Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853 — July 29, 1890) is generally considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. An artist of exceptional intensity, not only in his use of color and exuberant application of paint but also in his personal life, van Gogh was powerfully and passionately drawn to nature. “I … am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself,” van Gogh wrote in a letter to his sister, Wilhemina, in July of 1889 — a mere year prior to his death.
“Van Gogh Up Close,” a major exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada, presents a group of the artist’s innovative works that broke with the past and dramatically altered the course of modern painting. Made between 1886 and 1890 in Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers, the works in the exhibition concentrate on an important and previously overlooked aspect of van Gogh’s work: “close-ups” that bring familiar subjects such as landscape elements, still lifes, and flowers into the extreme foreground of the composition or focus on them in ways that are entirely unexpected and without precedent.
“‘Van Gogh Up Close’ explores an important facet of van Gogh’s work that underscores his importance as a path-finding modern artist,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “In seeking to share the intensity of his emotional response to the world around him as directly as possible, van Gogh took the traditional methods making pictures and changed the rules.”
After unsuccessfully pursuing careers as an art dealer, teacher and pastor, van Gogh encouraged by his brother Theo, began to study art in 1880. In the Netherlands in 1885, he completed his first major works using a palette of browns, greens, grays, and blacks. A year later, his work underwent a striking shift when, arriving in Paris, he was confronted for the first time by the Impressionist paintings of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and others. These progressive artists inspired him to lighten his palette and modernize his brushstroke. At roughly the same time, van Gogh began to collect Japanese woodblock prints, fascinated by their vibrant color, high horizon lines, tilting perspectives, and truncated or unusually cropped edges. These influences encouraged van Gogh to experiment with a radical treatment of field and space, flattening and compressing the picture plane in his paintings in order to create a sense of shifting perspective and tension.
The exhibition will feature over 70 works, including 46 paintings by van Gogh and more than 30 comparative works such as Japanese woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and Hayashi Roshü; European prints and drawings by Jean Corot, Camille Pissarro, and Jacob Ruisdael; and photographs by Frederick Evans, August Kotzsch, and others. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese and European prints and drawings by artists whose aesthetic devices served as sources of inspiration for him. While van Gogh was loudly dismissive of photography, the medium offers intriguing parallels with his work and it is possible that van Gogh would have been fascinated by contemporary landscape photographs.
“Studying Van Gogh’s close-ups is essential to understanding the artist’s development, as they demonstrate a visual strategy that has been touched upon in scholarship but has not been systematically separated and addressed,” notes Jennifer Thompson, the Philadelphia Museum’s Gloria and Jack Drosdick Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900 and the Rodin Museum. “By exploring this astonishing dimension of the artist’s achievements, we will establish a greater understanding of the scope of his work.”
“Van Gogh Up Close” runs from February 1 to May 6 at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, the only U.S. venue for this major traveling exhibition. For general information, call (215) 763-8100 or visit www.philamuseum.org.