Zooming In on
Naturally the Philadelphia Museum of Art  opened the Van Gogh Up Close  exhibit with its well known treasure, Sunflowers (1888 or 1889), but it was the far more striking Sunflowers (1887) from the master colorist’s Paris years that stole the show. Two yellow ocher blooms, one presenting its face to the viewer, the other its back, vibrate against a background of mostly cobalt blue. Assured brushstrokes of crimson limn the edges of the petals (actually leaves) and crisscross each other, not quite capturing the Fibonacci spiral  of the flower’s brown center (a collection of tiny florets). One can imagine the obsessed artist squinting intently at his slowly wilting subjects to better grasp the complex patterns of nature.
Because the wildly popular Vincent Willem van Gogh guarantees a crowd for any museum mounting an exhibit in his name, many such shows have cropped up over the years. Remarkably, guest curator Cornelia Homburg managed to conjure up a fresh perspective from which to examine this artist’s oeuvre. Noticing within his body of work paintings that share a cluster of traits, she proposed the current show to the National Gallery of Canada  in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum.
Homburg began her exploration with the 33-year-old van Gogh’s sojourn in Paris (1886-1888), during which time he lived with his art-dealing, younger brother Theo, met and socialized with fellow artists in art class and at exhibitions, and absorbed the radiant hues of Impressionism and the alluring compositions of Japanese prints. During this brief respite from inner turmoil that invariably surfaced,1 van Gogh diligently applied himself to learning the newfangled painting techniques of his peers in hopes of churning out a more marketable product.
Many paintings from then and the rest of his all-too-brief life (he died of a gunshot wound to his abdomen in 1890) display close-up views of still-life objects in simplified settings, and foreground details in landscape views with high horizons. Influenced by Japanese printmakers like Utawaga Hiroshige I  and others (on view in their own room at the exhibit) and drawn to their philosophy of contemplation, van Gogh sought elusive solace in emulation of them.
In 1889, from the asylum in St. Remy, the artist wrote to his sister Wilhelmien, “I…am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself.”2 In choosing to focus his visual attention in that way, van Gogh practiced a now well-recognized method of trance induction.
The central thesis of Van Gogh Up Close–that his propensity for zooming in on nature, still or wild, was unique to his last few years and certain of his paintings–overlooks the obsession with which van Gogh approached all endeavors in his life. While honing his draftsmanship early in his career, the fledgling artist wrote to his brother, “I still believe that the way to get that boldness and daring later is to quietly carry on observing as faithfully as possible now.”3
In learning to draw the figure, van Gogh demonstrated a monomaniacal ability to focus in on one object, spending hours intensely concentrating on his poor beleaguered models4 and, in landscapes like Behind the Schenkweg, The Hague (1882),5 demonstrated the same fascination with details and dramatic shifts in perspective that characterize his later work.
Perhaps there was something about Paris–that Vincent was manifesting his long dreamed of artistic reunion with Theo, that he was participating in the albeit often strained comradery of other artists–that allowed him to again sit still for a while. Whatever the fortuitous precipitants, the results of those labors enjoyed expert illumination (no glare here despite all the framing under glass) throughout the exhibit and especially in the introductory gallery, which featured six floral still lifes and one pair of shoes.
In one offering, Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers (1886), van Gogh sculpted the flowers with abbreviated strokes of impasto, working wet on wet with great precision. A transparent, thinly applied reddish brown backdrop contrasts with the thickly brushed table on which sits a vase whose form is modeled with green and highlighted with pure white. A bloom in the lower left of the bouquet, defined by the red one behind it, begs to be smelled. The ocher flower surrounded by all the white ones and set off by the light blue abutting it, might that represent the artist himself?
Further along, the visitor encountered the stunning Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies (1887), a prime specimen of van Gogh’s attachment to the power of simultaneous contrast, a concept he knew from Charles Blanc ’s treatise on a subject6 originally explained by textile chemist Michel Eugéne Chevreul .7 In this animated painting, a profusion of pale blue flowers and a similarly hued background provide the stage for impossibly bright red-orange blossoms that crown the spray and lead the eye to a red-accented green table with a vase that adds more blue.
Adhering to the theory of simultaneous contrast, which states that a color’s chroma is intensified when placed adjacent to its color wheel opposite, in Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies, van Gogh juxtaposed red-orange with its complement blue, and green with its antithesis red. Then he scattered strokes of dark blue and added a number of pure white daisies, using extremes of value for heightened impact.
With a nod to the pointillists in the somewhat different Crown Imperial (Fritillaria) in a Copper Vase (1887), van Gogh sprinkled stars across the dark blue background, adding a bit of heaven to his art. With smooth strokes, he blended yellow into red to describe the fritillaries, and stippled yellow onto the red-brown vase to suggest copper, varying his paint application as the object required, in complete control of his medium.
Thrown in among the pretty plants, A Pair of Shoes (1887) provides humble evidence of van Gogh’s accomplished draftsmanship. Like the pair of Sunflowers sharing views from above and below, these shoes show off their tops and bottoms. In this study of blues, red-browns and pinks, the artist used smaller brushes to rim the shoes’ edges, dot in the cleats and squiggle on the laces, indicating the concentration with which he painted during those years.
Accompanied by some other still lifes in the last room of the exhibit, Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples (1887) epitomizes van Gogh’s aptitude for innovatively integrating disparate artistic styles. While channeling Cezanne in his apples and pears, the artist also referenced Dutch Golden Age still-life painters in the translucent quality of his grapes. With radiating and encircling dashes of pastel colors, he suggested the opening of a cornucopia and, after the paint had dried, layered on deep blue marks of shadow. In the upper right, a starburst of olive and ocher enliven a pointed leaf while a barely begun one in the foreground already casts a shadow, marking the work as still in progress.
In between the first and last galleries, landscapes predominated and mirrored van Gogh’s change of scenery. In the winter of 1888, the artist fled the overstimulating environment of Paris and headed south to rural Arles. There he hoped to establish a community of artists practicing a new art in a contemplative setting like that of his Japanese idyll.
Throughout the last two years of his life, van Gogh reflected in his work both his growth as an artist and his deteriorating mental state.8 The high horizon line that he borrowed from Japanese prints disappeared entirely in closeups like Iris (1889), and in paintings like Blossoming Acacia Branches (1890) and Ears of Wheat  (1890), which border on total abstraction, van Gogh took the lead in the race toward modernity.
With Iris, the artist zoomed in on a single plant thriving in its natural environment instead of dying in a vase. The shock of the bright blue bloom and its accompanying buds saves the painting from dissolving into a mass of hyperactive green brushstrokes. Unsure of when his mind might desert him again, van Gogh unwittingly represented in this and many of his other late landscapes his futile efforts to stanch the flood of agitated thoughts that beset him during bouts of illness.
Representing a time of clarity and control, Wheatfield embodies perfectly van Gogh’s perception of the seasons. Writing to Theo in 1884, the artist waxed poetical: “The spring is tender green (young wheat) and pink (apple blossom). The autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. The winter is the snow with the little black silhouettes.”9
In a field of purple earth with yellow stubble, three sheaves of wheat crowned with flecks of gold lean against each other like the three Graces . Behind them stretches an expanse of ocher interrupted by stripes of green and yellow that stop before a horizontal band of deep blue mountains and trees that turns green as it extends to the right. Clouds of white applied wet on wet over a green-blue sky demonstrate the dexterity with which van Gogh could throw paint. A single cypress towers above all else on the right while a smaller tree occupies the center, perhaps expressing the gulf between the artist and his world.
By the end of 1888, van Gogh’s dream of establishing a studio in the south had dissolved along with his mental health in the acid of his neighbors’ reactions to his off-putting behavior and the fallout from his cohabitation with Paul Gauguin. After several bouts of illness and hospitalizations, the bedraggled artist conceded defeat and admitted himself to an asylum in St. Remy, where he remained until the spring of 1890 when, frustrated by the restrictions of institutional living, he headed north.
At the asylum, van Gogh took advantage of his good days to first draw and then paint the fields and mountains visible from his window. Once stabilized and permitted to venture off the grounds, he resumed his habit of trekking around the countryside in search of subjects.
In Road Menders at Saint-Remy (1889), the artist’s attention settled on three giant London plane trees and some workers repairing a road glistening with puddles alongside a wavy street in town. Although some blue peeks out from behind the houses and background trees, the overall air is one of claustrophobia.
Borrowing pastel tones from the Impressionists, van Gogh created drama with bright green shutters, deep blue figures, and dark outlines that contain the busy grey, violet, pink and blue of the peeling bark. Perhaps the solid, enduring qualities of these ancient plants attracted him and contemplating them brought him some small comfort.
Ever chasing an elusive family reunion, van Gogh was elevated to new heights of hope by news of the birth of his nephew and namesake, Theo’s firstborn, early in 1890. To celebrate the new arrival, he painted in the dead of winter a symbol of spring and renewal as a gift for the child.10
Inspired to levels of concentration often missing in many of the rapidly executed landscapes of his last few years, van Gogh spent sufficient time on Almond Blossom (1890) to layer wet paint over dry and carefully delineate the outlines of branches where they abut the background blue. Like he did in his Parisian still lifes, the artist here constructs the flowers with impasto white, hints of green and touches of red, once again in complete command of his brush.
The dream did not last long. Van Gogh crashed along with his hopes in the spring of 1890 during a brief stay in Paris at Theo’s. After a blowup with his financially stressed brother who, despite having new responsibilities of wife and child, continued to support the demanding, chronically broke Vincent, the unnerved artist relocated yet again, this time to Auvers-sur-Oise, a short train ride from the big city.
Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890) emerged soon after van Gogh’s flight. Related to other images of the forest floor (sous-bois) but distinct in its bright coloring and the inclusion of figures, this double-square painting is tinged with foreboding. Oddly, in describing the picture, “[v]an Gogh never mentioned the human inhabitants…instead describing its colour [sic] and composition.”11
An alignment of trees outlined in black and covered with blue and pink bark pens in a well-dressed couple strolling arm in arm amid a profusion of yellow and green underbrush and shadowed by a midnight blue background. The scene obliquely references the nature walks conducted regularly by van Gogh’s parents for the benefit of their children back in the artist’s rural hometown of Zundert.
Born into a family too conventionally close and religiously observant for his inquisitive and singular temperament, Vincent quickly acquired the role of problem child. Shipped out for schooling and then employment, eventually banished completely from returning home, van Gogh spent his life dreaming up artist colonies and instant families.
In Undergrowth with Two Figures, a much thicker tree, centrally placed, bars entrance to the flowered walk and parental figures, a representation of the impossibility of ever returning home. But in his unrelenting pursuit of that longed for reunion, van Gogh adopted mentors, sought fellowship with others, absorbed a variety of artistic styles and created an art that only he could.
1 See Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (London: Profile Books, 2011) for the pre-cradle to post-grave details of van Gogh’s tumultuous and tragic life.
2 Anabelle Kienle, “Poetic Nature: A Reading of Van Gogh’s Letters” in Van Gogh Up Close (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 43.
3 Quoted in Cornelia Homburg, editor, Vincent van Gogh: Timeless Country–Modern City (Milan: Skira, 2010), 228.
4 See Colta Ives, et al, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), the catalog for the show of the same name, for a look at van Gogh’s earliest artwork.
5 See Timeless Country–Modern City, plate 5.
6 Charles Auguste-Alexandre-Phillipe Blanc, Grammaire des arts du dessin, 1867.
7 Michel Eugéne Chevreul, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts, translated by Charles Martel, 1854.
8 Convincingly diagnosed as the inherited disease of acute intermittent porphyria by Wilfred Niels Arnold in “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 13:1 (2004), 22-43.
9 Quoted in Timeless Country–Modern City, 243.
10 Exhibit wall text for Almond Blossom.
11 Jennifer A. Thompson, “Sous-Bois” in Van Gogh Up Close, 208.
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May 25 – September 3, 2012.