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 exhibits at the Met are a letter to the Australian painter John Russell written in a quite serviceable English. The young man’s initially auspicious employment with Goupil frayed and finally terminated, under the pressure, perhaps, of his religious calling and of temporal-lobe epilepsy, the favored posthumous diagnosis of his mental illness.

His belated turn to art, therefore, had its practical side—he partially knew the ropes, putting himself to school with Charles Bargue’s Cours de dessin and the wealth of mechanical reproductions published by Goupil—and a religious one; from almost the start, clumsy as he could be, he was able to endow landscapes and still lifes with an extra intensity manifesting his belief, as he expressed it in a layman’s sermon, that “God is using the things of everyday life to instruct us in higher things, that our life is a pilgrimage and we are strangers on this earth.” In his paintings, the sunflowers, the workers’ worn shoes, the famous chair (Vincent’s Chair with His Pipe, 1888) seem indeed to have arrived from another world, as freshly and startlingly there as the annunciatory angel, full of their news. There is some artistic advantage in feeling like a stranger on earth.

A beautifully lonely feeling wells up from Country Road (1882), one of a number of studies in perspective and landscape with which he pursued his self-imposed apprenticeship, having decided, as a letter to Theo puts it, on “active melancholy” in preference to “succumbing to despair.” The foreground to the otherwise staid Nursery on Schenkweg (1882) shows the weedy, reedy edges of a ditch with the calligraphic energy, the half-suppressed violence, that would become the hallmark of his mature style. His wrestles with the human figure begin to yield anatomically persuasive images, whose peasant lumpiness has an unforced pathos and charm. He thought well enough of Girl with a Pinafore (1882– 1883) to paint a frame of black ink around it, and this study of a silent, muss-haired child (probably the daughter of Van Gogh’s romantic interest of the time, Sien Hoornick), carried out with pen and brush in lithographic crayon, graphite, ink, and watercolor, does have, for him, an exceptional ease and subtlety.


The thicker tools of chalk and crayon free him to create a strong sensation of volume in two studies of figures resting their eyes on clenched fists—Worn Out (1882) and Sorrowing Woman (1883)—whereas his attempts in pen and watercolor to give life to weavers at work are still painfully awkward. His sympathy with the laboring classes finds its most memorable expression in the often-reproduced Head of a Woman (1884– 1885), a profile of brutal ugliness, executed at twice the usual size for the portrait studies he called “heads of the people”; the subject, no doubt younger than her homeliness allows us to realize, turns, like the winsome child in the pinafore, shyly away from the artist.

The somewhat damaged and time-altered Landscape in Drenthe (1883), of utterly flat country in the northeastern Netherlands, is strikingly minimalist, piling upon the twilit moors a nearly empty sky lightly laden with reckless scribbles, in early premonition of Van Gogh’s insistence that the sky is never really empty. His drawings of winter trees (Pollard Birches, Behind the Hedges, Winter Garden, The Kingfisher; all from March of 1884) have an agitated angularity—he wrote Theo of a quality “not expressed easily or without effort or by chance”—that remind us of the pre-abstract drawings of another religious Dutchman, Piet Mondrian; the linear, ultimately unsearchable maze of bare branches led the latter to abstraction and the former, in such canvases as Avenue of Poplars in Autumn (1884) and The Parsonage Garden at Neunen in the Snow (1885), to the impressionistic resources of oil paints.

From 1884 onward Van Gogh, relinquishing hopes of becoming a black-and-white illustrator to compete with Daumier or Doré, diverted most of his energy to painting, and his drawings become somewhat adjunctive—preliminary studies for paintings or, for an inner circle of consultants, copies of paintings already executed. At times, when poverty or seclusion denied him access to painting equipment, drawing again became his principal creative channel.

From the subterranean browns and gnarled peasant faces of The Potato Eaters (1885), which is scarcely less monochromatic than a drawing, he moved into color just as, physically, he moved from Holland. His father died in March of 1885, and Vincent’s welcome in Neunen was further cooled when, later that year, the Catholic priest forbade the villagers from sitting for him. Van Gogh went to Antwerp and, briefly, the École des Beaux-Arts there and then to Paris and finally the South of France. In Antwerp he discovered Rubens; the former acolyte of Millet’s somber country scenes excitedly wrote Theo, “What color is in a picture, enthusiasm is in life, in other words no mean thing if one is trying to keep a hold on it.” In Paris he discovered the Impressionists, the Pointillists, and imported Japanese prints; he met Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. He coped with what Sjraar van Heugten in his catalog essay calls “the disconcerting discovery that the style of painting he had practiced for the last three years was hopelessly old-fashioned.”

In the course of his self-renovation, his drawings took on more verve and assurance. The Blute-Fin Mill (1887) is dashing in its application of soft graphite to the paper; the swift parallel horizontal strokes of the stairs and the kindred vertical strokes of the low building beside them invite the viewer to relish the artist’s virtuosity. The Blute-Fin, a windmill-turned-nightclub dating from 1622, is often mistakenly called the Moulin de la Galette, which was the name for a district of Montmartre that held both mills and places of popular entertainment. Vincent and Theo, now an art dealer for Goupil, lived together in Montmartre, at 54 rue Lepic.

Vincent’s socialist instincts focused in Paris on the working-class recreational sites—dance halls and guinguettes (informal outdoor cafés)—and the populace strolling on the still-existent Paris ramparts. Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir had recorded proletarian pleasures before him, as had the Japanese woodcut depicters of Edo’s street life, like Hiroshige, whose influence can be felt especially in Van Gogh’s brightly tinted Gate in the Paris Ramparts (1887). From the same colored series, Shed with Sunflowers touches on a subject that Van Gogh will make his own, and View from Montmartre limns a crisp and cheerful panorama of the city with a detailed finish and formal inked frame indicating unrealized hopes of a sale. The foreground declivity, conjectured to be a quarry, shows in opaque watercolor the staccato broken brushwork, adopted from Pointillism, that was to become his signature manner.


When, in February of 1888, after exactly two years of Paris, Vincent left for Arles in western Provence, Theo, far from relieved, wrote his sister,

I would never have thought that we could become so close. Now that I am on my own again I feel the emptiness in my home all the more. It is not easy to fill the place of a man like Vincent. His knowledge is vast and he has a very clear view of the world. I am convinced that if he has a few more years he will make a name for himself.

A few years was all he did have (and Theo, too, who outlived him by only six months), but they were full of triumph for his art, if ultimately tragic for him. He hit the southern ground running, with a lovely painting of orchards in bloom. The drawings from Arles, before his self-commitment in May of 1889 to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, twenty kilometers north of Arles, not only accompany the great strides he made in his painting but, with the new energy and scale enabled by his employment of reed pens—reeds peculiar to the Midi region cut and sharpened like goose quills—constitute works of art on their own. Path through a Field with Pollard Willows (1888), one of the first pen-and-ink drawings mailed to Theo from his new location, and copied by an oil painting in the following month, is hesitant but insistent, and uses the reed pen only for dots sprinkled through the grassy ground. Public Garden in the Place Lamartine, done the same month of March, of the rather wild-looking gardens opposite the yellow house he occupied in Arles, and Orchard with Arles in the Background possess a nearly full set of the calligraphic gestures—quick hatchings and zigzag scribbles, small circles and specks—that are evolving alongside remnants of his Dutch literalist manner, most noticeable in the carefully traced branchings of foreground trees.

Of his reed pens he wrote Theo, “It is a method I already tried in Holland some time ago, but I hadn’t such good reeds there as here.” The reed pen was more flexible than metal nibs and held relatively little ink, which consorted well enough with Van Gogh’s emphatic short strokes. The drawings in their range of attack and texture aspire to the condition of paintings. View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground (1888) emphasizes the irises in a darker ink brushed over the pen marks, creating an effect of recession more elaborately carried out in View of Arles from Montmajour (1888). The first View became an oil painting, as did his relatively rough sketches Three Cottages, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, products of a seaside visit in the week of May 30–June 5, 1888.

The latter drawing became the basis of a pivotal painting of the same name, his boldest experiment yet in surreal color with its yellow sky and violet thatched roof, and its pink street utterly without shadows; “positively piling it on, exaggerating the color—Africa not so far away,” he wrote to Theo. He thought well enough of the breakthrough to send his fellow artist Émile Bernard a sketch of the painting filled in with the names of the colors, and made similar after-the-fact notations in drawings mailed to Theo, notably one of four beached boats that he made in an hour, without the perspective frame he usually depended on, “just by letting my pen go.”

His seaside week was a turning point for Van Gogh. He painted a violent oil, as thick and wild in its impasto as a Soutine, Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. His three reed-pen copies of it, executed as the painting dried on the wall, demonstrate, in the sinuous parallel arabesques in the foreground, an almost alarming submission to the watery turmoil. The flamelike dark cypresses, writhing olive trees, blaring oversize suns, convulsed mountains, and vortically churning stars of Van Gogh’s visionary madness are not far off. But first come the gorgeous landscapes of high summer in Provence: “Everywhere now there is old gold, bronze, copper, and this with the green azure of the sky blanched with heat: a delicious color, exceptionally harmonious, with the blended tones of Delacroix,” Vincent wrote Theo in June.

At the Metropolitan exhibit, the crowds, their eyes made bleary by dimlit chambers of penwork, stood back with relief from Harvest in Provence (1888), a large golden oil canvas preceded by a detailed, lightly tinted drawing and followed by two rather differing pen versions for Émile Bernard and John Russell. The one for Bernard takes more liberties with the painting, and is freer in its use of Van Gogh’s shorthand of hatching, squiggles, and dots. In the version for Russell, specks appear in the sky where the painting has a blank blue, and these, and concentric lines encircling the sun (A Summer Evening, 1888), become an almost compulsive feature of the drawings, as if Van Gogh is saying that no space of nature is truly blank, devoid of color and of divine activity. The drawings brim with latent color.

Of this summer’s scenic drawings and paintings, he wrote Theo, “Yellow—old gold—done quickly, quickly, quickly and in a hurry, just like the harvester who is silent under the blazing sun, intent only on his reaping.” The painting Arles: View from the Wheat Fields is as stubby with pointillist stabs as the drawings derived from it; Wheat Field with Sheaves fairly dances in its tousled bundles of pen strokes. He has caught up with an observation made to Theo three years before:

What has impressed me most on seeing paintings by the old Dutch masters again is the fact that they were generally painted quickly. Not only that: if the effect was good, it stood.

Olive Trees, Montmajour; La Crau: The View from Montmajour; and the surpassingly delicate and swift reprise of The Langlois Bridge: these masterly works in reed pen come close to Rembrandt, and have been enriched as much as weakened by the uneven aging and fading of the inks Van Gogh zealously experimented with, discussed in chemical detail by Marjorie Shelley at the back of the catalog.

Two months spent with Gauguin in the yellow house, in vain hopes of inaugurating a Provence commune for artists, disturbed Van Gogh’s confidence and sent Gauguin fleeing Arles in fear of the other’s craziness; the night he left, Van Gogh cut off the lobe of one ear and presented it to a young woman residing in the local brothel. One wonders, in reading of these quarrels and strange behaviors of Van Gogh, how much should be laid to mental disability and how much to alcohol abuse; even before Gauguin arrived, Van Gogh contemplated a clinical report that told him, “Instead of eating sufficiently and regularly I kept myself going (they said) with coffee and alcohol.” He added to Theo, “I admit it; but in order to achieve that noble shade of yellow I achieved last summer I simply had to give myself quite a boost.”

He drew little in the months on either side of the events in late 1888, and when he took it drawing again, in two farewell sketches of Arles—The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles and A Garden in the Place Lamartine, both from early May 1889—the reed pen had thickened, and the effect turned “very dark and rather melancholy,” as he confided to Theo. The heavily outlined tree in the garden looks like a shattered lampshade. But in the asylum in Saint-Rémy, the pines and ivy and cypresses, especially the dark, sinuous, aspiring cypresses, acquire a dramatic life of transferred torment (Pine Trees in the Walled Garden of the Asylum, Tree with Ivy in the Garden of the Asylum, Cypresses, all from May and June of 1889). The subjective urgency that Van Gogh’s objective studies often projected, as of annunciatory apparitions, now melts the boundary between seer and seen, sight and psyche. Everything squirms and twists. Clouds and hills, mountains and vegetation appear molded from one wormy, resistant substance (Wheat Fields with Cypresses, 1889).

Wild Vegetation, its paper sheet almost completely covered by restless, hard-to-read wriggles of erratically fading ink, anticipates the “overall” canvases of Abstract Expressionism. In Walled Wheat Field with Rising Sun—a drawing that, the catalog shrugs, might have preceded or followed its partner painting—the field hurtles toward the wall while a swollen sun emits concentric waves like a struck drumhead.

Yet the artist’s fortunes were looking up. In Paris, a favorable article on him appeared in Mercure de France and Toulouse-Lautrec challenged to a duel another painter who spoke slightingly of Van Gogh’s work. In Brussels, the first sale of a Van Gogh painting was recorded—four hundred francs for The Red Vineyard. Vincent and Theo agreed that living among the mentally ill was not salubrious, and the painter was moved to a village north of Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, where a sympathetic doctor, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, agreed to keep an eye on him. The catalog tells us, “He worked hard and fast, executing about seventy-five paintings and fifty drawings during the remaining seventy days of his life.” But to judge by three Auvers works on display, Van Gogh’s hard-won skills and inborn intensity had slackened; Landscape with a Bridge over the Oise (1890) lays on green and white strokes in such cursory fashion that the paper ground shows through, and the brushed lines of blue and black in Landscape with Houses and Old Vineyard with Peasant Woman, not a straight line among them, seem to me a complete meltdown. But never underestimate Van Gogh’s posthumous appeal for the art public: a few feet away, a woman said in my hearing, of the two half-blue drawings, “I love those.”

This Issue

December 1, 2005