Research Recap

Alex Weintraub: Material and Technical Supports of Vincent van Gogh’s Paintings


Alex Weintraub is a PhD candidate in Art History and Archaeology.

What drew you to your subject or discipline?
I became an art historian in order to explore and explain the challenges artists face in their attempts to make meaningful, beautiful, or otherwise significant art. In addition to being a historical enterprise, art history also has longstanding critical tradition that I find appealing. By critical, I mean art history’s evaluative dimension—for instance, why one work should be considered particularly accomplished and another less so. This lends itself to passionate and personal modes of argumentation, and has resulted in some incredibly creative ways of thinking.

Describe your research.
My thesis examines the material and technical supports of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings—his art’s media. These include painting’s most literal supports (canvas and stretchers) as well as some far less obvious ones, such as postage and transportation infrastructures. I arrived at this project after noticing Van Gogh’s persistent tendency to represent and reflect upon these supports within his work (at least within his most interesting work) in ways that have yet to be explored fully. Like so many modernists, Van Gogh believed, as he explained to his mother in a letter from 1890, that “painting is something in itself.” I believe that his various engagements with his medium’s media were ways for him to understand just what exactly painting was and could be.

When I first started graduate school, I would never have thought I would work on an artist like Van Gogh, for whom there is already a massive amount of literature. The impulse to pursue this project was the result of my returning to the incisive analyses of Van Gogh by a former Columbia professor, the late Meyer Schapiro, while I was studying for my qualifying exams. The project’s specific orientation is inspired by readings in media studies concerning the materialities of communication, much of which I first encountered in courses in Columbia’s departments of Art History and Archaeology and Germanic Languages; my focus on painting’s technical supports would be inconceivable without Professor Rosalind Krauss’s work on the so-called “post-medium condition.”

All of this scholarship has encouraged me to pursue archival research that at first may seem far afield from the discipline of Art History. In the fall, for instance, while working on a chapter on postal administration, I spent most of my time in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague, learning about the formation of the Universal Postal Union and tracing its impacts on the production and circulation of art. At the same time that architects of the UPU claimed that “the postal system knows no boundaries,” politicians like Jules Ferry attempted to resuscitate the supposedly decadent field of art by urging the advancement of an “art education without walls.” Van Gogh’s career is a direct result of these international visions, and in this particular chapter, I explain not only how the post was materially impactful for Van Gogh’s career and those of his contemporaries, but also argue how it came to function as a kind of paradigm for his painting practice.

What impact do you hope your research will have?
I hope my work will offer original and convincing interpretations of Van Gogh’s work, which will speak to concerns well beyond the small community of Van Gogh scholars and engage readers outside of art history. My favorite humanities scholars tend also to be some of the writers I admire most, so in an ideal world my research would eventually turn into an equally engaging text worthy of its material. For now, I will just try to get my thoughts down on paper.