Brushing Up on Van Gogh

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

Brushing Up on Van Gogh


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Just who was Vincent van Gogh? There are the legends and the myths. Then there are the facts.

Was he the mad genius who produced great works of art, then killed himself at age 37? Was he the crazed, starving neurotic portrayed in "Lust for Life," the 1956 so-called biography by Irving Stone that was made into a popular film starring Kirk Douglas? Is it true that van Gogh cut off his ear with a razor, as the story Mr. Stone made up goes?

Though it made for good box office and van Gogh became a popular icon, the artist actually just cut off a small piece of his right ear.

A major industry of kitsch has grown up around the name of van Gogh (1853-1890), a Dutch-born artist who worked mainly in France. (Americans pronounce his name "go," while the Dutch say "gock" or "hock.") His paintings have been copied more than those any other artist, except for Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."

His treasured sunflowers, which he loved to paint in the summer heat of Provence, decorate T-shirts. Other paintings adorn posters, prints, postcards and note paper. His equally cherished irises, painted while he was in a mental hospital in Saint-Remy, where he had voluntarily committed himself, have been copied incessantly by Sunday painters.

Still, his popularity hasn't waned. Van Gogh "mania" may have reached a peak this summer, when 197,000 advance tickets were snapped up in just 13 days for the exhibit "Van Gogh's van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," opening today at the National Gallery of Art.

The exhibit's 70 paintings from the van Gogh family collection represent every phase of his artistic development, showing him as both an inventor and follower of crucial modern art movements.

Some 200 paintings in the Amsterdam museum are among those collected by his devoted younger brother, Theo, who gave the artist emotional and financial support throughout his life.

Theo's wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, worked tirelessly to promote the painter's work after his death on July 29, 1890, and the death of her husband six months later. She succeeded through timing and tenacity.

Van Gogh belonged to the avant-garde of his time and, as such, was not accepted by the public. He had, however, the support of a large circle of friends, artists and critics. Just before he died, he exhibited his paintings in several major group shows in Paris and Brussels, where they received critical acclaim.

The gallery is displaying some of his finest paintings, including such iconic works as the early "The Potato Eaters" (April 1885), his later "Self-Portrait as an Artist" (January 1888), "The Harvest" (June 1888) - which he considered his best work - "The Bedroom" (October 1888) and one of his later paintings, the heaving "Olive Grove" (1889).

Also on exhibit here is the lilting "Almond Blossom" - painted in honor of the birth of his brother Theo's baby, Vincent - and "The Zouave" , a portrait of a French-Algerian fighter stationed in Arles, which is a devastatingly accurate likeness.

Because this is an exhibit solely of works from the Van Gogh Museum, however, we will not see some of his most epochal works, such as his cosmically swirling "Starry Night," generally considered his best work. It belongs to New York City's Museum of Modern Art. But we can appreciate a similar painting, the turbulent, darkening "Wheatfield With Crows," filled with threatening crows and painted just before he died.

Likewise, none of his famous sunflowers is on view - the Van Gogh Museum's "Sunflower" was too fragile to travel.

Two of van Gogh's best-known portraits, of his friends Joseph Roulin, the Arles postmaster, and his wife, Madame Roulin (titled "La Berceuse"), are not included. Both portraits are in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Certainly, visitors to the exhibit - the largest collection of van Gogh's art outside the Netherlands in more than a quarter century - will savor the full delights of the works, created by a reasoned, remarkable and highly talented artist. …

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