Gogh's Van Goghs", at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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".
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
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.
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
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.
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 "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).
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"
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.
for Paris, Dr. Gachet donated his collection to the Orsay Museum.
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
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
Gallery of Art, Washington
Dates: 4 October 1998 - 3 January 1999
(1) 202 737 4215
Advanced booking finished, queueing only