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Van Gogh vs. Margaret Olley: Comparative Analysis

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Margaret Olley and Van Gogh are two of the most well-known impressionists of their time. With more than a century between their eras, they both played significant roles in the progressing development of art today. Similarly painting still life’s and portraits, they also used the same media types and painted what they were surrounded by. For example, rooms of the houses they lived in, flowers and places they travelled. This comparative essay will compare and outline these two famous artists and the similarities between two of their most famous paintings, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers,’ (Image 1), and Olley’s ‘Poppies and Checked Cloth,’ (Image 2). Overall, this essay will support the statement that Margaret Olley and Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings are similar from the subjects, to the use of media and impressionistic style of the paintings. Margaret Olley and Vincent Van Gogh were both born on opposite sides of the world, Olley being born in Lismore, Australia and Van Gogh in Zundert, Holland.

However, the similarity between their artistic techniques and expression is both stylistic and with much expression. They both painted objects around them that were important to their life at the time. Both studying in Paris, their lives as artists was loved and their paintings showed their biographies. Van Gogh’s life as an artist started at the age of twenty-seven and lasted ten years after he committed suicide. He spent much of his time in an asylum, where he painted ‘the bedroom, ‘his work reflecting the intense colours and strong light of the countryside around him. At one stage of his later life, Van Gogh averaged a painting a day for two months. Margaret Olley also painted many artworks in her life, often a few at the time, having each in a separate room when she painted still life’s. They both founded young artists, liking the idea of helping their community.

Olley, being more financially stable was able to contribute more to the foundations and well recognised than Van Gogh. They both experienced traumatic incidents which were expressed through their paintings. Van Gough and Olley experienced harsh living conditions for their time, Van Gough living in poverty and mentally unstable, and Olley living through the depression during world war two as a young child. However, interestingly they both experienced some form of depression. Olley was influenced by the culture of the art world to take up alcohol which unnoticeably became an addiction. Their mental state left them both insecure and therefore affecting the expression displayed in their artworks. Olley dealt with her addiction in a positive way, giving it up because of an illness, to celebrate her life and love of painting. She went on to achieve awards such as the Order of Australia, Honourable doctorate of Literature, Macquarie Uni, 1991, Life Governor, the art gallery of NSW, 1992 and companion of the order of Australia, 1996.

Like Van Gogh, Olley didn’t sell many of her admired paintings however, Van Gogh was restricted as he couldn’t get people to buy them, not being recognised in his life. Many of Olley’s works were generously donated to the Art Gallery of NSW and had at least one exhibition per year since 1948. She was surrounded by many friends, most of which were fellow artists. Van Gogh sold one painting during his lifetime, most famously known as ‘The Vine Yards,’ (Image 3). Two similar paintings created by Olley and Van Gogh will be analysed, discussed and compared. These are famously known as “Sunflowers” (Image 2) by Van Gogh (Oil on canvas) and “Poppies with Checkered Cloth,” (Image 1) by Margaret Olley (Oil on cardboard). These paintings of the same media are typically of similar impressionistic style and related subject, bright and cheerful flowers.

There are many similarities which can be perceived when comparing their techniques. Olley has painted a self-portrait, focusing on bright and jubilant poppies, presented in a green jug, on a checkered cloth. She has set the painting on her kitchen table, with a characteristic tea party set-up. Vibrant oranges and limes sit in risen, porcelain bowls towards the back of the table, behind a tea pot and the large vase of flowers. By placing full cups of tea towards the foreground, she has invited viewers to join her, therefore invited into the painting. These objects are all placed on top of a square, green and white checkered cloth, resembling a classic picnic rug. All of Olley’s subject matter is painted with small, controlled yet agitated brush strokes, enabling her to create the artwork expressively and feely, without strict guidelines. The kitchen wall in the background has been painted with small, vertical and horizontal brush strokes to further emphasise the expressionistic style. This is prominent throughout the artwork, seen again on the flower vase, continuing to the foreground in which a round based wine decanter sits unnoticeable at first, half filled with red wine.

In front of this is a blue rimmed plate, matching with the tea cup to the right, with an apple. This painting is composed of warm colours including yellows, reds and oranges with warm blue shadows. Van Gogh has also painted bright flowers in a post-impressionistic and stylistic manner. The painting which will be analysed is “Sunflowers” (Image 2). It is composed of a simple vase of yellow sunflowers, centred on the canvas. These yellow sunflowers are painted in their natural shape, with wilted petals, some yet to bloom. The flowers face many angles and are all different, most have contrasting shades of green leaves surrounding the petals and varying stem widths and lengths. This creates interest throughout the painting. To complement the bright yellow flower petals, Van Gogh has detailed a baby blue background with small, vertical and horizontal brush strokes. This contrasts well with the yellow flowers and helps to separate them from the yellow foreground. Also, to break all the yellow sections, he has cleverly used a lighted yellow tint on the bottom half of the vase, rather than shades, which he has used to outline the petals of the flowers. In doing this and by also adding light to the front petals and vase, Van Gogh has added a third dimension to his painting. Like Olley, Van Gogh has painted this artwork in warm colours to create a joyful and uplifting artwork to look at.

As famous post-impressionists of their time, both Olley and Van Gogh have executed their artworks in a stylistic manner. Their use of the impressionistic characteristics such as relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes most evident on the flowers and throughout the backgrounds in both of their paintings. Another example of a distinguishing impressionistic characteristic is their emphasis on the accurate depiction of light. Olley has effectively used this technique throughout the painting, mostly seen on the front poppies petals, the wine canter and the vase. Van Gogh has also used this technique, however more obviously seen on the vase and the sunflower petals also. Another key idea of impressionism was the painting of common, ordinary subject matter at unusual visual angles. Both of these artists have successfully incorporated this idea into their paintings by painting flowers, they have been able to portray them at different angles and sizes.

Both Olley and Van Gogh painted most of their artworks with oil paints on either a canvas or board. Most impressionists are known for their oil paint on canvas, therefore this media is not uncommon for these artists. However, when comparing other works by these artists, it was found that they used other media commonly. They both painted with ink and watercolour on paper. Similarly, Olley and Van Gogh painted the same sceneries with this media, which was uncommon for impressionist’s to use this media. This comparison can be seen in artworks such as ‘Prawn Boat’ (Image 4) by Margaret Olley and ‘Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges’ (Image 5). Their techniques are also similar, especially their technique for water horizon line.

(Image 5) Van Gogh, Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges (Image 4) Olley, Port Marseille

Throughout both of Olley and Van Gogh’s paintings, it is noticed that their backgrounds are built up thickly with thin, yet noticeably vertical and horizontal brush strokes. These marks create a feeling of strength and tranquillity. These brush strokes are prominent in both of the artists’ paintings, more noticeable in Van Gogh’s than Olley’s. This quality is further supported with the tall flower vases and the other objects in Olley’s painting such as the fruit bowls and wine decanter. Van Gogh has similarly executed this element of design by centring the vase and shaping it vertically. To balance these tall, strenuous shapes, the artists’ have set the focal point on a horizon, hence the horizontal lines. These counteract the emotional qualities of the vertical shapes to create a feeling of tranquillity and calmness. A common impressionistic technique used in throughout the artists paintings, is the emphasis of light on the objects. There is more use of light tones to create brightness. This gives a sense of radiance and happiness. These emotions are also supported with the use of warm colours, most commonly yellow which is associated with excitement and brightness.

To contrast with these bright colours, both artists have used warm blue throughout the background, Olley also using it for subtle shadows, to create a sense of stillness, necessary for still life artwork. Both Olley and Van Gogh have placed vibrant flowers in the centre of their artworks, similarly visually showing the same focal point. The focal point has been created through large placement in the foreground, contrasting with smaller or no other objects in the background, and also through lines and direction. Olley has made this principle stronger, although it is still visible in Van Gogh’s work. Olley has placed objects to guide the viewer to the focal point such as directing the teapot spout to the flowers, the rim of the fruit vase is the same height as the lower flowers. By using these lines and shapes subtly, Olley has used the movement and direction principle to successfully emphasise the focal point. Van Gogh has also used movement and direction in the background and horizon line to guide the viewer to the flowers.

He has also used isolation to emphasise the focal point. The sunflowers are the only object in the painting, therefore they are isolated from any other object, the horizontal and vertical lines in the background also point in the general direction of the flowers on both sides of the painting. The horizon or table line rises slightly as it meets the vase and the line separating the two sections within the vase curves up towards the flowers. This effectively guides the viewer to the flowers. Also, by using warm blue in their works, they have balanced the emotions within the artwork. The blue introduces stillness and sadness, which is overtaken with the overuse of bright and joyful colours; however it successfully balances the painting. Both artists have used repetition of pattern that invites the viewer’s eye to flow from one element to the next. These patterns are small, progressive brush strokes which change in size, contour, tone and colour in a regular manner throughout Van Gogh’s artwork and a checkered cloth in Olley’s. The cloth consists of regular pattern of green and white squares with equal and negative spaces. These organised elements of shape, colour and tone are repeated patterns to guide the viewer’s eye from one element to the next.

After analysing both Olley’s and Van Gogh’s artworks, it can be assumed that they enjoy painting nature around them. It was common in Van Gogh’s era to paint outdoors and realistic scenes of modern life. In these two paintings, similarly the artists have brought the outdoors inside. Olley has created a modern version of a tea party with the use of the poppies as the focal point, and Van Gogh has also focused the sunflowers as the focal point, bringing nature inside also. When analysing Margaret Olley’s painting of poppies and checkered cloth, it is obvious that it holds a more visible meaning, as there are more objects which can subtly portray a message or meaning. One object in particular which held great meaning was the wine decanter. Throughout Olley’s life, she dealt with many troubles, which lead her to oppress them with the use of alcohol. This could perhaps symbolise her struggle as an alcoholic. Also, the vague shadows may have to do with the depressing stages of her life, creating a feeling of sadness. Van Gogh similarly had difficult stages of his life, more known than Olley’s which is perhaps why he has completely filled his background with the repetitive and varying tones of blue.

This creates the feeling of agitation, which is further supported with the sharp angular shapes of the sunflower petals to overall give the feeling of anger and violence. Olley was perhaps not as subtle with her message; however they have similarly hidden it through their strong use of bright and cheerful colours. After studying Margaret Olley’s works, it is noticed that she is overall more effective at exploring the conceptual focus of ‘the self’ in her artworks. There is more visual depth throughout her paintings such as her wider variety of symbolic objects and use of colour. By using different objects and the clever use of placement, she is able to more subtly convey a specific message or symbol without making it too obvious.

By having various symbolic objects, Olley is also able to express more messages in her artwork. When comparing Olley’s works to Van Gogh’s, it is immediately noticed that Olley’s work is more expressive, with greater meaning to the subjects. Van Gogh was perhaps weaker in this aspect, as his paintings had only one object, being the focal point. Although his paintings were distorted, organic and impressionistic, his work expressed little meaning about the object. His work never looked exactly as it would from the perspective of the human eye, as much of the impressionistic artists would, however Olley painted less stylistically and more symmetrically, with more meaning to the subjects. In conclusion, Margaret Olley and Van Gogh could be mistaken to have been around in the same era. The similarity between their subjects and styles is extraordinary and surprising as they lived more than a century apart. With the same oil on board or canvas media, they painted bright and vibrant flowers, still life’s, landscapes and portraits of places they had travelled or rooms of the houses they lived in. Overall, these two artists played a significant role in the progressing development of post-impressionist art.


1. Laredosun.us (2010) “Van Gogh theft: Alarms at Cairo museum” (AFP writers) <http://www.laredosun.us/notas.asp?id=9984> (28/4/12)

2. Art Gallery of NSW (2011) “Margaret Olley” (unknown) <http://m.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/454.2001/> (28/4/12)

3. Eva Breuer (2012) “Margaret Olley Biography” (unknown) <http://www.evabreuerartdealer.com.au/artists/margaret-olley/margaret-olley-1923-2011/untitled-poppies> (28/4/12)

4. Van Gogh Gallery (2002-2012) “ Van Gogh Paintings” (Van Gogh Gallery) <http://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/> (28/4/12)

5. T. Jacki (2011) “Margaret Olley” (Aust. Government) <http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/margaret-olley> (28/4/12)

6. G. McColl (July 2011) “Olley dies as she wanted, with paint still on her fingers” (The Age) < www.theage.com.au/national/olley-dies-as-she-wanted-with-paint-still-on-her-fingers-20110726-1hyn9.html > (2/4/12)

7. P. Thomson (2007-2011) “ Interview with Margaret Olley” (Talking Heads) <http://www.abc.net.au/talkingheads/txt/s2091658.htm> (29/4/12) Margaret Olley

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