Vincent van Gogh is arguably the most popular, most reproduced and most talked-about of all modern artists, so it’s not surprising that the Van Gogh Museum, comprising a fabulous collection of the artist’s work, is one of Amsterdam’s top attractions. The museum occupies two modern buildings, with the kernel of the collection housed at the front in an angular structure designed by a leading light of the De Stijl movement, Gerrit Rietveld, and opened to the public in 1973. Well conceived and beautifully presented, this part of the museum provides an introduction to the man and his art, based on paintings that were mostly inherited from Vincent’s art-dealer brother Theo. To the rear of Rietveld’s building, and connected by a ground-floor escalator, is an ultramodern curved annexe, an aesthetically controversial structure built in 1998, that holds temporary exhibitions.
The ground floor of the main museum displays works by some of van Gogh’s well-known friends and contemporaries, many of whom influenced his work – Gauguin, Millet, Anton Mauve, and Charles Daubigny all feature. Above, on the first floor are paintings by the artist himself, mostly displayed chronologically, starting with the dark, sombre works of the early years like The Potato Eater. The collection continues with the brighter palate he adopted in Arles, superbly represented by one of the artist’s Sunflowers series, intensely – almost obsessively – rendered in the deepest oranges, golds and ochres. While van Gogh was in the asylum in St Rémy, his approach to nature became more abstract, as evidenced by his unsettling Wheatfield with a Reaper, the dense, knotty Undergrowth and his palpable Irises. Van Gogh is at his most expressionistic here, the paint applied thickly, often with a palette knife, a practice he continued in his final, tortured works painted at Auvers-sur-Oise, where he lodged for the last three months of his life. It was at Auvers that he painted the frantic Wheatfield with Crows, in which the fields swirl and writhe under weird, dark skies, as well as the deeply disturbing Tree Roots.
The two floors above provide backup to the main collection. The second floor hosts temporary exhibitions focusing on aspects of van Gogh’s art and life, while the third floor has a conservation and restoration area, more drawings and sketches from the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions illustrating yet more of van Gogh’s artistic influences.
In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) left Paris for Arles, a small town in the south of France, where he warmed to the open vistas and bright colours of the Provençal countryside. In September he moved into the house he called the ”Yellow House”, where he hoped to establish an artists’ colony – though only Gauguin, who arrived in Arles in late October, stayed for any length of time. Initially the two artists got on well, hunkering down together in the Yellow House and sometimes painting side by side, but the bonhomie didn’t last. They argued long and hard about art, with van Gogh complaining, “Sometimes we come out of our arguments with our heads as exhausted as a used electric battery”. Later, Gauguin claimed that van Gogh threatened him during several of these arguments: whether this is true or not, Gauguin had certainly already decided to return to Paris by the time the two had a ferocious quarrel on the night of December 23. The argument was so bad that Gauguin left to stay at the local hotel, and when he returned in the morning, he was faced by the police. After Gauguin’s hasty exit, a deeply disturbed van Gogh had taken a razor to his ear, severing part of it before presenting the selected slice to a prostitute at the local brothel – in van Gogh’s addled state he may well have forged some sort of connection with bullfighting, where the dead bull’s ears are cut off and given as a prize to the bullfighter. Hours after Gauguin’s return, van Gogh was admitted to hospital, the first of several extended stays before, fearing for his sanity, he committed himself to the asylum of St Rémy in May 1889. Here, the doctor’s initial assessment described him as suffering from “acute mania, with hallucinations of sight and hearing”; van Gogh attributed his parlous state to excessive drinking and smoking, though he gave up neither during his year-long stay.
In May 1890, feeling lonely and homesick, van Gogh discharged himself from St Rémy and headed north to Paris before proceeding on to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. At first, his health improved and he even began to garner critical recognition for his work. However, his twin ogres of depression and loneliness soon returned to haunt him and, in despair, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. This wasn’t, however, the end; he didn’t manage to kill himself outright, but took 27 hours to die, even enduring a police visit when he refused to answer any questions, pronouncing: “I am free to do what I like with my own body”.