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Becoming van Gogh

Two major exhibitions, in the U.S. and the U.K., explore the painter’s beginnings and growth as an artist.

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Leather Clogs, autumn 1889

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Leather Clogs, autumn 1889, oil on canvas

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Everyone thinks they know Van Gogh. Thanks to seemingly countless exhibitions, book publications, reproductions of artworks, and movies—most recently Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, released in November and starring Willem Dafoe—not only have the works of Vincent van Gogh become iconic, but so has the man himself. And the Dutch painter’s penchant for self-portraiture has made his intense, red-bearded face an instantly recognizable symbol of artistic integrity. Nonetheless, much about van Gogh remains unknown, or little known, to the general public.

A major exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “Van Gogh: His Life in Art” (March 10–June 27), aims to remedy that situation. “The popular story of Van Gogh has tended to focus on his last few years and his death,” says David Bomford, curator of the exhibition and chair of the Department of Conservation and Audrey Jones Beck Curator in the Department of European Art. “But there is a rich and complex narrative that starts much earlier, one that is defined by Van Gogh’s tremendous drive to become an artist.” Using a tightly focused selection of more than 50 portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, the exhibition will chart the artist’s development from his late-blooming, self-taught first steps in drawing and painting through to his discovery of color, his acceptance into the avant-garde, and his tumultuous, tortured final two years, during which he produced his greatest works and then committed suicide.

The Houston show, which will be on view nowhere else, is the result of a collaboration between the MFAH and the two institutions that have the greatest holdings of Van Gogh’s work—the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (created by the Van Gogh family’s foundation) and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands (based on the holdings of a couple who were among the first to collect Van Gogh’s work, starting in 1908) . This exhibition is a special opportunity for viewers, because the works loaned from those museums have rarely traveled outside their home country. Other loans come from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, and various private collections.

Further proving that now is truly a Van Gogh moment, another important show opening at the end of this month on the other side of the Atlantic will also delve into the artist’s origin story. “The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain” at Tate Britain (March 27–August 11) explores the Dutchman’s extended stay in the country during the 1870s, when he was in his early 20s and working for the international art dealing and publishing firm of Goupil & Cie. Van Gogh spoke English well, felt great affection for Britain, and, although he was not yet painting when he lived there, absorbed influences that show clearly in his work. The exhibition, which is the Tate’s first dedicated to Van Gogh since a blockbuster in 1947, features major works by the artist from English collections alongside works by British artists who were influenced by Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s story is one of artistic triumph in the face of astonishing adversity and repeated false starts. He was born in 1853 to a middle-class family in the Dutch province of Brabant, where his father, Theodorus, moved from town to town in his capacity as a Protestant pastor. Vincent had five siblings but was especially close to his brother Theo, four years younger, who would become his closest confidant and supporter and, eventually, his art dealer. Vincent was always a square peg in his conservative, proper family, but his first ambition was to be a minister like his father. In this, as in several other lines of work, he notably failed, mainly because of his emotional instability but also, of course, because at that time he was unaware of his true calling.

One of the strangest facts about Van Gogh is that his entire life as a painter is compressed into one decade, from 1880 until the year of his death, 1890. And of those years, it was only in the last five that he was producing mature work. Before that, he struggled to teach himself and fitfully studied with other artists, later judging that all the painting he had done in the first half of the 1880s was not worth exhibiting. Despite this handicap, Van Gogh managed to create an astonishingly large body of work—some 850 paintings and 1,300 drawings. With manic energy and with the tremendous courage necessary to keep working through bouts of severe depression and eventually psychosis, Van Gogh constantly evolved and improved his vision and skills. He was making up for lost time, but he was also working against time, for he had long since had a premonition that he would not reach the age of 40.

Van Gogh’s first exposure to art was from the business side, when he worked for Goupil, a job that Theo, who was also employed by the firm, got for him. Vincent’s first artistic heroes were the Barbizon painters Corot, Rousseau, and especially Millet. Their affinity for rural life and depictions of the peasantry resonated strongly with Vincent, who, after washing out of academic studies for the ministry, ministered to poor miners in Belgium as a lay preacher, choosing to share their hardships. He was also influenced by the Hague School, a Dutch version of Barbizon whose members included Jozef Israëls, Jacob and Matthijs Maris, and Anton Mauve; the latter happened to be a cousin of Van Gogh’s by marriage and gave his younger relative his first formal art lessons. The Hague School was also known as the “Gray School” due to its strong preference for dark colors, and Van Gogh’s early work embraced not only peasant realism but also a palette so muted that it verged on grisaille. The Potato Eaters (1885), the first of his paintings that he considered serious and with which he hoped to announce himself to the art world, is rendered in this dark and gloomy way, so unlike the electric blue skies, acid greens, and solar yellows of Van Gogh’s later work.

It was in Paris that Van Gogh discovered color, Impressionism, Japanese prints, and the earliest iteration of the modernist avant-garde. Invited by Theo, who was managing the office of Goupil’s successor firm there, Vincent moved to the French capital in 1886 and enrolled at one of the less academic academies, that of Cormon. He learned to let the light into his paintings, to communicate emotions through carefully chosen contrasting colors, and to build up an image with pointillist-inspired brushstrokes. These visible long strokes of paint would become one of the most recognizable features of Van Gogh’s work. It was also in Paris that Van Gogh finally found an artistic community, friends who were also artists with whom he could share ideas, enthusiasms, and techniques. One of those friends was, of course, Paul Gauguin, with whom Van Gogh would soon share a house in Arles, a town in the South of France where he moved to reconnect with nature and to discover a new kind of light. It was also in Arles that his final madness began.

Van Gogh’s interest and skill in portraiture grew during his time in Paris, and one of the highlights of the Houston show is In the Café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin (1887), an environmental portrait of an Italian-born former artist’s model and café owner who was Van Gogh’s lover at the time. The overall greenish cast of the painting, which ably conveys the nocturnal character of the place, is broken up by two bold passages of red, the woman’s feathered hat and the rim of the table at which she sits nursing a beer. On the wall behind her are hung some Japanese ukiyo-e prints that belonged to Van Gogh and that she allowed him to exhibit for sale in her café. She also showed some of his own work there; after they broke up, she kept it and sold it along with everything else when the bar went bankrupt.

The Houston show culminates with examples of the bodies of work Van Gogh created in Arles and in his final destination, Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris. Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves (after Millet), from 1889, is an example of a series in which Van Gogh imagined and painted fully colored versions of black and white prints that he loved. “I’m trying to do something to console myself, for my own pleasure,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “I put the black-and-white by Delacroix or Millet in front of me as a subject. And then I improvise color on it but, being me, not completely of course, but seeking memories of their paintings—but the memory, the vague consonance of colors that are in the same sentiment, if not right—that’s my interpretation.” In this project, Van Gogh’s art lies entirely in the choice and deployment of color, since the composition is not his own. He is breathing life into an image.

Irises (1890), painted while Van Gogh was in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy, is one of his greatest still lifes. It makes full use of the principle of complementary colors, with the green and blue of the leaves and flowers placed against the featureless, bold yellow background for a striking effect. Irises were important to Van Gogh, symbolizing life, spring, and hope. But, as the exhibition’s curators note in the catalogue, the drooping flowers on the right of the vase may have been intended as harbingers of death, which was around the corner.

The Tate’s exhibition is innovative, if not counter-intuitive, in that it focuses on a period in which Van Gogh was not only not an artist, but had not even conceived of himself as potentially an artist. Working in the art trade, mingling with other businessmen in the booming metropolis, he was immersed in the world of global capitalism, as far away as possible from the humble, rural simplicity he preferred. He became aware of the poverty of the London working class, as well as of the strong presence in the city of evangelical Christian groups that were fighting for reform and social justice and inspired him to do likewise after his return to the Continent. This passionate desire to commune with the poor became an important ingredient in Van Gogh’s art. As Louis van Tilborgh of the Van Gogh Museum puts it, “the Van Gogh we know was being born in London.”

English literature was also very important to Van Gogh, especially the works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe. A portrait of his friend from Arles, Marie Ginoux, painted in 1890, depicts her with two books on the table in front of her, the titles legible—Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These volumes gave Van Gogh great comfort when he was depressed, and in a letter to a sister he wrote that he read them with “extreme attention.” In London he became acquainted with English social realist painting and with the Pre-Raphaelites, who inspired him to try and found a colony of like-minded artist-comrades at the yellow house in Arles.

Many 20th-century British artists were inspired by Van Gogh’s expressionistic and socially conscious art, among them Vanessa Bell, Samuel Peploe, Matthew Smith, William Nicholson, David Bomberg, and Francis Bacon, and their works hang alongside Van Gogh’s in the Tate’s installation. One of Van Gogh’s most famous floral still lifes, Sunflowers (1888) is on view, loaned from the National Gallery, which received it as a gift in 1923 from Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. When the painting was first shown in London in 1910, as part of Roger Fry’s exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” it was derided by English critics who couldn’t grasp Van Gogh’s innovation, but among young artists it brought about a flowering of floral painting. In addition to Van Gogh’s, the Tate show features sunflowers by Christopher Wood, Frank Brangwyn, and Jacob Epstein.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2019

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