In an artistic career spanning just ten years (1880 -1890), Vincent van Gogh created over 800 paintings and more than 1,000 drawings, sketches and water-colours. But the Dutch master reportedly sold just one painting in his lifetime. However, because of this tragic lack of recognition, most of Van Gogh’s work remained with his family, who permanently loaned it to the Van Gogh Museum. Located in Amsterdam, the museum is dedicated to the artist and has the world’s largest collection of his work under one roof.
The museum houses over 200 paintings and more than 400 drawings and prints, representing every stage of Van Gogh’s evolution as an artist. It also has a vast collection of Van Gogh’s letters to his family and friends that tell us about the thoughts, ideas, people and places that influenced him. For art lovers, visiting the museum is a special experience not only because of the masterpieces on display but also because of the insights it offers into the dramatic life of the artist.
Van Gogh tried his hand at painting landscapes of the city. But he wanted to be a painter of peasant life.
Van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Netherlands. After unsuccessfully trying to work as an art dealer, a school teacher and lay preacher, he decided to become an artist at the age of 27. Despite no formal training in art, he evolved rapidly from an inept novice into a truly original artist with a distinctive style of using expressive brush strokes and vivid colours. But the lack of appreciation for his work, failed romances, loneliness and bouts of mental illness led to his untimely death at 37 from a self inflicted gunshot wound.
The artist left all his artworks to his younger brother Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris, and had supported him financially and emotionally. After Theo’s death, his wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, sold some of the paintings, but brought most of the collection back to the Netherlands. Later her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh transferred the collection to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, which has permanently loaned it to the Van Gogh Museum.
The museum, which opened in 1973, consists of two buildings — the main building, designed by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld; and an elliptical Exhibition wing, designed by Kisho Kurokawa. The journey into Van Gogh’s world begins on the ground floor with a display of artworks by artists who inspired Van Gogh, such as Coubert, Manet, Breton and Millet. The entire first floor is dedicated to Van Gogh’s paintings, presented in chronological order, covering different stages of his life and artistic development.
1880-1885 - The Netherlands:
In these initial years, Van Gogh took some lessons from artist Anton Mauve in The Hague and tried his hand at painting landscapes of the city. But like his favourite artists, Millet and Breton, he wanted to be a painter of peasant life. So, after returning to his parents’ home in Nuenen, he focused on painting the weavers and farmers in the village. Many of these realistic portrayals of rural life can be seen at the museum. But Gogh’s most outstanding work from this period is “The Potato Eaters”. Created in 1885, this painting, depicting a peasant family at their dinner table, is his first large scale composition and his first masterpiece. Van Gogh’s dark palette and exaggeration of the coarse careworn features of the people eloquently conveys the hardships of peasant life.
Hoping to earn a living as a portrait painter, Van Gogh enrolled in a figure painting course at the art academy in Antwerp in late 1885. He was never to return to his country again. But bored by painting plaster casts and skeletons, rather than live models, he left the academy within a few weeks. He expressed his opinion of the academy’s teaching methods through cynical paintings such as “Head of a Skeleton with a burning cigarette”, which is displayed in the museum. Also on view are several portraits he made of ordinary people who agreed to pose for him. During this time, he wrote to Theo, “Painted portraits have a life of their own, something that comes from the roots of the painter’s soul, which a machine cannot touch. The more often people look at photographs, the more they will feel this.”
When Van Gogh was upset that his sombre paintings of rural life failed to sell, Theo urged him to come and see for himself the modern French art movements in Paris. Van Gogh arrived in early 1886, and the two years he spent with Theo in the artists’ quarter of Montmartre were seminal in the development of his painting style. He saw the work of the Impressionists, and was amazed by the way they handled light and colour and treated their modern themes. He studied at the prestigious atelier of Fernand Cormon, and made friends with artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac, Gauguin and Pissarro.
Van Gogh assimilated all the influences around him into his work. His palette became brighter and his brushwork more broken. Like the Impressionists, he painted the city’s cafés and boulevards and the countryside along the banks of the Seine. Inspired by Seurat, he experimented with his own version of Pointillism. And like his French contemporaries, he was also inspired by Japanese woodcuts.
Van Gogh’s Paris paintings in the museum’s collection include landscapes of Montmartre and the nearby village of Asnieres; works inspired by Japanese woodcuts; and still life paintings of flowers, which represent his early experiments with colour. Van Gogh reportedly paid for his meals at the Café du Tambourin with these still life paintings. The owner hung them on the walls, making it the first place where his work was seen by the public.
Because he could not afford live models for portraits, Van Gogh honed his skills by painting self-portraits. Out of the many self-portraits he made throughout his career, the majority were done in Paris. Special ones to look out for in the museum include a rare depiction of himself as an artist; a portrait in his own pointillist style; and perhaps the only portrait of his brother Theo, who looked like him.
Despite regularly exhibiting his work in Paris, Van Gogh still failed to sell anything. Tired of the bustle of city life, he moved to Provence in the south of France in early 1888. It was here that he matured as an artist and developed his own distinct style. Van Gogh rented four rooms in the famous “Yellow House”, where he set up his studio and home. He dreamt of creating an artists’ community, where he and like-minded artists could work together, and invited Gauguin to visit him.
Van Gogh loved the strong light, bright colours and blue sky in Provence and enjoyed working outdoors. He painted landscapes and scenes of rural life, using a bright palette and quick strong strokes of thick paint. Explaining his technique, he wrote to Theo, “Working directly on the spot, I try to grasp what is essential.” In spring, he painted the orchards in bloom. And in summer he spent days under the blazing sun painting the golden wheat fields waving in the wind. He also painted several impressive portraits of the town’s inhabitants.
The museum has many important works from this period, such as portraits of postman Joseph Roulin and his family; paintings of the “Yellow House” and his bedroom, furnished with simple pine furniture and his own paintings; and “The Harvest”, a painting he loved and felt sure would sell. But his most recognised work from this period is the “Sunflowers”. Van Gogh made several paintings of sunflowers in vases to decorate the Yellow House in anticipation of Gauguin’s arrival and Gauguin loved them. He described the bright yellow canvases as “completely Van Gogh” and even made a painting of “Gogh painting sunflowers”, which is also in the museum’s collection.
Gauguin arrived in Arles in October 1888, and for nine weeks the two artists enjoyed working together and discussing art. They often painted the same subjects in their individual styles. Van Gogh’s paintings of two empty chairs personifying himself and Gauguin reflected their different personalities. He represented himself with a rustic wickerwork chair (in the National Gallery, London), but “Gauguin’s Chair” (in the Van Gogh Museum) is more elegant, with modern French novels placed on it, expressing Van Gogh’s view of his friend as sophisticated and intellectual. But soon, their differing personalities led to conflicts. During one heated argument, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor and in a fit of rage cut off his own ear. Gauguin left Arles and Van Gogh landed in hospital.
After this episode, Gogh suffered from severe depression and bouts of mental instability and was unable to set up a studio again. Desperate to find some peace, in early 1889, he voluntarily admitted himself to a mental health clinic in Saint Remy, near Arles. He stayed in the asylum for a year, which turned out to be one of his most productive. His doctor encouraged him to paint, and an adjacent room was converted into his studio. Confined within the premises, Van Gogh painted the view from his room, the hospital corridors, portraits of the patients and the flowers and trees in the garden. And when he ran out of subjects, he painted his own versions of famous artworks by Millet and other masters. Later, he was allowed to venture outside, and painted wheat fields, olive groves and the trees in the countryside. The hospital regimen and “paint therapy” brought order and stability in his life and he painted with new vigour and a softer palette, producing masterpieces such as “Irises”, “Cypresses” and “The Starry Night”. And finally, the world began to notice. At exhibitions in Paris and Brussels his work was well received by the public, his peers and art critics.
A significant painting from this period, in the museum’s collection is “Wheatfield with a Reaper”. Van Gogh’s description of this painting in a letter to Theo, gives an indication of his state of mind. He wrote: “A reaper in a sun-drenched wheat field. The subject was beautiful and simple. Then I saw in this reaper a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil. And I saw the image of death in it, in the sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. But in this death there is nothing sad; it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of gold.’
Keen to leave the clinic and be closer to Theo, Gogh moved in mid-1890 to Auvers-sur-Oise, an artists’ village near Paris. Here he became friends with Dr Paul Gachet. The doctor was also an amateur artist and art collector, and became a positive and stabilising influence in Van Gogh’s life.
Like Pissarro, Cezanne, Daubigny and other famous artists who had painted in Auvers, Van Gogh was deeply inspired by the picturesque countryside. He made a series of landscapes of wheat fields in an unusual panoramic format, using elongated 50cm by 100cm canvases; and many paintings of the garden in Daubigny’s Auvers house. He also made portraits of Dr Gachet and other acquaintances in the village. Van Gogh’s delicate mental state can be judged by his description of the painting “Wheatfields under Thunder Clouds”. He wrote to Theo: “It depicts vast, distended wheat fields, under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness. But it also illustrates what I cannot express in words, that is, how healthy and reassuring I find the countryside.”
This brief period of stability ended when he heard about Theo’s plans to leave his job and start his own business. Worried about reduced financial support from Theo, Van Gogh went into a deep depression. A month later, he walked into a wheat field and shot himself in the chest. He died two days later, with Theo by his side. He was buried in Auvers in a casket covered with yellow flowers. A month later, Theo held a memorial exhibition of all his paintings in his Paris apartment. But his own health quickly declined and he died just six months later and was buried beside his brother in Auvers.
The museum has many masterpieces from the last year of Van Gogh’s life such as paintings of Daubigny’s garden, “Wheatfields under Thunder Clouds’ and “Almond Blossom”, painted as a gift for Theo’s newborn son. But the most famous and most discussed painting from this period is “Wheatfield with Crows”. It was painted in July 1890, a few weeks before his death, leading to speculation that it may be his last painting and that the cloudy sky, filled with crows flying away from the viewer, and an abruptly cut-off pathway, are portents of the impending end.
On the second floor of the museum, visitors can see Van Gogh’s drawings and sketches and temporary educational exhibitions, featuring restoration research. They can also view printed and digital versions of the museum’s entire collection of Van Gogh’s letters, many of which contain sketches of paintings he had seen or was working on. The journey ends on the third floor, with a collection of works by Van Gogh’s friends and contemporaries and by artists who were inspired by him, thus placing his work in the context of his times and his legacy.
The museum also has a specialised library with over 24,000 books on Van Gogh and other 19th century artists. And for Van Gogh fans, the museum store offers posters, stationery, umbrellas and a variety of other items featuring Van Gogh’s sunflowers and other famous works.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.
For information about exhibitions and research projects, and a virtual tour, visit www.vangoghmuseum.com.
(All information obtained from museum publications and website).