LONDON — We like to think of Vincent van Gogh as a creature of the elements: buffeted by the wind and rain, or going mad in the sunflower fields under the wilting Provençal sun.
But here’s another, just as valid, idea of van Gogh: comfortable, middle-class Vincent in a top hat and coat, commuting to work in Victorian London, and spending his weekends rowing on the Thames, or strolling in Kensington Gardens.
That was, indeed, van Gogh in his early 20s, when he moved to London from his native Netherlands to work for the international art dealing firm Goupil & Cie. as an assistant in their branch in the Covent Garden district.
Van Gogh didn’t make a single painting in London, but as “Van Gogh and Britain,” a new exhibition at Tate Britain makes clear, his time in the British capital had an enduring impact on his work.
The exhibition, which opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 11, offers us a vision of van Gogh as a thinker who absorbed the cultural influences around him, especially 19th-century English literature, and often used references from British illustrations, prints and paintings in his work.
“Looking at his work through his relationship with Britain brings into the foreground his amazing intellectual curiosity,” said Carol Jacobi, the lead curator of the show.
Recent research into lesser-known chapters of van Gogh’s life, such as his time in Britain, have provided us with a more well-rounded image of the artist, slowly replacing the old vision of a wild man whose art came directly from the soul — though it will take a long time to shift that idea, said Sjraar van Heugten, an independent van Gogh art historian and curator based in Belgium.
“It’s entirely clear that van Gogh was not the completely spontaneous painter who worked very fast, almost without thinking,” said Mr. van Heugten in an interview. “He read very widely: literature as well as popular science. If you carefully study his work, the image arises of a man who carefully thinks about his works and prepares.”
Van Gogh got his job in London at the Goupil gallery through family connections in the Netherlands. Both Vincent and his brother Theo worked first in the firm’s branch in The Hague, and about the same time that Theo moved to the Brussels branch, Vincent was sent to London. They both ended up working in the Paris headquarters, but although Theo rose through the gallery’s ranks, Vincent was fired a couple of years later.
“It’s really interesting to think of van Gogh as having this commercial chapter to his life,” said Ms. Jacobi. “He started to work at Goupil he was 16, and he was sent to the London branch when he was only 20, all alone in this massive city. His letters home were very enthusiastic about the art he was seeing.”
Mr. van Heugten said of van Gogh’s time at the gallery, “That’s where he got to know about the artists of his time. He saw the prints and paintings at Goupil, he got to discuss art with the art dealers, and because of Goupil, he got to live in cities with museums.”
“That’s where he got to know about the artists of his time,” said Mr. van Heugten of van Gogh’s time at the gallery. “He saw the prints and paintings at Goupil, he got to discuss art with the art dealers, and because of Goupil, he got to live in cities with museums.”
Van Gogh lived in London from May 1873 to December 1876, first at a boardinghouse in what he described as, “a quiet, convivial, nice-looking neighborhood” (which is still unknown), before moving to 87 Hackford Road, in Brixton, then a middle-class suburb on the city’s outskirts, where he lived with a widow and her teenage daughter. Later, he moved to another lodging house, on nearby Kennington Road.
When he wasn’t working in the gallery, much of his free time in London was spent frequenting art museums such as the British Museum, the Wallace Collection and the National Gallery, where he had his first exposure to English painters, such as John Constable and John Everett Millais.
“English art didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it,” Vincent wrote to Theo in July 1873. “There are some good painters here, though, including Millais,” whom he mentioned 17 times in his letters. By January 1874, he wrote a list of some 40 artists whose work he’d admired in London.
Tate Britain has assembled some of the particular works he mentioned, such as Millais’s “Chill October” 1870, a bleak image of wild brush and windswept trees under a temperamental sky, which van Gogh may have used as the inspiration for his work, “Autumn Landscape at Dusk,” from 1885, also in the show.
We also see how the flickering lamps along the foggy Thames in James Abbott Whistler’s “Nocturne: Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge” may have influenced van Gogh’s glimmering gaslights and their aqueous reflections in the 1888 painting “Starry Night,” on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, depicting a view of the Rhone in Arles.
“Most of the juxtapositions in the exhibition between van Gogh and the work that he admired are kind of more like conversations,” said Ms. Jacobi. “You can see that he’s taking ideas and running with them.”
Van Gogh eventually became “disillusioned with the commercial world” said Ms. Jacobi: His lack of enthusiasm for the London post was noticed, and he was fired from Goupil in 1876. He stayed in Britain for several more months, taking a few teaching jobs, before returning home to the Netherlands for Christmas, where he decided he wanted to pursue a career as a preacher.
Van Gogh probably had no idea during his time in London that he would start painting, at last, in early 1881. It wasn’t until late in his life that the wilder van Gogh began to emerge — in the south of France, where he struggled with mental illness and painted almost a canvas a day.
So, did van Gogh turn from one sort of man to another?
“For me there’s not really a contradiction,” said Nienke Bakker, the curator of van Gogh paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, “because he came from a background where there was art and literature all around him, he was raised in an art gallery in a way. This was his upbringing, and he took all that with him when he became an artist and moved away from what we like to call the ‘civilized world.’”
Van Gogh’s later works were made with “all this knowledge and these images in his head,” she said.
Given what came later in van Gogh’s life — the tragedy of his illness and premature death at age 37, after just 10 years as a painter — it’s comforting to walk through “Van Gogh and Britain” and consider this peaceful, youthful period of the artist’s life, when he was busy absorbing the culture and sights of London.
“Things are going well for me here,” he wrote to Theo from London in January 1874. “I have a wonderful home and it’s a great pleasure for me to observe London and the English way of life and the English themselves, and I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?”