Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
I hadn’t realised the scale of Van Gogh’s work until I visited this museum. In just ten years (1880-1890) he produced over 900 paintings, many of which were on display. Hung alongside paintings by his contemporaries such as Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Alma-Tadema and Courbet, his work illustrates the developing styles and techniques that were popular in Holland and France in the late nineteenth century.
I was particularly interested in learning about the Japanese influence. In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote that all impressionists share a love of Japanese painting. Certainly, throughout the galleries, the proliferation of bright colours, wide brush strokes, blossom trees, and wide decorative frames evidenced this. After watching the Van Gogh episode of Simon Schama’s The Power of Art was touched by the story of Van Gogh’s struggles and ultimate failure to achieve his vision of setting up a house where artists could work together in harmony. I hadn’t previously realised that the artistic communities he envisioned were based on Japanese models. It made me wonder whether groups in England such as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood also based their ideas of existing together in an artistic circle on the Japanese. It’s something I’ll have to look into.
Van Gogh painted Pieta in 1889, during his confinement at the hospital in Saint-Rémy. It is a variation of Delacroix’s painting of the same subject rather than an original composition. What stood out for me though, especially after seeing all the self-portraits Van Gogh had done of himself, was the similarity between Christ’s features and his own. Jesus is even given reddish hair in the painting. Is this because Van Gogh identified with the suffering of Christ, because he saw himself as a redeeming figure in the art world, or because he wanted to imitate Christ?
Alongside The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows was the painting that I was most interested to see in the museum. For such a small painting, the density of its brush strokes and the bright yet ominous combination of colours were the first things that struck me. It is as difficult viewing the painting in reality to tell whether the crows are coming or going or whether the path is leading us, with the artist, away or towards the thunderous looking sky.
NB- Just click on the paintings to go to the museum’s website where they are given short explainations.