Van Gogh, Repeated

Infamous for cutting off his own ear and likely causing his own death by shooting himself in the stomach, Vincent van Gogh is the undisputed embodiment of the mad artist. Combine this image with his frenzied brushstrokes and vivid colours, and it is unsurprising that his artistic method is seen as impulsive and somewhat violent.

The Starry Night, Saint-Rémy, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Starry Night, Saint-Rémy, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

So you may be surprised to learn that Van Gogh actually spent much time thinking carefully about his works, reconsidering his style and compositions. He did this especially through repetitions. You may well recognise his portrait of Joseph Roulin, the postman- but you might not be recognising quite what you think. There are six of them.

Left: Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889. Oil on canvas, 64.4 x 55.2 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Right: The Postman Joseph Roulin, February–March 1889. Oil on canvas. Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.
Left: Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889. Oil on canvas, 64.4 x 55.2 cm.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Right: The Postman Joseph Roulin, February–March 1889. Oil on canvas. Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. has dedicated their current exhibition to exploring Van Gogh’s numerous répétitions and their role in his art. Often, it is the case that he first painted a scene outside, from life, and then later reworked and refined the composition in the studio. This can be seen with his two versions of The Road Menders, for example (from which the idea for this exhibition originated). Other times, it seems that perhaps the artist made another version of a painting as a gift, such as with one of his portraits of his friend, Joseph Roulin.

Left: The Road Menders, Saint-Rémy, November 1889. Oil on canvas, 71 x 93 cm. The Philips Collection, Washington, D.C. Right: The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on fabric, 73.4 x 91.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. Source: http://www.clevelandart.org
Left: The Road Menders, Saint-Rémy, November 1889. Oil on canvas, 71 x 93 cm. The Philips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Right: The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on fabric, 73.4 x 91.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. Source: http://www.clevelandart.org

There is certainly much to be learnt about Van Gogh from this exhibition, but the curators hope that visitors to it will also learn something about their own approach to art. In being asked to put aside our preconceptions about this artist, we are forced to look again, to reconsider, and to learn how to see art in a different way. For a fresh look at one of the world’s most famous artists, hurry along to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. before 2 February 2014. If you miss it here, the exhibition will then be showing at The Cleveland Museum of Art from 2 March until 26 May 2014.

If you’d like to read more about Vincent van Gogh, check out Victoria Charles’ in-depth look at the great master, or Van Gogh in his own words, in our book from the Mega Square collection.

G.A.