Repetitions for reproduction and refinement, repetitions for reinforcement and retention

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the most popular painters of the nineteenth century, known for his use of vivid colors and bold strokes. He is also known to have created many “repetitions” such as the two versions of “Le Moulin de la Galette” (1886) and two versions of “Pink Peach Trees” (1888). As for the postman Joseph Roulin and his family, van Gogh did six oil paintings and three drawings of Joseph Moulin (1888-1889), painted five portraits of Madame Augustine Roulin (1888-1889), two portraits of Camille Roulin (1888), their second son, and three portraits of Baby Marcelle Roulin (1888). An exhibition called Van Gogh Repetitions (at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. October 12, 2013 - January 26, 2014, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art, March 2 - May 26, 2014) takes a look at this fascinating aspect of van Gogh’s work, bringing together these and other repetitions.

Why did van Gogh create these repetitions? Before answering this question, we need first to clarify the meaning of “repetitions”. Patricia Mainardi, an art historian and a specialist on nineteenth-century art, defines “repetitions” as “additional versions of a work made by the same artist after his own work.”1 According to this definition, van Gogh certainly created many repetitions. Why did he create them, then? Why was it necessary for him to create more than one landscape painting of a scene and more than one portrait of a person?

According to art historians who have looked into this question, van Gogh usually did the first version on site, which he called “etudes d’apres nature” (studies from nature), and created the second and other versions later in the studio after the first model. In the case of portraits, the first version was made with a person sitting as a model before creating the second and other versions in the studio. What distinguishes the later versions done in the studio from the initial version done on site or with a model is that they are more elaborate and more refined, as William H. Robinson points out in his essay included in Van Gogh Repetitions.2 In the second version of “Pink Peach Trees”, for example, van Gogh added more trees and painted with finer and more uniform strokes. Thus, van Gogh did repetitions not only to reproduce copies of the initial version in the studio to exchange them with other artists or to give them as gifts to his model sitters but also to refine it with variations in the colors and compositions and with more careful and elaborate use of brushstrokes. In short, repetitions are, in the case of van Gogh, for reproduction and refinement.

Creating repetitions, to the extent that it is motivated by the desire to improve on and refine the initial version of one’s work, can be considered an act of constant practice, an act of making oneself a better artist. Aside from artistic creation, we all know that “repetitions” play an important role in the context of education as an effective method of instruction, whether in schools or monasteries. In fact, we may recall how the Buddha appealed to the frequent use of repetitions in his discourses to his monks. For example, in his discourses on the Five Aggregates, the Buddha repeats what he says about “form” with respect to the other four factors of “feeling”, “perception”, “volitional formations”, and “consciousness”, using the same expression: “Monks, form is nonself. For if, monks, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to determine form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is nonself, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to determine form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ Feeling is nonself. … Perception is nonself. …Volitional formations are nonself. …Consciusness is nonself. …”3, where “…” indicates repetitions, except that form is replaced by feeling in the second repetition, by perception in the third, volitional formations in the fourth, and consciousness in the fifth. Of course, the Buddha could have said: “Monks, what I said about form also applies to feeling, to perception, to volitional formations, and to consciousness.” Apparently, he did not say so, judging from the way his discourses are recorded in the Nikayas. Why not, then? Why did the Buddha have to repeat the same message five times?

Considering that his teaching was done only in the form of oral transmission, it is not difficult to see why the Buddha appealed to repetitions in his discourses: as a teacher, the Buddha wanted to make sure that his students, or monks, were getting the message he wanted to convey to them by repeating it over and over again to emphasize the important points that need to be understood and learned. Indeed, we may recall how the Buddha often prefaced his discourses with these words: “Listen and attend closely to what I shall say.” For the Buddha, repetitions thus served as an effective teaching device. In short, repetitions are, in the case of the Buddha, are for reinforcement and retention.

While there are differences between van Gogh and the Buddha as to how and why repetitions were employed, there is little doubt that repetitions have an important role to play in art as well as in education. Given the fact that both van Gogh and the Buddha employed repetitions effectively, we may wonder if there is any possible link, or commonality, between them. Although his father was a minister and he himself wanted to become one at one stage in his early life, there is little information as to whether van Gogh was interested in Buddhism. Unlike Odilon Redon (1840-1916) whose portrait of the Buddha is well known among art lovers, van Gogh is not known to have created a portrait of the Buddha. If there were any possible link between them, it would have to be among his portraits of other individuals. One candidate is the second version of “Pere Tanguy”, which William Robinson describes as follows: “The owner of an art supply store and meeting place for assorted Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Tanguy appears in both paintings sitting calmly and stoically with folded hands, as if assuming the meditative pose of a Buddha.”4 As one whose life was filled with pain and suffering, could van Gogh be depicting his image of serenity that comes from meditative practice in this portrait?

  1.  Minardi, Patricia, “The 19th-Cnetury Art Trade: Copies, Variations, Replicas”, Van Gogh Museum Journal, 2000, p.68.
  2. William H. Robinson, “On the Origin and Evolution of Van Gogh’s Repetitions”, Rathbone, Eliza E., Robinson, William H., Steele, Elizabeth, and Steele, Marcia, Van Gogh Repetitions, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013, pp.16-39.
  3. Samyutta Nikaya 22:59, as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
  4. Van Gogh Repetitions, op.cit., p.24.