Published: August 8, 2000
BOSTON, MASS. – “Van Gogh, ,” installed at The Museum of Fine Arts until September 24, puts a fresh face on Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) portraiture and compels visitors to evaluate his impact across the field of modern portraiture. Previous major exhibitions of van Gogh’s work focused on his still lifes and landscapes. A few small exhibits examined narrow groups of his portraits, but this is the first comprehensive exhibition to survey the full range of van Gogh portraits.
Van Gogh worked extensively in portraiture as well as in landscapes and still lifes. In his final year, he wrote his sister stating, “That which excites me the most, much, much more than all the rest of my work – is the portrait, the modern portrait…I should like to do portraits that, a century later, might appear to people of the time like apparitions. Accordingly, I don’t try to do that by the way of photographic resemblance, but by way of our impassioned expressions.”
Visitors anticipating a show jammed with big oil paintings rendered in high value colors will be shocked. Van Gogh was an impoverished artist for whom canvas and oils were major expenses. Therefore most of van Gogh’s portraits were small, about 15 by 18 inches, while large examples measure 21 by 25 inches. The 81 works on exhibit include 46 oil paintings and 35 graphic works, primarily drawings. Three of the oils were thriftily painted on a cardboard foundation.
For half of his ten-year career, van Gogh’s palette was limited to the dark earthtones of the Dutch Old Masters, the Barbizon Movement, and The Hague School. About 40 percent of the works on display have this low-keyed palette.
The skeptical visitor might become obsessed about the absence of a few of the most admired van Gogh portraits such as “The Potato Eaters” and “Dr Gachet,” but the survey includes related works. For example, the exhibit includes some individual portraits of family members seen in “The Potato Eaters.” In the absence of an oil painting of Dr Gachet, there are two etchings of the doctor. This exhibition presents a comprehensive span of van Gogh’s portraits and offers a great experience for enthusiasts of modern art. Ten days after the exhibit opened at the MFA, 112,000 tickets were sold (many for future dates.)
For this exhibition, the MFA’s Gund Gallery is subdivided into six galleries with each devoted to a period in the artist’s career. The first gallery presents monochromatic drawings on dark paper. Guided by drawing manuals, van Gogh drew pensioners living at the Dutch Reform Old People’s Home, and within a few years he mastered draftsmanship.
Although the drawings of pensioners were in effect student practice assignments, van Gogh’s correspondence shows that their inspiration and intent stayed with him throughout his career. Their inspiration came largely from works by Rembrandt’s beggar drawings and Jean-Francois Millet’s peasant drawings created with the intent of presenting the impoverished and dispossessed with dignity.
The second gallery features drawings from 1882 and 1883 depicting van Gogh’s live-in companion and her family. The drawing “Sien Seated” exemplifies works from this period. Sien, a single mother heavily pregnant with another child, rests a heavy head in her palm as she stares downward. Her face expresses a stoic resignation. Through pose and facial expression, the image conveys a sense that she will persevere, but she anticipates a joyless, hard life.
The two drawing galleries underscore van Gogh’s remarkable draftsmanship. Once the visitor’s attention is tuned to van Gogh’s fine draftsmanship, his antennae remain tuned to draftsmanship in the later galleries that feature mostly paintings. There the viewer discovers that superb draftsmanship was a cornerstone of van Gogh’s works.
Merging Rembrandt And Millet
The works in the third gallery were created between 1883 and 1885, mostly while van Gogh was living in Nuenen, the Netherlands and feature peasants and artisans as models. Two thirds of these works are paintings and the others are drawings. The two most striking physical attributes of the paintings are their very dark earthtone palette and quick, wide brushstrokes. Van Gogh applied the color theory of compiled by Eugene Delacroix, but skewed it toward colors with reduced tone in the manner of Rembrandt.
The wide, quick brushstrokes were borrowed from the Dutch Old Masters. After visiting the opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1885, van Gogh wrote, “What struck me most on seeing the old Dutch paintings again is that most of them were painted quickly, and that these great masters, such as a Frans Hals, a Rembrandt, a Ruysdael and so many others – dashed off a thing from the first stroke and did not retouch it so very much.”
He continued, “I am more convinced than ever that the true painters did not finish their things in the way which is used only too often, namely correct when one scrutinizes it closely. The best pictures, and from a technical point of view the most complete, seen from near by, are but patches of color side by side, and only make an effect at a certain distance.”
Van Gogh’s portraiture masterpiece from this period was a group portrait of five members of the van Rooy and de Groot families entitled “The Potato Eaters.” Unfortunately that is not in this exhibit. MFA curator George Shackelford explained, “‘The Potato Eaters’ is one of the cornerstone works at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and they simply can not lend it out. The one instance that it came to America was when the van Gogh Museum was being renovated and closed to the public. We were fortunate to borrow some of the individual portraits of the sitters.”
In the fourth gallery visitors will find a more familiar van Gogh. Here, most works are oil paintings created in Paris between 1886 and 1888 with the high-keyed colors van Gogh borrowed from the Impressionists. In Paris van Gogh began to accept that he was a radical on the quest of a new paradigm rather than a disciple of a Renaissance paradigm. Works in this gallery document van Gogh’s quest for a modern portraiture paradigm.
In 1880, Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother and best friend, was permanently assigned to the Goupil gallery in Paris, and for the next six years he sent to Vincent glowing accounts of the Impressionists. Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris in March of 1886, shortly before the eighth and final Impressionist exhibit and several months before the first Pointillist (Neo-Impressionist) exhibition.
Influenced by Impressionist and Neo-Impressionists, van Gogh shifted his palette to high-keyed colors. This entailed a total overhaul of his color theory. As he adapted to the new theory, van Gogh painted floral still lifes. His explanation for that practice was that since he did not have enough money for models to pose for portraits, he practiced color theory by painting flowers. Friends and supporters brought him new flowers every week. It was almost a year before he painted his first portrait in the lighter palette – “Woman at a Table in the Café du Tambourin.”
While in Paris, van Gogh also narrowed his brushstroke to a width of at most a quarter inch, though more often an eighth of an inch or less. He experimented with the comma stroke of the Impressionists and the dot of the Pointillists, but more importantly he invented brushstrokes that revealed contours, endowed energy and showed it radiating, and subtly moved the viewer’s eye around the image.
In Paris, van Gogh created two dozen self-portraits that document his experimentation with Impressionist techniques and his swing to experimental works that anticipated Expressionism. The revolutionary extent of his progress is indicated by “Self-Portrait with Felt Hat.” This image was singularly meant to convey the intense, explosive energy trapped within the sitter. All strokes are the later version of the van Gogh dash. When today’s art students are shown this image without a caption, they guess that it was created by contemporary artist Chuck Close.
Arles – Van Gogh’s High Period
Exhaustion and weakness caused van Gogh to leave Paris in February 1888, and he went to the rural town Arles where he experienced the last highly productive year of his career. During his ten months in Arles he produced 170 paintings. Unfortunately, only three dozen were portraits.
Van Gogh increasingly used arbitrary color to significantly alter the statement of his paintings with the intention of revealing his sitter’s inner essence. The expanded discussion of inner essence triggered a continuing critical debate over whose essence actually is revealed in modern portraiture. Essayist Judy Sund and others have raised the issue that the artist’s perceived image of a sitter’s inner self is actually a projection of artist’s own inner self. Sund believes van Gogh and, subsequently, the Expressionists revealed their own inner selves in images that nominally portray others.
Her opinion is supported by two images of a Zouave soldier in this exhibit. A sketch depicts an enthusiastic, lanky lad in his late teens, but a painting based on the sketch shows a heavy set soldier approaching middle age bearing a resigned countenance.
The fifth gallery is dominated by 17 images of Roulin family members. One series contains seven depictions of Joseph Roulin. By using arbitrary color and small structural changes, van Gogh manipulated each image to trigger a different interpretation by the viewer. An examination of this series provides insight into and appreciation for van Gogh’s management of the painted image.
The most harmonious portrait in the series is a portrait of Roulin owned by the MFA that depicts him seated in a cane seat by the corner of a table. The harmony is established by a mottled robin’s-egg blue background that harmonizes well with the sitter’s medium blue uniform. A clever balance of facial characteristics and coloring are used to express a calm, mature man. For example, the right cheek is energized with red and oranges while the left cheek has only touches of orange. His cap casts off shadow over most of his forehead, but a small highlighted patch does glow to achieve another balance. The sitter looks directly into the viewer’s eyes, but half-open eyelids indicate a comfortable, rather than confrontational, attitude. Facial folds and bulges are those of a middle-aged man.
In a bust portrait lent by the Kunstmuseum, van Gogh employed arbitrary colors and facial features to express a sorrowful, melancholy Roulin. The solid backdrop of greenish mustard establishes a heavy atmosphere while introducing severity by its contrast with the sitter’s dark blue uniform. Color has been drained from the sitter’s face, as depicted in greens and tans. Tan-green circles far beneath the eyes create a large space in which the iris of the eye seems small, conferring a hollow and listless quality to the area of the eyes. His beard is depicted in flat, lifeless greens and browns. Multiple color manipulations minimize the forehead highlight.
In the Roulin portrait lent by the Museum of Modern Art, van Gogh depicted a younger Roulin projecting an optimistic, engaging countenance. At first glance, the viewer recognizes a light-hearted mood denoted by a playful backdrop wistfully manipulated to caricature. In a spoof of Art Nouveau textiles (Siegfried Bing was a personal friend and supporter), a wildly scrolled vine with large stylized flowers sprawls across the backdrop. The green of the backdrop harmonizes with the sitter’s uniform. In this image, the middle-aged sags and folds of Roulin’s face have vanished, and he is two decades younger. His cheeks have a mellow rouge glow. His cap casts a line-thin shadow that contrasts with bright forehead highlight. Gentle eyes project an unspoken “Welcome.” The sitter’s beard splits and cascades onto the sitter’s chest in robust rolling waves of light tan and green over the inner green-black beard. This important work clearly anticipates Expressionism.
St. Remy And Auvers – Physical Decline, Depressed Images
Hours after an argument with artist Paul Gauguin in December of 1888, Vincent van Gogh cut off a significant portion of his own right ear. The next day he was hospitalized in Arles, and thereafter was in and out of that hospital until May of 1889 when he entered an asylum at St. Remy. Doctors classified his illness as a form of epilepsy, and it has been speculated that it was associated with alcoholism and/or syphilis. Major setbacks, minor setbacks, fear of setbacks, and nightmares increasingly imposed on van Gogh’s life and mind. On occasion, even good news such as critical praise of his work unsettled him.
Through 19 months of physical decline and mental anguish, van Gogh continued painting when possible. In some stretches he did not have the energy to work, and during other stretches he was not allowed access to paints, since in one attack he swallowed paints. Despite the downward spiral of his health, van Gogh created fine portraits during this period. A month before his death, he painted two versions of Dr Gachet’s portrait. One of those was looted by the Nazis and went into the collection of Field Marshall Hermann Goring. Christie’s auctioned that work in May 1990 for $82.5 million.
Impact Of Van Gogh Portraits On Fauves, Expressionists, and Others
Joseph Rishel, curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has researched a thick web of connections between van Gogh’s work and later portraiture by Fauvist, Expressionist, and other modern movements. The 1905 retrospective exhibit of van Gogh’s work greatly impressed Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Vlaminck commented, “I loved van Gogh better than my father.” They and their associates created new works inspired by van Gogh and exhibited them later that year at the Salon d’Automne where the group was given name Les Fauves. Thus, Fauvism was founded.
Rishel also found that van Gogh’s influence permeated the Expressionist movement. Artists themselves acknowledged that the influence went further. In 1953 Oskar Kokoschka was asked about the impact of van Gogh’s work on modern art. He responded in part, “No visitor could ignore evidence of the disruption in the traditional approach to art in any exhibition of van Gogh’s works which included the Fauves, Cubists, Surrealists, or Non-objective artists.”
Jantine Van Gogh
Those very familiar with van Gogh’s work found the portrait exhibit fresh and exciting. One visitor in particular was Jantine van Gogh, the great granddaughter of Theo van Gogh. When interviewed by Antiques and The Arts Weekly, she stated, “I am very happy with the exhibit. The museum has made an attractive presentation. This is a wonderful opportunity to see some different paintings, and to see familiar paintings in a different context. The paintings that are new to me are from different nations, museums, and collections, and I appreciate the chance to see them.”
This exhibit was previously at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and its final installation will be at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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