Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Living in the South of France, painting and studying art history, I easily assumed that every museum would have a Van Gogh. I mean they have the works of the other famous artists who came there to paint. Certainly I expected to find a treasure trove of them in Arles, famous not only for Van Gogh's time there, but also for being the home of Jean Calment, who lived to be 122 years old and actually sold paint to Van Gogh. Yet, in Arles' Van Gogh Center, while one recognizes the yellow walls and white columned arches surrounding the courtyard of what was the hospital where Vincent spent time, they have none of his paintings. One thinks of the Yellow House, the street scenes with cafés, the faces of Dr. Gachet and Dr. Remy and the postman, all firmly local images. But where are they? The answer: Due north in Amsterdam.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is indeed impressive and makes you wonder how Vincent would have felt seeing this temple to his art, which so sadly barely sold during his lifetime (only one out of 900 paintings, it is said). The museum rises in staggered layers to a total of five floors, though in European counting it has four floors and a ground floor. On one side of it is a neighborhood that looks like something found in Manhattan, with stone and brick buildings rising several stories, side-by-side, each with a set of stairs leading to the door, and a parking of green grass and trees between the sidewalk and the curb. New York/New Amsterdam. It's just a little reminder of home, like the houses in Harleem (the original one) where houses have front yards, hedges, and a grand picture window, allowing passers-by to look in at the immaculate and well-appointed living room (sound familiar?)
Inside the museum are more paintings than one can imagine any one person painting, especially in the short few years of his active career as a painter. When we think of Van Gogh, normally images of a tortured soul come to mind, distressed looking self-portraits, wild sunflowers, or fields with armies of black crows flying overhead. We seldom think of the branches of almond blossoms he painted to celebrate the birth of his nephew. Lovely and delicate, they are a fitting gift to celebrate a new life.
Those were not the only surprising pieces in that museum. He had self portraits that were actually handsome, from the time when he was first in Paris (of course we are all beautiful in Paris). He also had many pieces inspired by Japanese prints, which were all the rage in the 1880s, with Monet collecting so many, there are now special tours of Japanese that visit Giverny just to see the famous Japanese prints. The Japanese print makers were famous for doing prints of rain, but it was to be later that I found out about Vincent's rain paintings. Initially I thought I had missed them as I chickened out on going to the top floor of the museum along with our intrepid art historian and my colleagues from our art history class. Eyes glazed over and feet aching, but an itching desire to go shopping (yes, I said it), I hung back and faded away out of the door to freedom and a glass of beer.
And perhaps it was okay after all, because when the Philadelphia Museum of Art put together their blockbuster show, Van Gogh Up Close, I came across Van Gogh's rain paintings. One simply entitled Rain (see above) is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and another is in the Art Museum of Wales (see below). It was lent out to Philadelphia for that show. So neither of these were in Amsterdam at all.
Though from a later date, this print by Shotei shows the Japanese representation of rain streaking down in much the same way as Van Gogh represented it in blue slashes. Van Gogh has other pieces inspired by Japanese prints, but I find the paintings of rain on the fields of France to be the most pleasing. In these and many of his other landscapes, he inverts the normal proportions of traditional Dutch landscape which have 2/3s sky and 1/3 land or sea. Van Gogh's sky is just a thin blue strip across the top of the painting. The emphasis is on the fields. Note the difference in the proportion of land to sky in Rain- Auvers-sur-Oise when compared to the Jacob Van Ruisdael below.
In looking at the blues, violets, golds, and greens of the landscape as captured by Van Gogh, I am always struck by his connection to nature and how much he allowed himself to be a part of it as a plein air painter. Out in the elements, not unlike Monet, who was once almost swept away by an ocean wave while out plein air painting, Van Gogh felt the sun, the winds, and the rain, capturing them for us to experience through his painted renditions of them.
Now, for a wonderful mystery surrounding a famous incident in Van Gogh's life, take a look at this segment of Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh's Ear https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lu4PZdq9FgU You will not only discover the beauty of Arles, but also why Van Gogh may have come to Arles. Clue: It wasn't painting.
For a preview of the special show now in Paris of projected images of Van Gogh's work
So what is your favorite Van Gogh? There is one for each of us. Log in and talk about it.
And remember, Art loves you, so return the favor.
For my author page of art and travel inspired fiction, https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001K8PNPI
Images from public domain sources.