When I entered Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, the first gallery I saw contained more than a dozen of the artist’s self-portraits. They are strikingly different despite the fact that they all share the same subject and were largely painted in the same year, 1887, just three years before his death. Not only does the style of each portrait vary--smooth and naturalistic here, rough with brushstrokes there--so also does the face vary, so much so that sometimes it looks like Van Gogh has painted an entirely different man. This apparent attempt to grasp his own identity and hold fast to his art, even as he was losing his mind--to fight “the good fight”--would be a hallmark of Van Gogh’s work throughout the museum’s fairly comprehensive collection.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Van Gogh Museum is the arrangement of galleries so as to illuminate the progression of Van Gogh’s style. When he started his career as an artist at the surprisingly late age of 27, his works were relatively conventional although even in paintings from this period it is possible to see the emergence of his distinctive style, especially the use of thick, dark lines as in The Potato Eaters. Throughout his entire career, but especially in its earlier years, Van Gogh explored many of the new techniques his fellow painters were employing, experimenting with pointillism and choosing Toulouse-Lautrec-like subjects. He also enjoyed a Japanese period--a fact previously unknown to me--during which he copied Japanese prints, sometimes adding his own details. It is clear that some of his other paintings exhibit that Japanese influence, particularly those of blossoming trees. Ultimately, of course, Van Gogh developed that unique style we know so well from his most famous paintings such as Sunflowers, The Bedroom, or Wheatfield with Crows, all on display at the Amsterdam museum.
Alongside the artwork, the Van Gogh Museum has curated an excellent collection of letters and photographs that walks visitors through the events of Van Gogh’s life as he painted. From strategically placed plaques throughout the galleries, I learned of the artist’s often difficult relationship with his parents and his love for his five siblings, especially his younger brother Theo. I also became aware of something I had never realized before: that is, Van Gogh’s penchant for grand plans, none of which came to fruition. For example, with his work The Potato Eaters, he hoped to begin a major art movement centered on portraying subjects drawn from the peasant population. Later, eager for friendship, he tried in vain to begin an artists’ colony in Arles, France. The only artist who humored him in this effort was Paul Gauguin, but he lived with Van Gogh only for a short time before they quarreled, and he returned to Paris.
The final gallery in the collection is devoted to pieces created by Van Gogh during his year in a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and during the months leading up to his death. Even during this time of great personal suffering, the artist continued to fight his “good fight,” producing the astonishingly prolific average of one painting every two days. While he was too sick to be allowed outside, he copied the works of other artists, such as Eugène Delacroix’s Pietà. Eventually, he was able to venture out of doors and paint what landscape he could see from within the walls of the hospital. It was during his time at Saint-Rémy that Van Gogh painted two of his most beautiful and recognizable works, Almond Blossoms and Wheatfield with Crows. The former was a gift to his brother Theo and Theo’s wife, Jo, upon the birth of their son, Vincent Willem. In fact, Vincent Willem himself would later found the Van Gogh Museum.
While the content of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is excellent, my experience there was partly marred by a pervasive culture of commercialism. In an ironic twist of fate, given Van Gogh’s inability to sell any of his paintings during his lifetime, the museum named after him has created a booming business out of slapping his artwork on everything from lipstick cases to bags of potato chips. Furthermore, the Van Gogh Museum was the only one of several art museums I visited in Europe to ban photography of any kind, clearly in an effort to sell more postcards. The museum guards stiffly enforced this rule, diminishing what was an otherwise rich experience.
At the end of my visit, I did indeed buy a postcard. I bought one because I love Van Gogh; and, if you too love the red-haired painter, I urge you to visit his museum in Amsterdam. If a trip to Amsterdam is not in the cards for you, at least go to the museum website, a resource rich in imagery, biography, and original documents pertaining to Vincent Van Gogh. You can find the website and other resources like it here on our Free Resources page.
Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman is Operations Manager, Web Master, and Artistic Director for Cana Academy.
All images used in this post are public domain under PD-Old.