Seeing ‘Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources’ that opened in November 2021 at Columbus Museum of Art is stunning for its insights into Van Gogh’s world, literally. At a time when this beloved artist has been Disneyfied by the blockbuster Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience which is a 20,000 square foot light and sound spectacular featuring two-story projections and is showing all over the world like an LED disease infecting the planet. In this climate, the Columbus Art Museum took up the mantle of insight and scholarship in support of the painter/draftsman Vincent Van Gogh. “Through Vincent’s Eyes” presents more than a dozen paintings, drawings and prints by Vincent van Gogh himself alongside over one-hundred works by the artists he studied, collected and loved. Bravo to the museum for this achievement.
Two things immediately impress. First is the sheer number of works in the exhibit which took me by surprise. International and nationwide art loans to this exhibition provided what I consider some lesser known works by Van Gogh in conversation with the legendary artists who inspired him most. So we get a rich picture of both Van Gogh’s inner and outer worlds. Who inspired him? Who was popular during his all-too-brief painting career? Who championed his work? Who did he collect and examine so to advance his own oeuvre?
This exhibition answers these questions by providing a time capsule going all the way back to Rembrandt whom Van Gogh revered. Rembrandt is represented here with a poignant etching, The Angel Departing from the Family of Tobias which is deeply religious and expressive. These are two qualities Van Gogh was to emulate throughout his painting career. Represented in the exhibition are towering figures in the 19th-century art world: Honoré Daumier, famous for his social and political paintings and prints, so think of Van Gogh’s famous potato eaters and his painting of a peasant’s boots to discern his inspiration. Also look to Edgar Degas. Of his inspirations Van Gogh wrote “A Greek statue, a peasant by Millet, a Dutch portrait, a nude woman by Courbet or Degas, these calm and modeled perfections…a complete thing, a perfection.” The curators also brought in such 19th century luminaries like Eugène Delacroix, the brilliant colorist, and Paul Gauguin who was for a brief time Van Gogh’s painting companion in the south of France and Édouard Manet, Jean-François Millet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These artists, working at the same time as Van Gogh, comprise the artistic milleau of which he was a part. A host of other lesser known painters, some landscape painters and other who focused on the social life of Paris or of religious themes are worth getting to know too. All of these artists, known or lesser-known, served as Van Gogh’s creative touchstones.
Importantly too, the curators secured iconic Japanese color woodblock prints such as Utagawa Hiroshige Iris at Horikiri. From this print we readily see how Van Gogh embraced the elegance of Japanese expression for his own iris and other flower paintings such as his vase of roses in the exhibition. The palette of cool mint greens and cool whites speak to Japanese-influenced restraint. The curators also selected Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Here too, Japanese expressiveness in the sweep and roil of the great ocean wave with individual foam droplets so resonated with Van Gogh who was trying to fathom the inner workings and truths of nature. Starry Nights is probably the most iconic landscape painted by him that achieves this; his passionate roiling and staccato brushstrokes in the sky are so like Hokusai’s emphatic heaving wave and wave droplets. For anyone who thinks she/he knows Van Gogh, seeing these deeply influential art works by mentors and peers alongside Van Gogh’s artworks is both very impactful and fulfilling.
Which is not to say Van Gogh isn’t the star of this exhibit. He is. Every painting, drawing or print by him is featured on a rich painted violet wall section from floor to ceiling. The Columbus venue features Van Gogh paintings from three sister institutions in Ohio: the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art and Toledo Museum of Art. “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources” premieres at the Columbus Museum of Art here in Ohio and it travels to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, California, Feb. 27 through May 22, 2022. The exhibition is presented with a distinct curatorial perspective at each institution and is accompanied by two catalogues. My favorite painting of his in this exhibit that I have never seen is Tarascon Stagecoach from 1888. Mustard yellow, olive green, tomato red all couched by white and gray, is a symphony in color.
I will close with a lush landscape Van Gogh painted in the final moths of his life. Les Vessenots in Auvers of 1890. I see Courbet’s influence in the one touch of red on a barn roof; a touch of red being so much a signature of Courbet’s landscapes. There are the pared down forms for which Cezanne is celebrated. And there is Vincent’s own vision in the cozy village with its houses nestled in the hillside, cosseted by trees. It is one of seventy-two paintings he produced in Auvers, writing letters back to his brother saying “(There’s) a lot of well-being in the air. I see or think I see calm there…no factories, but beautiful greenery in abundance and good order.”