Treasures from the Van Gogh Museum

Article excerpt

This unique group of paintings--part of more than 200 Vincent van Gogh canvases kept by the troubled artist's brother, Theo, and his family--constitutes the largest exhibition ever shown outside the Netherlands.

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, a village in the southern province of North Brabant, the Netherlands, the eldest son of the Rev. Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus. At the age of 16, he started work at The Hague gallery of the French an dealers, Goupil & Co., in which his uncle Vincent was a partner. His younger brother Theo later worked for the same firm.

In 1873, Goupil's transferred Van Gogh to London. Two years later, they moved him to Paris, where he lost all ambition to become an an dealer. He immersed himself in religion, threw out his modern, worldly books, and became "daffy with piety," in the words of his sister Elisabeth. He was dismissed from Goupil's at the beginning of 1876. Van Gogh took a job as an assistant teacher in England, but, disappointed by the lack of prospects, returned to Holland at the end of the year. He then decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a clergyman. Although disturbed by his fanaticism and odd behavior, his parents agreed to pay for the private lessons he would need to gain a place at a university.

This proved to be another false start. Van Gogh abandoned the lessons and, after a brief spell of training as an evangelist, went to the Borinage mining region in the south of Belgium. His ministry among the miners led him to identify deeply with them and their families. In 1879, however, his appointment was not renewed, and his parents despaired, regarding him as a social misfit. His father even spoke of committing him to a mental asylum.

After a long period of solitary soul-searching, Van Gogh resolved to become an artist. His earlier desire to help his fellow men as an evangelist gradually developed into an urge, as he later wrote, to leave mankind "some memento in the form of drawings or paintings--not made to please any particular movement, but to express a sincere human feeling." His parents could not go along with this latest change of course, and the financial responsibility for Van Gogh passed to his brother, who was working in the Pads gallery of Boussod, Valadon & Cie., the successors of Goupil & Co. It was because of Theo's loyal support that Van Gogh later came to regard his work as the fruits of his brother's efforts on his behalf.

When Van Gogh decided to become an artist, no one--not even himself--suspected that he had extraordinary artistic gifts. He evolved rapidly from an inept, but impassioned novice into a truly original master. He eventually proved to have an exceptional feel for bold, harmonious color effects and an infallible knack of choosing simple, but memorable compositions.

Initially, Van Gogh lived at his parents' home in Etten, North Brabant, where he set himself to the task of learning how to draw. At the end of 1881, he moved to The Hague, and there, too, he concentrated mainly on drawing. In late 1883, after a brief stay in the wilds of the moorland province of Drenthe, he went back to live with his parents, who had moved to the village of Nuenen, near Eindhoven. It was there that he first began painting regularly, modeling himself chiefly on the French painter Jean-Francois Millet, who had caused a sensation throughout Europe with his scenes of the harsh life of peasants.

After two years spent in the countryside of Brabant, Van Gogh left for Antwerp at the end of 1885, where he studied briefly at the art academy. In early 1886, he went to live with his brother in Paris. There, at last, he was confronted with the modern art of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. He discovered that the dark palette he had developed in Holland was hopelessly out-of-date, and he mastered the modern style within two years--a remarkable achievement. …