“Who is there that conveys, in form and colour, the magnificent dynamic energy the 19th century is again becoming aware of? I know of one man, a lone pioneer, struggling on his own in the depths of darkest night. His name, Vincent, will go down to posterity. There will be more to be said about this heroic Dutchman in future.” If only Joseph Jacob Isaacson, Dutch artist and critic, knew how true his words would ring. Vincent van Gogh would battle bouts of mania, melancholy, and debilitating anxiety throughout most of his life. And, ironically, while mostly under-appreciated by his peers in life, van Gogh would become one of the most recognized and celebrated painters of all time. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, together with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, have come together to tell his turbulent but brilliant story through an exclusive exhibit “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art.”
Upon entering the Introduction Gallery, nine reproductions hang against elegantly handwritten correspondences. These letters exchanged almost daily between Vincent and his sole supportive family member, Theodorus, serve as a sort of diary into the thoughts, emotions, and justifications of Vincent’s ramblings. The reproductions of treasured pieces, too fragile to be lent out, as well as the over 800 personal letters, serve to briefly introduce visitors to the five pivotal periods of van Gogh’s short but prolific artistic life. Once leaving the Introduction Gallery, every one of the over 50 masterpieces throughout the exhibit is original van Gogh works of art.
The Early Years (1881-1885)
Following a series of failed careers and under the urging of his most loyal younger brother, Vincent finally took up art seriously at the age of 27. Once deciding to pursue a career as an artist, he vigorously set out to master drawing, stating, “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.” Van Gogh, comically, lacked natural artistic talent but any inherent inadequacies conceded to his sheer energy and zealous vigor.
From the Introductory Gallery, visitors step into the moody, stoic semblance of 19th-century rural Netherlands. This dark gallery, full of earth-toned portraits depicting the crude, harsh realities of peasant life of Drente, illustrates van Gogh’s evolving mastery of sculpting dark subjects from low and side-lighting while drawing out subtle details hidden within deep shadows. Spotlighted in this gallery, are many of his earliest studies of the De Groot family, in which he composed numerous studies of, including The Potato Eaters (1885). This piece left van Gogh’s brother and fellow artists less than enamored but would become considered his earliest masterpiece.
Leaving behind the somber tones of his earliest works, visitors advance into the next gallery and into van Gogh’s “Luminous Period.” In order to be closer to fellow artists and his sole financial supporter, Theo, he moves to Paris. Here, he cultivates significant friendships with influential artists such as Louis Anquetin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Émile Bernard, and Adolphe Monticelli, whose excessive application of paint greatly influences van Gogh’s future work. Punctuated by dreamy blues and hints of fiery reds, the energizing effect of his time spent in Paris becomes evident throughout his over 200 paintings produced there. Towering larger-than-life sketches, swirling floral still-lifes, and a pointillized self-portrait usher viewers around this gallery and through his, quite possibly, happiest years.
After two years in Paris van Gogh travels south in hopes of establishing an artist’s colony along the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. Captivated by the vibrant, sun-washed landscapes of southern France, van Gogh begins infusing many of his works with cheerful yellows. He gushes to Theo, “Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word, I can only call yellow – pale sulfur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!” Unfortunately, within a few short months, van Gogh’s mental stability would begin to deteriorate alarmingly. This last gallery of “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art” displays some of his most brilliant and eloquent pieces, many produced from inner recesses of an insane asylum.
Following the nervous breakdown where he notoriously mutilated his left ear, van Gogh sought at Saint-Paul’s Hospital. During his self-induced year-long stint in the Saint Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy van Gogh produced some of his most notable and poignant pieces while confined to the grounds of the asylum. They include numerous paintings of rolling golden fields of wheat, lush flower gardens, and the much celebrated Starry Night. Not permitted to venture outside the asylum walls, van Gogh returned to his favorite subject matter of peasants by painting his interpretations based off of Jean-Francois Millet’s Work in the Fields series. Done in his tell-tale energetic strokes of blues and yellows, he once mused, “One must paint the peasants as if one were one of them, as feeling, thinking, as they do themselves…I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world.”
Auvers-sur-Oise (May-July 1890)
After leaving the asylum, Vincent longed for the familiarity of the north. He stops in Paris to visit Theo for a few days before continuing on to Auver--Oise. In this small provincial village close to Paris, Theo found an amateur painter and homeopathic physician that agreed to care for the still unstable Vincent van Gogh. While initially robust, van Gogh began battling guilt over being a financial burden to his brother, fearing his unstable mental state, and anxious over his uncertain future, Vincent van Gogh attempted suicide on July 27th by inflicting a single gunshot to his chest. Vincent eventually passed two days later in the arms of his devoted brother, Theo. He was only 37 years old. Theo, perpetually sickly, succumbed to difficulties of syphilis only six months after Vincent’s suicide. Just as in life, they can be found side by side, interred in Auvers--Oise.
In just ten short years as an artist, Vincent van Gogh produced over 870 paintings. This doesn’t include his countless etches, engravings, and watercolors. This exhibit of over 50 original pieces of Vincent van Gogh can only be found at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and only until June 27th, 2019. To further enhance the experience, optional audio tour, which delves deeper into select pieces with narration. commentary, and insights from MFAH are available with ticket purchase.
This exhibit is installed at the Audrey Jones Beck Building located at 5601 Main Street, Houston Texas.