Detroit Institute of Art, Van Gogh in America

Cynthia M. Kukla

October 2, 2022 – January 22, 2023

Undergrowth with Two Figures, 1890, Oil on canvas, 19.5 x 39.25 inches, on loan from the Cincinnati Art Museum

Our appetite for the artwork and personal, tragic story of nineteenth century artist Vincent Van Gogh seems limitless. Van Gogh in America is the most recent Midwest celebration of this beloved artist at the Detroit Institute of Art. With this exhibit, the Motor City is spotlighting its status as the first American museum to purchase a painting by Vincent Van Gogh and is commemorating the hundred-year anniversary of that historic acquisition with this exhibition. 

This exhibition was created to chronicle the people and events that introduced Van Gogh to the United States. The story begins over twenty years after the artist’s death and culminates in the 1950s, with Hollywood transforming him into an icon with Kurt Douglas’ riveting portrayal of Van Gogh in the movie Lust for Life. The museum says it best: “…once Van Gogh took hold, his utterly original vision captured the popular imagination and never let go.”

Nearly ten years before the seminal Detroit acquisition, Van Gogh’s work debuted in the United States at the International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The Armory Show, as it is called in the annals of history, introduced audiences to the radical European developments taking place in modern art. This massive exhibition – including over thirteen hundred European and American paintings and sculptures – ignited commentary among visitors and in the press. It is a major turning point in the understanding of contemporary art so the Armory Show is thus prominently feature in art textbooks. A reduced version of the Armory Show also traveled to Chicago and Boston giving it more steam and more notoriety. 

The Armory Show included at least twenty-one Van Gogh works. The Detroit Institute of Art installed a selection of these paintings at the beginning of the exhibition as a valuable historical touchstone so viewers can see what the audience of 1913 saw.  Of course, we can only imagine the lens through which people then thought of the wild colors  – a chartreuse sky? – and seemingly untamed brushstrokes. In 1913, Cole Porter’s sentimental song “Danny Boy” was popular. Serious historic movies like “Quo Vadis” and “Ivanhoe” were playing at local theaters, which gives you some idea of the tenor of the times. One critic wrote Van Gogh off as a “moderately competent Impressionist, who was heavy-handed, had little if any sense of beauty and spoiled a lot of canvas with crude, quite unimportant pictures.” We can recall that this is reminiscent of the outcry at the ugly feat of engineering that damaged the view of the Parisian sky, the Eiffel Tower. Though available for purchase, none of Van Gogh’s paintings sold at the Armory Show which is interesting since the New York audience would have considered itself cosmopolitan and ‘in the know.’ It was the Midwest who was ‘in the know.’

The Sower, 1888, Oil on canvas, 12.8 x 15.87 inches , on loan from the Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation

The Van Gogh family, who lived in New York City during World War I, lent some eighty-five works to exhibitions in the United States between 1913 and 1920. They contributed to the Armory Show in 1913, a small solo exhibition in 1915 at the Modern Gallery in New York, and the artist’s first major US gallery show at the Montross Gallery in New York in 1920. The Detroit Institute of Art installed works that were part of the Montross exhibition altogether in one room. These were pastoral scenes and landscapes for which Van Gogh is well remembered. It is a sad biographical note that although Van Gogh drew strength from brother Theo’s unwavering emotional and financial support throughout his artistic career, that Theo died six month’s after Vincent’s suicide. Theo, an art dealer based in Paris, inherited the bulk of his brother’s artistic output, which then passed to Theo’s young widow, Johanna (Jo) van Gogh-Bonger, and her infant son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. For all of us who value Vincent’s artwork, it is important that Theo kept all of the brothers’ vast correspondence. Recently it has become widely known how significant and strategic Jo’s involvement in keeping Van Gogh’s legacy alive. Over the years in tandem with her son, Jo strategically published the letters and tirelessly promoted him, not only in Europe but also in America. 

It seems strange to read now what an art critic wrote about the 1920 Montross Gallery exhibition: “Van Gogh’s day in America is not yet. Almost more than any other modern painter he is felt to be an alien. Yet there is no other painter of the present day, excepting possibly [Paul] Gauguin, whose appeal is so simple and direct. It is just this simplicity that makes him appear strange.” But that changed only two years later. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) became the first museum in the United States to buy one of the artist’s paintings, his now-iconic Self-Portrait of 1887. Given that only a select few of Van Gogh’s works had even been shown in an American museum by this time, the DIA’s purchase was described as “courageous” in the contemporary press.

Could it be that the innovative spirit that was in the air in Detroit, with its embrace of the newfangled automobile, created the climate for innovative thinking in the arts too? It would seem so, as shortly after the DIA bought the Van Gogh self-portrait, it loaned the painting to a touring exhibition of avant-garde art organized by the Société Anonyme, an experimental museum of modern art founded by Katherine S. Dreier and artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Slowly, by the late 1920s attitudes toward Van Gogh had changed. The New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened in 1929 and in its inaugural exhibition, the pioneers of modern art: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent Van Gogh were featured under the leadership of legendary MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr

The race was on, as Van Gogh in America shows us. Enthusiastic private collectors included Albert C.Barnes of Merion, Pennsylvania, who founded the Barnes Collection and Foundation and Duncan Phillips of Washington, DC who created the Phillips Collection. Both men generously lent their works to MoMA. The only museums that owned Van Gogh paintings to lend to the MoMA show were the Detroit Institute of Arts, which owned Self-Portrait, and the Art Institute of Chicago, which lent two to the exhibition, one being the iconic The Bedroom (Vincent’s) that is frequently reproduced. American museums of the midwest would maintain this edge: the next four Van Goghs to be purchased by public US museums in the early twentieth century, all on view together in one of the galleries in the Detroit show, were acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo Ohio. 

The scholarship involved in making such an outstanding trail of exhibition chronology is remarkable. From gallery to gallery, we are seeing the story unfold of the Detroit Institute of Art and other midwestern museums take the lead in embracing the marvelously innovative and misunderstood Vincent Van Gogh.This exhibition is rewarding for all; the casual or serious art lover, the scholar and the student.

Daubigny’s Garden, 1890, Oil on canvas, 22 in × 39.8 inches, Rudolf Staechelin Collection, Detroit Institute of Arts Museum on loan from Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland

We here in Cincinnati have not had to travel far to see Vincent’s artwork. In 2006, the Taft Museum presented a groundbreaking exhibition that offered a new perspective on the birth of Impressionism. Many never-seen small masterpieces were featured in Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape at the Taft Museum of Art, introduced Charles François Daubigny, a relatively overlooked artist and key mentor of the Impressionists to me and I would guess about everyone else who saw this gem of an exhibition. Van Gogh paid tribute to his teacher painting Daubigny’s Garden. This was a must-see exhibition that I was just lucky enough to see, driving in from Illinois at the time to visit family. There were fifty-five spectacular paintings by Daubigny, Monet, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, most of them from private collections. The show took my breath away.

Then from October, 2016-January 2017 the exhibition,Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth, was featured at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The genesis of this was the museum’s own Van Gogh – Undergrowth with Two Figures – to explore the significance of the forest interior, or sous-bois. The museum said, “This exhibition is the first to take a close look at Van Gogh’s poetic depictions of the forest floor, known as sous-bois, the French term for ‘undergrowth.’ These odes to nature were a reaction to the increasing industrialization and urbanization of society.” This lovely exhibition brought attention to a special group of landscape paintings spanning Vincent’s career. Featuring more than twenty Van Gogh works from American, Asian, and European collections, this exhibition gave visitors Van Gogh’s treatment of this theme with robust examples of sous-bois paintings by those who influenced and inspired him, including Théodore Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin. Here too, was a rich and innovating treatment of the star of Starry Night.

Then, the exhibition Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources at the Columbus Museum of Art, from Nov 2021 to February 2022, showcased an astonishing array of paintings, drawings and prints not only by Vincent himself, but by the artists most beloved by Vincent van Gogh, firmly connecting his art to its late 19th-century context. The exhibition visually narrated the impact of Van Gogh’s sources, with more than fifteen signature paintings and drawings by the artist himself that were hung among more than one-hundred works of art that showed not only his astute research, but also his hunger to digest important art from the time of Rembrandt to Vincent’s own time. Included were paintings by contemporary Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, and Alfred Sisley; earlier French artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Honoré Daumier; and Anton Mauve, (Van Gogh’s cousin, who was part of the Hague School of Dutch realists.) Nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, who influenced Van Gogh’s art profoundly, were included as well.

And lastly, the Disneyfied Van Gogh came to Cincinnati in 2022, in the immersive Vincent van Gogh, showing the artist’s masterpieces in a 360-degree digital show, including digital displays, sound effects, projection mapping and much more. I had no trouble not going to this venue, being old fashioned enough to want to drink in the actual scale of his works knowing he hauled canvases on his back as headed into the wheat fields in France and to follow his hand, his heart and his eye as he gave us his tender and passionate view of his world.