During the long starry winter nights of February, I plowed through author Steven Naifeh’s 1,514-page biography of Vincent van Gogh: The Life. I began to feel as crazy as the tortured painter as he argued with his parents, lost jobs, alienated friends, and wandered aimlessly through miles of countryside.
“There’s something in the way he talks that makes people either love him or hate him. He spares nothing and no one.”Theo van Gogh
But even during his incarceration in an insane asylum, Vincent never stopped painting. From his start as a young Dutch artist who only painted in black and white, he transformed into the master of bold and riotous colors. Just like the paint layered so thickly that it showed the slash of his palette knife and the swirl of his brush, his self-martyrdom was visible.
My mind reeling from Van Gogh’s depression and erratic behavior, I struggled to reconcile two competing images in my mind – my beloved painter with this argumentative and often mean-spirited man. If it wasn’t for his brother Theo, Vincent would have been destitute and alone.
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Van Gogh Museum
So I made a pact that I needed to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Vincent W. Van Gogh (Vincent’s nephew) founded the museum on June 3, 1973. I included Amsterdam on my whirlwind 14-days to see 5 European countries tour that also included Basel and Copenhagen.
Just as the tulips bloom in wild abandon in the Netherlands, Vincent “bloomed” in his mother country. But it was until after his death in 1890 that he gained the recognition that he deserved as a groundbreaking artist.
His nephew was determined that his uncle and father would be honored.
Visiting the Van Gogh Museum is where all “pilgrims” must set their compass. The museum celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023.
Fifty years of inspiration. Van Gogh’s artwork. His contemporaries. Under one roof.
Vincent’s spirit is a palpable force within the walls of this modern edifice located on Amsterdam’s Museumplein. From the minute I walked through the doors, I felt pulled like a magnet to his paintings.
But instead of climbing the steps up, I rode down the escalator to begin my tour at the special exhibit entitled “Van Gogh in Auvers: His Final Months.” It runs 12 May to 3 September 2023.
This exhibit was organized in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The museum loaned eight paintings for this special project.
Spanning four months, this special exhibition is not to be missed. “We are delighted to be able to present this wonderful exhibition to the world during the year in which the Van Gogh Museum celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. Many of the works have never been shown in the Netherlands before and will be here for the very first time. On this occasion it is fair to say that Van Gogh in Auvers is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition,” said Emilie Gordenker, Director, Van Gogh Museum
At the “Van Gogh in Auvers” exhibit, I was plunged into Vincent’s frenetic final days before he shot himself and died at age 37. He produced 74 paintings between May and July 1890 (nearly one painting a day).
I saw his world through his eyes as I roamed from canvas to canvas. During the crucial final phase of his artistic development, Vincent mastered his signature style of painting fast and with abandon.
He wrote his brother of painting in the rain a French country scene – fields flowing as far as the eye can see, the rich purple earth, peas white in bloom, pink flowers dancing in the clover, and the little figure of the mower.
And with his obsession with trees, Vincent did not forget to paint some poplars.
It is a village where men still work the fields with a horse and plow. But Vincent writes that change is ahead, Van Gogh noting “on the horizon a last line of blue hills at the foot of which a train is passing, leaving an immense trail of white smoke over the greenery.”
I highly recommend purchasing the supplemental audio tour to guide your passage through the exhibition.
First, the audio tour helped me to insulate myself from the hordes of acolytes who crowded the space. (The museum uses timed admission tickets to reduce congestion.)
But the audio tour also made me feel that Vincent “walked with me,” as I listened to what was happening in his life through excerpts from his letters to his brother Theo.
Residency in Auvers
Van Gogh uncorked a flow of creativity that was unmatched by any other period in his life during his stay in the northern French village of Auvers-sur-Oise. He wrote to his brother Theo about how he was driven to capture what he saw.
“Recently, I have been working very hard and quickly; in this way I try to express the desperately fast passage of things in modern life.”Vincent van Gogh
I saw several of his best-known paintings, such as Wheatfield with Crows (1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) and Doctor Paul Gachet (1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
The exhibit is designed to “walk” you through the final days so you see the town where he lived, the people he met, and the physician who treated his depression (Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet).
I felt transported to the sleepy village of Auvers as I gazed at Vincent’s world – the provincial homes and the villagers as well as the natural world that gave him sustenance.
“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.”Vincent van Gogh
The light is dim in the museum rooms—almost dreamlike—as you wander from painting to painting. The placards include the historical background as well as Vincent’s quotes.
His brother Theo could not have conceived that Vincent would end his life during this period of exceptional creativity.
Freed from the year-long stay at the asylum in the south of France, Vincent vigorously painted and sketched each day in Auvers. He was also physically closer to Theo in Paris. But despite the presence of Dr. Gachet who also treated other artists suffering from melancholia, Vincent could not block the voices inside of his head, hectoring him.
“Inspiring as his new surroundings were, feelings of failure, loneliness and melancholy gradually gained the upper hand, culminating in Van Gogh’s decision to take his own life.”Van Gogh Museum
He reportedly said on his deathbed, “The sadness will last forever.”
Van Gogh painted Tree Roots on the morning of 27 July 1890. Worried that he had become a burden to his brother, he wrote ” . . . my life, too, is attacked at the very root, my step is also faltering.”
He shot himself later in the evening. He could not stay rooted to this earth. But his paintings would live on as his legacy.
As I ascended the steps to see the final room in the special exhibit, I was transfixed by two little children affixing ribbons to a canvas in the foyer.
Inside the room, visitors sat around a round table writing their notes to say goodbye to Vincent or simply tell him what his paintings meant to them.
A deathly quiet clung in this room as children and adults vigorously wrote what they felt in their hearts. I simply talked to Vincent in my mind, thanking him for letting me see his battered heart. I remembered Vincent’s fateful words: “I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.”
A stanza from Don McLean’s “Starry Night” quietly played in my head.
“Now, I understand what you tried to say to meDon McLean
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now.”
Book your timed ticket to the Van Gogh Museum in advance to ensure entry. A ticket costs € 20 per person, with free admission under 18 years old (school groups excluded). As of 1 January 2024 the price for students is € 11.
All entrance tickets include admission to the permanent collection and the current temporary exhibitions. All visitors need a ticket with a start time to have access to the museum.