The contrast between Vincent van Gogh’s life and legacy has been cause for eternal myth. His working years were marked by relentless poverty and despair, and they ended, in his brother Theo’s company, at the age of 37, after an agonizingly long suicide. As the catalogue for “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art,” a momentous new show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, puts it: “It was most likely a combination of deep disquiet that Theo might no longer be able to look out for him, a growing sense of loneliness, and fear that his nervous attacks would return that drove van Gogh to shoot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890, with the intention of ending his life. He died of his injuries two days later, with Theo at his bedside.”
The new show, which runs through June 27, is a major survey of van Gogh’s complex creative life that touches on each phase of his decade of artistic work, from his early experiments with drawing to his last years exploring the serenity and spirituality of nature with paint. Given that many recent van Gogh shows have focused on some particular pairing or specific aesthetic phase—see: “Van Gogh and Britain” (Tate Britain, 2019), “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” (Art Institute of Chicago, 2016), “Van Gogh in Provence” (Vincent van Gogh Foundation, 2016); “Van Gogh: Irises and Roses” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015), and so on—the wide frame is welcome. And the frame is especially wide thanks to loans from the formidable holdings of two Dutch institutions: the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands.
“We have taken the whole decade of his painting career and looked at it from start to finish and shown how the trajectory of his development is absolutely astonishing,” David Bomford, senior curator of European art at the MFA, said of a range covering what he characterized as “very naïve early works to the discovery of Impressionism in Paris to the radiance of Provence and the melancholy last years of Auvers.”
Van Gogh is remarkable for how meticulously his life was recorded. “We know an amazing amount about him,” Bomford said. “He was writing letters almost every day, so we know what he was thinking almost every day of his life. We can trace his thought process, his passions, his agonies, his difficulties from day to day, which is astonishing. We can do that for hardly any other artist who has ever existed.”
While the majority of the 50-plus works in the show belong to the Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum, others come from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Wallraf–Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Dallas Museum of Art; the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas; and private collections. And though it’s easy to view van Gogh as a kind of celestial savant whose talent and brilliance was like a thunderbolt from the heavens, the exhibition shows the rigorous work that contributed to the artist’s inspiration and development. Van Gogh greatly admired Jean-François Millet, the exceptionally skilled draftsman who often depicted the lives of peasants and farmers. When van Gogh decided to pursue art at age 27, he began with drawing (the exhibition includes a piece by Millet and van Gogh’s copy of it) and wrote, as cited in wall text in the show: “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.” The early drawings in the exhibition show van Gogh creating a framework for his later expansive oil works—a skeleton of realism on which his dreamy, emotional Impressionism would later flutter like clothes on a line.
About a year into his career, van Gogh studied with his cousin Anton Mauve, an artist with the Hague School, and began painting. The show includes a work by Mauve (Landscape with Cattle) and a related van Gogh (Still Life with Straw Hat, 1881) that is striking for its traditional depiction of bucolic countryside. A falling-out with Mauve over a romance with a pregnant former prostitute (Theo and Mauve strenuously disapproved) later led van Gogh to eschew Mauve’s style and instruction. “He disdained to follow in Mauve’s footsteps as an artist concentrating on the beauties of the Dutch landscape,” a wall text explains.
Van Gogh’s writing dovetailed with his work, as the catalogue for the exhibition extensively notes. Of the color yellow, a recurring and almost spiritual presence in his work, the artist wrote: “Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can only call yellow—pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!” On his sense of perspective, he wrote: “AS IF THROUGH A WINDOW. The perpendicular and horizontal lines of the frame, together with the diagonals and the cross—or otherwise a grid of squares—provide a clear guide to some of the principal features, so that one can make a drawing with a firm hand, setting out the broad outlines and proportions.”
The windowed perspective resonates as a metaphor for the distance and separation of van Gogh’s life as an artist always seemingly staring out—from an asylum or a bedroom in his parents’ house, able to frame and express the beauty of the world but doomed to live in agony at some level of remove. The latest works in the exhibition depict irises, wheat fields, and craggy landscapes—aspects of naturalness that may have provided a balm for van Gogh’s soul. The works of these last two years represent a melancholic triumph, the culmination of van Gogh’s stormy decade.
The incandescent brilliance of the later work is apparent in such masterpieces as Les Rochers (The Rocks), The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy, and Field with Sower, all three painted between 1888 and 1890. Their startling dimensionality and almost electrical charge remain staggering, and one is left with a pained sense of what-if: what if he had lived another 30 years and stared down industrialization, World War I, and the advent of Modernism? It is like wondering what would have happened if the Library of Alexandria hadn’t burned.
The final explosion of genius contrasts starkly with the bitter end of van Gogh’s life. According to Theo, the artist’s last words were: “The sadness will never end.” As Bomford, the curator, noted: “It’s the brilliance of what he produced against the general despair of his mind that we find so remarkable.”