural forms. He’s thinking about nature in different ways. There are times he even evokes the domination of nature, very distinct from how we ordinarily think about him. So that was my way of setting the groundwork for rethinking and reconsidering what nature may have meant to Van Gogh.

Ebony And you bring Bill McKibben into the discussion early on. You talk about his ideas about acid rain decades ago, and many other environmentalist terms we take for granted now. But you did not intend to approach this as a view to the current climate crisis? I actually think it is going to be a big part of the book’s appeal.   

Lobel I began researching and reading about Van Gogh, looking at his works closely, and I worked on the book over the course of a number of years. I made study visits to the Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, among others. At the outset, I had no intention of doing what the book eventually became, but it grew clearer and clearer that there were elements in his work that resonate with what we’re going through right now in terms of climate crisis—or, according to some, a climate emergency. Right now, for instance, as we speak, there’s an enormous heat dome over large parts of the United States.

I think that to portray Vincent van Gogh as someone who was living amidst nature while somehow completely sidestepping industrialization is to misrepresent his actual historical circumstances. One of the goals of the book is to place him within the context of the industrial era in which he was living. My proposal for the “Van Gogh: Smokestacks” exhibition seems kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I was absolutely sincere about it. You could easily put together an exhibition of something like 35 to 45 Van Gogh works featuring smokestacks. One of my biggest hopes for the book is to make Van Gogh more relevant for a contemporary audience.

Vincent van Gogh, Outskirts of Paris, View from Montmartre, 1887. Gouache, crayon, pencil, and ink on paper, 15 ½ x 21 in. (39.5 x 53.5 cm). Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Ebony You organize the book so nicely, with chapter headings: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Color. You start out with the topic of air—hence the smokestacks and the theme of air pollution. You say that the smoky emissions from the smokestacks and the trains hold as much interest for Van Gogh as the clouds. Art audiences who love those clouds, like all of us, do tend to ignore those smokestack plumes. You also talk about other innovations and inventions of the period, like nationally synchronized clocks to facilitate train schedules, and how important that was for Van Gogh.   

Lobel I think once we start placing Van Gogh back within that historical context, we realize all sorts of new things about him, his world, and his work. In the first chapter, I write about Joseph Roulin, an important person for Van Gogh in Arles in 1888, who is usually referred to as the postman Roulin. Van Gogh befriends Roulin and his family and paints their portraits. But he was not a conventional letter carrier. He represented the railway, in that he worked for the railway post. He signals the importance of the railroad in Van Gogh’s world.  

Ebony Yes, it becomes rather emotional in the way Roulin represented for Van Gogh a connection to his brother Theo, and to travels, to his past, and to distant places and times.

Lobel Well you can consider Van Gogh’s whole life as really being based on access to transportation. He goes from place to place via train, and in a way, it becomes the kind of basis of his career. It was railway travel in the age of coal—which meant a dependence on fossil fuels and all the attendant pollution.

Vincent van Gogh, Bridges across the Seine at Asnières, 1887. Oil on canvas, 21 x 26 in. (53.5 x 67 cm). Emil Bührle Collection, on long-term loan to the Kunsthaus Zürich. Photo: Kunsthaus Zürich.

Ebony I jotted down your quote from the book, “What counts as nature often depends on whose viewpoint you are considering.”

Lobel Absolutely. That’s a quote about Monet’s water lilies and gardens in Giverny. Monet’s was a completely artificial garden in a way, with imported foreign plants that some people objected to at the time; local farmers were worried about run-off, and what impact the gardens might have on the local environment.

Ebony You bring into it a fascinating discussion of the work of the scientist John Aitken.

Lobel: So, in addition to looking really closely at Van Gogh’s art, I also wanted to connect him to scientific figures of the period who were dealing with pollution. Aitken was a Scottish scientist and inventor who visited the south of France around the same time as Van Gogh. He was studying pollutants in the air that he referred to as “dust,” but we could also refer to it as particulate matter. He develops an important device called a dust counter. It was one of the earliest devices designed to measure particulate matter in the atmosphere.  

Ebony And he comes up with these horrific statistics, like 200 tons of sulfur that were being released into the atmosphere every day.   

Lobel Right. It was just my way of demonstrating to the reader that in Van Gogh’s time there was a growing awareness of pollution, and potential climate change. In the chapter on water and water pollution, I look deeply into the Netherlands and how there was a widespread public awareness of water pollution from industrial sources even in that period.

Ebony At the same time, though, you say that Aitken and Van Gogh were not proto-environmentalists.

Lobel I think that they both had sort of ambiguous or ambivalent relationships to what they were seeing in the world. At that point, it was not entirely clear as to what the environmental impact of these emissions from trains or smokestacks might be.

Ebony In the chapter on fire, you talk about Van Gogh’s relationship with illumination, which is also a serious source of pollution. He complained that there were not enough gas lamps in Arles.

Lobel There’s been a good amount of writing on Van Gogh and illumination. There was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art a number of years ago, in 2008, called “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night.” It was evident to me that there was more to be said about his interest in gaslight; and gaslight was again a revolutionary introduction for the 19th century. It was powered by coal gas, so again, we’re back to the use of fossil fuels. It was something that Van Gogh was fascinated by, like a number of artists at the time. I just wanted people to understand that when you look at a picture like The Starry Night, which is obviously one of his most iconic works, it is not just about natural light sources, but rather the relationship between artificial and natural forms of illumination.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhône, 1888. Oil on canvas, 28 ½ x 36 ¼ in. (72.5 x 92 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY; Hervé Lewandowski.

Ebony In another chapter of the book, Color, you discuss arsenic green, and other toxic chemical compounds in the pigments that Van Gogh and other artists used at the time.

Lobel What I tried to do in the chapter on Color is to point out that many people tend to think about color as derived from naturally occurring elements. But, in fact, in Van Gogh’s time there was an accelerating introduction of artificial pigments, and many of those pigments were either poisonous or had very detrimental environmental impacts.

Ebony You mentioned coal-tar colors. What are those?

Lobel As the name suggests, those were pigments derived from a byproduct of coal processing called coal tar. It was this viscous, dark substance. It was initially viewed as just kind of a waste product. But scientists in the 19th century began to realize that it could be the source of numerous and varied materials; it was actually the origin of everything from aspirin to the explosive TNT, as well as these incredible new colors. And among other applications they started using coal-tar pigments as food additives, to boost the color of tomatoes, and even wine. Van Gogh was one of numerous artists who incorporated coal-tar pigments in their work. Now the problem is, you know, it’s a matter of short-term goals versus long-term consequences. Van Gogh writes in some of his letters that he recognizes that some of his pigments are unstable, but he uses them anyway, and the result is that in many of his paintings what we see now is very different than how he painted them. The colors have shifted and faded. Again, I’m not making an argument that Vincent van Gogh was somehow a proponent of coal tar. I’m saying that there was an underlying—and often overlooked—industrial basis of his life and his art that actually impacts how we see his work today. That is one of the book’s main goals.

Michael Lobel is professor of art history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.

David Ebony is a New York-based critic and curator, a longtime contributing editor of Art in America, and the author of numerous artists’ monographs.   

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