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Missing Masterpieces
"Van Gogh's Van Goghs", at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The Siesta - Van Gogh

By Patricia Boccadoro

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, 12 November 1998
- After the superb comparative show of Millet/Van Gogh in Paris, where the Dutchman's most beautiful rural scenes, including the sublime "La Siesta" were exhibited, it is now Washington's turn to enjoy some of the works of the most important pioneer of nineteenth century art, precursor of the Fauvist and Expressionist movements.

The Washington exhibition (until 3 January 1999 and accessible on a queueing basis only), a retrospective of the painter's life, includes seventy-two paintings on loan from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, currently closed for renovation. While these paintings, donated by the Van Gogh family, constitute the largest survey of the artist's career outside the Netherlands for many years, it is unfortunately not the best.

I have been privileged to visit the Van Gogh museum many times to see the rich collection of early masterpieces (one can only hope that the "renovation" includes improving the lighting system and presentation of such works), but have always left with the frustration the Foundation must feel in possessing so few pictures from the most glorious and productive period in the painter's life at Auvers-sur-Oise.

It is easy to forget that Van Gogh was a teacher before he became a painter. He was also an art dealer, a lay preacher, and a book salesman before deciding to take up painting at the age of twenty-seven. Largely self-trained, the next few years were spent learning and out of the 871 works he created, 463 were produced in his last thirty months.

Docteur Gachet - Van Gogh (1890) At the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, twenty-two miles from Paris, his years of effort were bearing fruit. He arrived in May, 1890, full of enthusiasm at the magnificence of the countryside, delighted with the thatched roofs of the local cottages, and, alone with himself and nature, spent all his time outside, painting. Seventy days - seventy masterpieces, most of them joyous, warm, and glowing with life.

His portraits, including "Doctor Paul Gachet", and "Adeline Ravoux", and his landscapes of the cornfields , demonstrating his mastery of composition and colour, are characteristic of his work at Auvers.

The little grey church - Van Gogh (1890) Inspired by the little grey church there, he immortalised it in rapturous colour, describing his canvas in a letter to his brother, Theo : "The building appears almost dark purple against a deep blue sky of pure cobalt, and the stained glass windows are ultramarine smudges. The roof is violet, touched with orange, and in front there's a grassy bank covered in flowers, surrounded by sandy soil bathed pink with sunlight."

Adeline Ravoux remembered watching him paint the "Town Hall at Auvers" on July 14th, a soft-hued work in delicate tints of cream, gold, and primrose, touched with blue and grey. And at the same time, he created what Mr Dominic Janssen, founder and president of The Institute Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise considers his finest masterpiece from this period, "Fields with Blue Sky".

This extraordinary landscape is far more representative of Van Gogh's work in Auvers than the disturbing and emotional "Wheatfield with crows" on show in Washington, completed when he was not well, and when he wrote to his brother, "The brush keeps slipping from my hand". Contrary to popular belief, Mr Janssen told me that it was not his last painting.

Fields with blue sky - Van Gogh (1890) It is a puzzle as to why "Fields with blue Sky" does not form part of the American exhibition. Immense, serene plains of wheat stretch out under luminous blue skies as far as the eye can see, embracing the "tranquillity and restorative powers" he found in Auvers. Poppies of bright vermilion nod in fields of every shade of green.

I walked along the tracks taken by Van Gogh , through the countryside he depicted in his paintings, pausing to look at the colour reproductions of each canvas that have been set up on the spot where he stood his easel. The Rue de la Sansonne provided the setting for "Stairs at Auvers with five people", and the Rue Daubigny, the site of four or five works of "Charles Daubigny's garden", where he experimented with different techniques. Van Gogh's work in Auvers was more reflective than before, and his use of colour more sumptuous and expressive.

Reaching the top of a narrow, winding path, the village ended abruptly, and I found myself in open countryside, in a "soft and gentle Nordic light". Distant church bells chimed the music that Vincent Van Gogh put into each of his paintings.

The graves of the two brothers lie steps away from the celebrated field of crows and the simple, twin granite head-stones are covered in ivy, symbol of their attachment to each other. The plant grew from a cutting taken from Dr. Gachet's garden.

The Bedroom - Van Gogh (1888) Besides the "Field of Crows", highlights of the show in Washington also include "The Potato Eaters", 1885, "The Bedroom", 1888, and several self portraits. A curiosity of the exhibition is "Still Life with quinces and lemons", to which Vincent had initially given a red frame. Upon Theo's objection, he painted it yellow in a fit of pique. (The original red can still be seen under the ocre if one studies it closely).

The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has so few of the Auvers masterpieces because they were simply given away to the friends who came to his funeral. When Emile Bernard, who did a painting of the burial, came to Van Gogh's house the following day, he described how the Dutchman's canvases were arranged around the coffin in a "halo of honour" .

Auvers country side after the rain - Van Gogh (1890) " The 'Sunflowers' were there and most of his recent paintings", Mr. Janssen told me. "But afterwards the grief-stricken Theo asked everyone there to take some paintings to remember his brother by. 'Help yourselves,' he said." And so Vincent's most famous works were dispersed. Shortly after, Mr. Ravoux, Adeline's father, sold his two pictures to a visiting American for ten dollars.

Fortunately for Paris, Dr. Gachet donated his collection to the Orsay Museum.

The Van Gogh Institute is in the process of negotiating the loan of "Landscape with carriage and train" (1890) (otherwise known as "Paysage d'Auvers après la pluie"), an exquisite, little-known work which I saw at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It hangs next to "The Red Vineyard" (1888) which was the only painting that Van Gogh ever sold.

The "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" exhibition in Washington, D.C. is made possible by Anderson Consulting. The exhibition will then move to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where it will be on view from 17 January to 4 April 1999.

Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Dates: 4 October 1998 - 3 January 1999
Tel: (1) 202 737 4215
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