The Netherlands produced three of my dozen favorite painters (see below), an amazing yield for so small a land. Amsterdam houses museums for two of them—Rembrandt and van Gogh—and the Rijksmuseum also has a few specimens from the limited output of Vermeer. But perhaps a sunny Saturday was not a good time to visit the van Gogh Museum: regardless of the month, weekends bring out flocks of locals and tourists. And the Dutch are tall, so that seeing the paintings among them is like examining a distant deer through thick forest. But go one must, for if you like van Gogh — and who doesn’t? — you’ll find loads of his works — an orgy of color and line filling two of the building’s three floors. If you’ve been to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, you may think you’ve had a good ration of van Gogh, but you haven’t.
Here you find many public favorites: his room at Arles, a vase of irises, another of sunflowers, The Potato Eaters, self-portraits, landscapes from southern France. There is one of his last paintings, Wheatfield with Crows. And other fantastic pieces: a stunning near-monochrome still life and a lascivious portrait of almond blossoms writhing, almost sexually, across a cerulean blue sky. You can locate the most famous paintings by the knots of visitors before them, but many masterpieces inhabit the interstices.
What you see in person, but miss in reproductions, is the thick impasto that makes the museum-shop postcards such poor replicas of the originals. The paint is laid on in thick dollops, like frosting rising high above the canvas — so high that it makes its own highlights. And many of van Gogh’s paintings, as he admitted to his brother, were done quickly, perhaps to exorcise the demons of anxiety and depression that plagued him in his final years.
Van Gogh’s output in the last three years of his life (1888-1890) is astonishing. Despite his depression, for which he was famously hospitalized, he turned out painting after painting, all of them great. The thick lines of paint that sometimes appear in his earlier works now are ubiquitous, lined up like armies of worms marching across the canvas. Nobody else had seen like that before.
Many of van Gogh’s letters are also on display, revealing not only superb penmanship (and lots of drawings: he worked out many of his ideas in these screeds), but a surprising eloquence. He was clearly not an unlettered proletarian of native genius, but a learned and deeply thoughtful man. And he worked hard: many letters, especially to his brother Theo, describe Vincent’s torturous efforts to get things visually right. How sad that when he finally did, he nevertheless imagined himself a total failure, and ended his life.
van Gogh shot himself in the chest soon after finishing Wheatfield with Crows (it is not, as is often believed, his last painting), and many have commented on the symbolism: a road disappears into a field, and death-presaging birds rise from the wheat while a menacing black sky looms like a veil. One wonders whether van Gogh had already planned his suicide, and was painting in desperation. The work reeks of haste and anxiety — the crows are ciphers, each bird four quick strokes of a black-daubed brush, two upside-down “v”s.
Near the end of the exhibit is van Gogh’s last letter, unfinished, in French, and addressed to his brother. It was found on Vincent’s body, and Theo later annotated it in memoriam of “that tragic day.” In several places the letter is spotted with light orange stains; the accompanying label suggests that this may be Vincent’s blood but that the matter is unclear. The geneticist in me cried out for forensic analysis.
Favorite painters (i.e., the best painters,in order)
2. van Gogh
5. da Vinci
7. Johannes Vermeer
A few favorite paintings:
The Isenheim Altarpiece; Mathias Grünewald
Las Meninas; Velázquez
Virgin of the Rocks; da Vinci
The Prophet Hannah; Rembrandt
Wheatfield with a Reaper; van Gogh
Self Portrait at 28; Dürer