The prolific career of Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh yielded several of the world’s most expensive masterpieces and more than 2,000 works. Combining a progressive aesthetic with a bold brush technique, van Gogh’s singular talent is rivaled only by his famously troubled personal life.
“The story of Vincent van Gogh is much stranger and more obscure than fiction,” says Joseph Rishel, the Gisela and Dennis Alter senior curator of European Painting before 1900 and the senior curator of the John G. Johnson Collection and the Rodin Museum at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Art Museum weaves together a compelling, wholly original tale about the artist in its latest major exhibit, Van Gogh Up Close, beginning February 1. The collection comprises roughly 40 paintings from galleries around the globe, including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and chronicles the renowned artist’s works from the last four years of his life.
Rishel, who cocurated the exhibit, is among those experts, an elite group that includes author Steven Naifeh. Naifeh, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 along with fellow author Gregory White Smith for their biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, spent more than 10 years researching and developing his new book (also with White Smith), a biography called Van Gogh: The Life. Here Naifeh and Rishel discuss one the world’s most celebrated artists of all time.
Tell us the story behind the exhibit name, "Van Gogh Up Close." JOSEPH RISHEL: Vincent was remarkably ahead of his time. He was greatly influenced by Japanese prints, for their focused compositions. So the last four years [of his life], the work is very self-conscious, with tight angles, different perspectives, and this feeling of zipping things up and closing out space. That’s why we chose the name. These works exploit this subject as a new way to see van Gogh.
These last few years constitute the majority of his greatest works: Starry Night, Sunflowers, Fishing Boatson the Beach at Saintes-Maries. What are some of this exhibit’s highlights? JR: Sunflowers, which is on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There’s also Iris, Undergrowth with Two Figures, and Rain. The English critic John Richardson once said of Rain that there can be few more moving evocations of modern angst. The window, barred in fact, is in his upstairs room at the asylum in Saint Rémy, in the south of France. He was committed, of his own volition, as a patient following his self-mutilation. He painted some 12 views out the same window during his confinement. In this version, he chose to block any view into the space toward the high horizon, pulling down a scrim-like layer of lashing rain to enclose the vista in a tight and controlling manner.
Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom (1890), on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of "Van Gogh Up Close"
Steven, one of the highlights of your book is how you deconstruct the idea that van Gogh committed suicide by shooting himself in the stomach at age 37. What did your research reveal? STEVEN NAIFEH: There have been doubts over the years that van Gogh would ever take his own life. It’s extremely rare to kill yourself with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. And no one ever found the gun, the easel, or the painting; the two principal sources of information completely lack credibility. The biggest piece of evidence is from John Rewald, who is perhaps the most evident historian on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism of the 20th century. He interviewed people some 40 years after van Gogh’s death, when many had been alive. They were very specific in saying that van Gogh was shot accidentally by a couple of boys, and he decided to take the blame to protect them. We can’t say definitively what happened, but the evidence is much clearer to support this idea than other accounts.
Van Gogh’s mental state has always been a part of his intrigue. How do you believe it influenced his painting? SN: There was a frenetic energy to his work. One of the people that watched him paint said that if you are supposed to seduce the canvas, van Gogh ravaged it. That somewhat demonstrates how he could finish a painting in one day with thousands of brushstrokes. There was a remarkable balance between calculation and inspiration. JR: There’s a real punctuation [to his brushwork]; it’s high-pitched in a masterful way with a diversity of colors. The paint is very gooey and very lifted.
Who was van Gogh as a person, taking out this idea of mental instability? JR: He may have been the most well-read artist to have ever lived. He was educated, well traveled, and fluent in three languages. He was madly curious about literature and art.
Van Gogh remains one of the most popular artists ever. Why? SN: There’s an overwhelming genuineness to his paintings. Even if people know that he cut his ear off and was an unhappy person, he was able to extract jubilant images from the deep well of sorrow that was his life. One of Vincent’s favorite readings was Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Sorrowful but always rejoicing.” That is what his paintings do.