An artist of exceptional intensity, not merely in his use of color and exuberant application of paint but also in his volatile personal life, Vincent van Gogh was passionately drawn to nature. From 1886, when van Gogh left Antwerp for Paris, to 1890 when he ended his own life in Auvers, van Gogh’s feverish artistic experimentation and zeal for the natural world propelled him to radically refashion his still lifes and landscapes. With an passionate desire to engage the viewer with the power of the emotions he experienced before nature, van Gogh radically altered and at times even abandoned traditional pictorial strategies in order to create still lifes and landscapes that broke entirely with past modes of painting.
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 most daring and 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. These landscapes and still lifes have not previously been seen together or identified before as critical to our understanding of van Gogh’s artistic achievement.
Van Gogh Up Close, includes major loans from museums and private collections in Europe, North America, and Japan, and will be seen in the United States only in Philadelphia through May 6. 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.
“Van Gogh Up Close explores an important facet of van Gogh’s work that underscores his importance as a path-finding modern artist,” comments 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, Vincent van Gogh (1853 –1890), prompted 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 by the new pointillist works of Seurat 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.
Working initially in the apartment he shared with Theo in Montmartre, van Gogh painted a series of still lifes of flowers and fruit such as Still Life with Pears (1888) and Sunflowers (1887). In these works, objects are often seen from above yet are placed very close to the picture plane in a tightly cropped space which provides no clues to their context or setting. Pieces of fruit appear to tip forward and threaten to roll out of the picture. Van Gogh’s landscapes such as Undergrowth (1887) stress the abundance of grasses and flowers by cropping out the horizon.
By the spring of 1888, troubled by intense personal anxieties, van Gogh sought refuge from city life and moved to Arles in the south of France. There he hoped to emulate Japanese artists, working in close communion with nature and studying “a single blade of grass” in order to better comprehend nature as a whole. Landscapes such as Field with Flowers Near Arles(1888) reflect a Japanese influence in their high horizon lines and bold colors. Here van Gogh began to adopt a more structured, deliberate treatment of his subjects.
The open compositions that van Gogh created in Arles gave way to a series of landscapes painted in Saint-Rémy, where van Gogh had committed himself to an asylum late in 1888 after his break with Gauguin, and continued in Auvers outside Paris, where van Gogh ultimately took his life in 1890. In these densely packed compositions, the artist evoked the immediacy and closeness of his surroundings as he continued to develop an intimate, close up focus. The exhibition culminates in an audacious series of still lifes which were painted outdoors and take as their subject an extremely close view of a clump of iris, an upward gaze through a tangle of almond branches, or the vibrant patterning of a Death’s-head moth. In these works van Gogh closes in on his subject, dramatically reducing the depth of field and maximizing the expressive impact of his brushwork and color.
“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.”