Determined Spirit

Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings

Catalog of the exhibition by Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein, Sjraar van Heughten, and Marije Vellekoop
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 18–December 31, 2005.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Van Gogh Museum/Yale University Press, 380 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)

For sheer viewer discomfort, the show of Van Gogh drawings at the Metropolitan Museum has been topped in my experience only by the once-in-a-millennium assembly of twenty-three Vermeer paintings at Washington’s National Gallery in 1995. In both cases, too many people jealously clustered and jostled within inches of hallowed works that demanded close scrutiny. At the Met, the week the exhibition opened, the docile masses straggled in clotted lines, their noses almost grazing the minutely hatched and speckled art, through rooms housing over one hundred drawings in ink, graphite, charcoal, and watercolor, plus a few oil and watercolor paintings.

The first room, in which Van Gogh can be seen, at the age of twenty-seven, taking up art seriously for the first time in his life, with the hope of becoming a professional illustrator, is especially hard on the eyes as he minutely, scratchily renders grasses, trees, and the undersides of clouds (A Marsh, 1881) and painstakingly explores with wash and chalk the stiff poses and creased clothing of Dutch folk engaged in domestic tasks (Boy with a Sickle, Woman Sewing, both 1881). His skills are uncertain but his spirit is determined. Though posterity’s image of Van Gogh centers upon his mental fragility and lamentable suicide at the age of thirty-seven, this overflowing show, and the wall texts and catalog that accompany it, remind us of the tremendous industriousness that produced, in the mere ten years between 1881 and 1890, eight hundred paintings and eleven hundred drawings, not to mention the over eight hundred letters he wrote to his younger brother Theo, composing one of the great literary testaments, eloquent and confessional, left by a supreme painter.*

He signed both his letters and art works “Vincent,” explaining to Theo, “I myself am different in character from the other members of the family, and really I am not a ‘van Gogh’ at all.” Given the same name as an older, stillborn brother, he was the eldest of six children of a Calvinist minister, Theodorus van Gogh, from a line of Calvinist ministers. Vincent’s last employment before becoming an artist was as a lay preacher in the impoverished Belgian coal-mining district of Borinage; his fervent attempt to live by the ascetic precepts of Saint Francis and Thomas à Kempis did not find favor with the local evangelical committee, which cited excessive zeal as its reason for not renewing his contract.

His resort to art in these humiliating straits was a return to a familiar realm: four of his father’s brothers were art dealers, including another Vincent, his godfather “Uncle Cent,” who from humble beginnings had seen his gallery incorporated into the chain of the Paris art publisher Goupil. At the age of sixteen Vincent was apprenticed to the Hague branch of Goupil, and four years later, on the enthusiastic recommendation of the manager, he was transferred to London, where he was stationed for a year, returning to England at least twice, the second time as a teacher in Isleworth. Among the incidental…

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