Van Gogh online: up close and personal

Marjolein Stege, Senior Collection Registrar at the Van Gogh Museum’s Collection Information Department, makes the case for what she calls ‘emotive’ terms as tags.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam houses the world’s largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh. With more than 4.5 million followers on social media, the museum is also one of the largest online museums. To stay in touch with online visitors, new tags are needed to tell the whole story of Van Gogh, of his life as an artist from a more personal, human interest point of view.

Most of our followers are fans of Vincent van Gogh. They are emotionally involved, they love Vincent and they feel connected with him. This emotion is the driving force behind the universal and global appeal of Van Gogh, and in order to further develop this involvement and to help us improve how we tell Van Gogh’s story to those who admire him all around the world, we need new terms – what I like to call ‘emotive’ terms.

But which standard or vocabulary is suitable for this? How do we integrate new emotive terms into the existing hierarchy of primarily ‘hard’ art-historical metadata? And last but no means least, how do we stay in control and avoid the evocative terms becoming, well, ‘too evocative’?

Happiness, loneliness and desire are highly subjective concepts, terms that can have a different meaning or significance to each of us, and so a degree of supervision and control is therefore required. This will also avoid a build-up of terms and reduce the risk of us no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

Consolation prize

At the Collections Trust conference in Leicester in September I made a case for exercising caution when adding emotive tags to objects, but the emotive term ‘consolation’ is a tag that I think we could use. Why? The answer to that can partly be found in the letters Van Gogh wrote.

The works shown here are all in the museum’s online collection. Van Gogh based the paintings on a ten-part series of engravings by Jean-François Millet entitled Travaux des champs (‘Work in the fields’). They are currently not tagged with the term ‘consolation’, but perhaps they should be, because from a letter he wrote to his brother, Theo, in September 1889, we know that the underlying reason for producing his own versions of the engravings in this way was to console himself, for his own pleasure.

Of course, Vincent van Gogh is best known for his art, but he was also a passionate letter writer. His letters are a crucial source of knowledge about his life and work, but they also give an insight into the artist’s driven personality and some of his trials and tribulations. In fact, letters from the last years of Van Gogh’s life make it clear that his ultimate goal was to make ‘a consolatory art for distressed hearts!’

However, academia also has a relevant contribution to make. In a publication from 2003, former Van Gogh researcher Leo Jansen wrote of the ‘significance of consolation for Van Gogh’. We can therefore safely assume that consolation is a meaningful concept when it comes to Van Gogh and his work.

Words like loneliness, hope, courage, love and happiness are often found in Vincent’s letters. These are universal, timeless themes which mean that, to this very day, Van Gogh remains a major source of inspiration to many. You simply can’t get closer to Van Gogh’s thoughts and feelings, and I’m convinced that by introducing new, carefully considered emotive terms we will be able to make new connections across Van Gogh’s entire oeuvre, in order to tell Vincent’s complete story to a substantial online audience.

Images: Left is Les travaux des champs (Work in the fields), the engravings by Jean-François Millet that inspired Van Gogh’s series of paintings. Top is Van Gogh’s Peasant woman bruising flax (after Millet), Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, September 1889, and below that is Thresher (after Millet), also Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, September 1889. All images are courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation).

This post is based on a presentation Marjolein Stege gave at the Collections Trust Conference 2019. If you’re interested in discussing emotive terms further, please contact Marjolein by email – stege@vangoghmuseum.nl – or get in touch via @MarjoleinStege