Awed by Two Van Gogh Paintings at the National Gallery

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Van Gogh self portrait, detail. National Gallery. Photo by the author.

For midwest artists there is probably nothing more fun and inspiring than to get a chance to visit some of the major galleries out east. Works that most of us only see in books can be found inches from your face. I first saw Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and upon standing before it I fully understood why Vermeer became Dali’s inspiration and the standard when it comes to painting.

Two years ago I had an opportunity to visit, albeit briefly, the National Gallery once more. It was wonderful.

I quickly found my way to the Impressionists, the painters who opened the doors to modern art. There I found famous paintings by Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, Toulous Lautrec, and others of importance. Here I wish to share two pieces by Vincent Van Gogh.

What is it that gives Van Gogh’s paintings such power? In part, it’s undoubtedly because as you study the work you can feel the energy that was emanating from the man himself as he produced these pieces.

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Green Wheat Fields, Auvers by Van Gogh. National Gallery. Photo by the author.

The first piece here is Green Wheat Fields, Auvers.

During Van Gogh’s lifetime he painted in the neighborhood of 1100 paintings over a ten year span. According to those who know better than I, this painting was likely painted in spring or early summer in 1890 after the artist had spent time voluntarily checked in at the asylum of Saint-Rémy, which is located near Avignon in Southern France.

The painting itself is 28 3/4 x 36 5/8 inches and was painted in Auvers-sur-Oise, in the countryside north of Paris. Most of Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings featured objects from life or working people, peasants, potato farmers, etc. This piece was from a series of “pure landscapes” as well as some of the thatched roof houses and other structures in this town.

According to his letters Van Gogh’s return to northern France was something of a homecoming, “a peaceful restoration in which the vibrant, hot colors of the south were replaced by cool, gentle hues in green and blue. Van Gogh’s energetic strokes describe the movement of grassy stalks in the breeze, their patterned undulations creating a woven integral form anchored at the right by a juncture point between field, road, and sky.”*

If this were true, that he was more at peace with himself here at this time and feeling good about his recovery, then Steven Naifeh’s suggestion that Van Gogh did not shoot himself may have more merit than is generally recognized.

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As for the painting itself, several thoughts come to mind simultaneously. Chief of these is the thickness of the medium, the manner in which he applied the paints. Note, too, the movement of the clouds, those swirls of splendor. Another thought I had, however, upon noticing cracks in the aged surface, was how very difficult it must be for a forger to re-create this kind of work. Those guys have to be incredibly talented, or the authorities incredibly flawed.

And then, there’s this powerful Van Gogh Self Portrait.

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Van Gogh painted as many as 36 self-portraits. This one in the National Gallery is quite stunning. Was it vanity that provoked him into producing so many self-portraits? No, I do not believe this. I think he was simply interested in studying how to paint faces, capture the panels of light and shadow that form, and perhaps capture the interior of the subject.

That, for what it’s worth, is my speculation. Were I to read his letters I might find other reasons. He painted this one while at the asylum in St. Remy. According to the National Gallery he stated that this one captured his true character. Look at those eyes, and the expression, the play of light and the energy. This is a beautiful painting, and in person it’s magnetic. Located in a room filled with great paintings, it captures you and holds.

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Vincent Van Gogh was born in 1853, seven years before the American Civil War. He died in 1890, 37 years later.

For additional background, read this NYTimes story, Van Gogh’s ‘Green Wheat Fields, Auvers’ Goes to Washington .

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Get into it.

*National Gallery website.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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