The Dayton Art Institute
On view through September 4, 2022
Van Gogh and European Landscapes is what the museum calls a “Focus Exhibition”: a small, intimate affair designed to encourage us to look more carefully. It’s a nice strategy and allows curators to use just a few borrowed works as the basis for a program. No need for costly loan fees, timed tickets or tired feet.
For a modestly-scaled mid-western museum, even managing to present two paintings by Van Gogh—perhaps the best known and loved artist in the world today—is a coup. And the two works, both landscapes from Swiss collections, are superb examples. Painted in 1890, the last year of his life, they are among the artist’s final works. With their vivid colors and brushstrokes, they have an intensity that belies the artist’s imminent suicide.
Only a total of 15 works are presented in a single gallery on the lower level of the museum. Often used as the first gallery for more ambitious special exhibitions, this single space serves the exhibition well. Likewise, the vivid colors of the walls—a spring green and a hyacinth blue (against which the Van Gogh pulse—complement the “stars” of the show. On the other hand, these hues do little for the other works except underline their old-fashioned, old-master look.
At first glance, the other ‘European’ paintings strike one as classic Dutch landscapes: natural scenes of the countryside which, due to yellowed varnish, are dominated by subdued golden browns and muddy greens. Contrasted with the energy of the Van Gogh paintings, these landscapes appear initially to have little in common with the featured artist. Without an art history lesson, it is hard to make the connection between Van Gogh’s revolutionary works and the staid landscape tradition represented in the gallery. Notably missing are any Impressionist landscapes (here or in the DAI’s collections overall), which paved the way for Van Gogh’s work.
The wall texts help re-focus our attention, as they use quotes from Van Gogh to underline the artist’s admiration for a number of the artists included on the adjacent walls. This is especially true of Daubigny, whose house and garden are the subject of one of the two Van Gogh paintings included in the show. We learn from the helpful commentary that Van Gogh was a great admirer of this so-called Barbizon-School painter and owned two prints by the artist. Two examples of Daubigny’s work hang on the wall to the right: a pleasant silvery riverscape, and a lovely print that reveals something of what Van Gogh might have valued. Le Bouquet D’aunes (Stand of Alders) is a cliché-verre in which the scene is defined by a series of short, energized lines. Although the overall scene is still tame, the execution enlivens our experience of the scene, and calls to mind Van Gogh’s distinctive line drawings.
A little further down the wall are several modestly scaled works by John Constable. One sketch in particular—Hamstead Heath—Fine Evening, October 25, 1820—best suggests a connection with Van Gogh: it is loosely painted with verve, suggesting the speed with which Constable worked to capture this specific scene and moment. Also notable is the luscious peachy-pink of the twilight sky. Not only is it one of the only bits of color in the gallery (besides what we get in spades from Van Gogh), is seems nearly the same shade of pink Van Gogh uses on the house in the background of Daubigny’s Garden.
Another even smaller sketch by Constable is paired with an amazingly similar work by Turner: these two early 19th century paintings look like two peas in a pod, each using a similar palette and rapid brushwork to capture an unfiltered view of the countryside. While the styles of finished works by these two men distinctly diverged, the similar scenes remind the viewer of the shared roots of these two English contemporaries. Although a delightful pairing, the two sketches don’t really add to our understanding of Van Gogh’s work.
While visitors might need to “focus” to engage with the other works in the gallery, no such effort is required for the Van Goghs. These landscapes have an undeniable power: they draw the eye and delight the spirit. An entire paintbox of colors tumbles across the surface of these works, each a riotous celebration of everyday scenery. As Van Gogh records of the Daubigny garden in a letter to his brother Theo, he tries to capture “…a hazel tree with violet foliage. Then a hedge of lilacs, a row of rounded, yellow linden trees, the house itself in the background, pink with bluish roof tiles.” A cat skitters across the foreground—described by Van Gogh as black, but appearing in the work to be defined by a few strokes of blue.
Is it worth the trip for just two Van Goghs?? Absolutely. The only thing missing was a bench upon which to sit and admire these two gems.