Is it really true that famous artists drop out of art school early in their careers, for reasons like lack of talent or unconventional views? Not all painters who are rejected and misunderstood later become famous names, nor are painters with a traditional academic education doomed to failure. But Van Gogh does in part fit the stereotype. He made many attempts to pursue a formal art education, but none of them lasted more than three months.
Van Gogh’s visits to the art academies in Brussels (in 1880) and Antwerp (in 1886) were relatively brief and not very successful. All we know about his time at the Brussels academy is that in the class in ‘drawing after the antique’ he was the lowest-ranked student. At the Antwerp academy he wanted to paint from live models, but after a short trial period he was told not to come back and urged to spend another year focusing on drawing, advice which he took to heart. In the intervening period in the Netherlands (1881-1885), he never took classes at an official educational institution.
Van Gogh simply did not have the time in this early period to spend years at an academy making drawings after antique models. He was no longer so young and relied on his family for financial support. His preferred way of educating himself was to seek out the company of more experienced artists, such as Anthon Mauve in The Hague. He also came up with quasi-academic assignments for himself, especially studies of the human figure. For instance, he would resolve to draw one hundred figures, or paint one hundred portrait heads.
Van Gogh’s determination to draw and paint from nude models led him first to the academy in Antwerp and then to the Paris studio of Fernand Cormon. Paris had a number of ateliers libres, studios that were like private art academies, run by successful Salon painters educated in the French academic tradition. The Atelier Cormon on Boulevard Clichy in Montmartre had a good reputation: the master painter came by once a week to evaluate the work of his students, and he was not excessively strict. This was the school where Van Gogh remained longest, approximately three months, from March to June 1886. It was his last attempt to obtain a formal education.
Fernand Cormon, c. 1910-15. ‘Cormon was a sharp-featured little man, dark-haired, with the quick movements of a small bird, which he somehow resembled,’ according to the Scottish artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, who spent time at the studio in 1886-1887, after Van Gogh had left.
An impression of the Atelier Cormon, a watercolour by this same Hartrick (based in part on a photograph). Hartrick met Van Gogh through a mutual friend, the Australian artist John Peter Russell, who was also working in Cormon’s studio and is shown here at the piano (wearing a black hat). At front left is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who also became friends with Van Gogh. Hartrick published his recollections of Cormon, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and others in 1939.