Vincent Treasure Trove; the Van Gogh Museum's Van Goghs

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Van Gogh died virtually unkown, but his brother Theo and Theo's heirs preserved his works and made him known to the world. Seventy works from their priceless collection now come to America.

"What I want and aim at is confoundingly difficult, and yet I do not think I aim too high," wrote Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo in 1882. "I want to do drawings which touch some people." Van Gogh's career as an artist had just begun, and these words, coupled with his desire to leave mankind "some memento in the form of drawings and paintings--not made to please any particular movement, but to express a sincere human feeling," became the touchstone for the creative outpouring that characterized his brief but incendiary career. Gifted with an instinct for bold, harmonious color and a genius for simple yet compelling composition, the man who first turned to art to communicate the enormous emotional tumult that roiled within left a legacy of masterpieces that move as those of few artists before or since.

This month brings a unique opportunity for Americans to see seventy of Van Gogh's works, from his earliest paintings done in his native Holland to those made just before his tragic death in Auvers-sur-Oise. The paintings in Van Gogh's Van Goghs, opening October 4 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which is closed until May 1999 for renovation and expansion. The exhibition includes iconic masterpieces as well as less familiar works that showcase his development as a truly original master. The exhibition will be seen later at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"The provenance of these paintings is impeccable and special," writes National Gallery of Art director Earl Powell III in his foreword to the exhibition catalog. "They all passed directly from Vincent to his brother Theo, and in turn were inherited by Theo's widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonder; from her they were inherited by her son Vincent Willem van Gogh, known as `The Engineer,' who eventually established the Van Gogh Foundation and the museum that houses them today."

The Van Gogh Museum collection--with more than two hundred paintings, five hundred drawings, and some seven hundred of the artist's letters, as well as paintings by other artists who were part of the Van Goghs' circle--has become the most popular single tourist attraction in Holland. "The collection's very existence is cause for wonder," wrote one of Theo's grandsons. "It was utterly worthless when it was created, and in later years there was the ever-present threat that it would be totally dispersed." The collection bears witness to the Van Gogh family's fierce belief in Vincent's gifts.

Vincent sent nearly every canvas he produced to his elder brother, in exchange for financial support. As their voluminous correspondence shows (Vincent sometimes wrote his brother twice daily), Theo also provided him emotional support and a forum in which to articulate his self-examination as a painter and human being. Theo's widow, Johanna--Theo died of chronic nephritis just six months after Vincent's suicide-- devoted the remaining years of her life to Vincent's legacy. She moved back to Holland from Paris, set up a small boarding house, and organized exhibitions of her brother-in-law's work. At the same time, Johanna encouraged interest in Van Gogh's correspondence. As portions of the letters were published, their importance in interpreting the art and for stimulating interest became apparent. She therefore organized the letters, publishing them in 1914 in a three-volume edition with a memoir as preface. Following Theo's policy of selling works from the collection only to promote Vincent's reputation, she held on to those works that her husband had regarded as essential milestones, and after 1920 she rarely sold any, intent on preserving the original collection.

By the time of Johanna's death in 1925, Van Gogh's status among great nineteenth-century painters was secure. …