- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

This is the 150th anniversary year of Vincent van Gogh, the 19th-century Dutch painter whose swirling line and vibrant color revolutionized the art of his day and inspired much of today’s painting. To commemorate it, the Amsterdam museum that bears his name has been showing not only his work, but paintings by those who influenced him and whom he influenced.

In nearby Otterlo at the Kroller-Muller Museum, 91 of his paintings and 185 of his drawings, acquired by his greatest admirer and earliest collector, Helene Kroller-Muller, are also being displayed.

Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the village of Groot Zundert in the southern part of the Netherlands. Almost exactly a year earlier, his mother had given birth to a stillborn son she had named Vincent. Some believe the painter Vincent’s lifelong melancholy came from a feeling of guilt that he had survived when his brother hadn’t. His father was a minister.

In 26 years, Van Gogh tried and failed at a number of enterprises. He worked as an art dealer in the Hague and London and Paris. He taught school, clerked in a bookshop and studied theology. Briefly, he trained as a preacher and went to a poor mining area of Belgium as a lay preacher. He was so horrified by the poverty there that he gave away what little he had to the miners. The social conscience he developed then would often be reflected in what he chose to paint after he became an artist.

In 1880, encouraged by his brother Theo, an art dealer, he decided to devote himself to painting — particularly in the fashion of his favorite artist, Jean-Francois Millet. A sampling of Millet’s works, along with some by Claude Monet, John Constable, Rembrandt van Rijn, Theodore Rousseau and Josef Israels, among others — all of whom van Gogh liked — were in the special “Victor’s Choice” show at the Van Gogh Museum earlier this year.

In the present display are paintings by those whom van Gogh’s style affected. These include Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, William De Kooning, Jean Dubuffet and Bruce Nauman.

To become an artist, van Gogh went to Brussels, where he studied anatomy, tried to copy paintings that pleased him and did his own pictures based on his experiences among the miners. Then he moved to The Hague and had an unhappy love affair with a pregnant prostitute whom he pitied.

When she left him, he went first to the moorland of the northern Netherlands to paint. He was lonely there and returned to the home of his parents, who by then had moved to the town of Nuenen, five miles northeast of Eindhoven. Today, in that pretty little town, his parents’ house still stands. There are two statues of Vincent van Gogh; a permanent exhibition about his life is housed in a document center near the town hall. Visitors also can see the church where his father preached and the three water mills that Vincent painted.

Always a prolific writer, van Gogh wrote at Nuenen how he really did not feel welcome at his parents’ home. “They shrink from asking me into the house as they might a big, shaggy dog. He’s sure to come into the living room with wet paws.”

But Nuenen was a community of peasant farmers and weavers and, ill at ease though he felt at home, van Gogh found many locals to paint. Altogether, he painted 33 works during his stay there. He was urged to follow the impressionists, however, and lighten his palette, but he declined.

He was beginning to be pleased with himself as an artist and wrote to Theo (with whom much of his correspondence was carried on) that he felt he was an important painter of peasants and landscapes. However, he was not comfortable enough to stay in Nuenen long. His father died, and in 1885, he moved to Antwerp and briefly studied at the Academy of Fine Arts.

In Antwerp, he discovered the Japanese prints that also were to influence the way he painted. Some of these are among this year’s Van Gogh Museum exhibits. In 1885, he painted what is considered his first masterpiece — “The Potato Eaters.”

Next, unannounced, he joined Theo in Paris’ Monmartre in 1886. There he finally was taken with the work of the impressionists — particularly those of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, with whom he became friends. Pointilism interested him. His colors began to lighten. He painted still lifes in bright colors, but he could not afford to pay models in Paris and by 1888 had decided to move to the south of France.

A new phase in his career started in the south. He settled in the sunshine of Arles and in 15 months produced 200 paintings, among them “La Berceuse,” the woman rocking a cradle, and “Portrait of Joseph Roulin,” the blue-coated postman with gold buttons.

Van Gogh hoped to form an atelier in the building known through his paintings of its exterior and interior as “The Yellow House.” The only painter to become part of the atelier, however, was Paul Gaugin; the two artists stayed together just two months.

Gaugin was urging van Gogh to paint from his imagination, but van Gogh wanted to paint from reality. They argued frequently and had financial problems. The relationship ended when van Gogh threatened Gaugin with a razor and then proceeded to cut off part of one of his own ear lobes and send it to a prostitute.

Nevertheless, 1888 was a good painting year for van Gogh. Then came 1889, when he had himself hospitalized at St. Remy for his increasing mental illness. Doctors could not agree on the reasons for it. Was it caused by the absinthe he drank to excess and venereal disease he had caught from his early prostitute-mistress? Was he a schizophrenic? A religious fanatic? Was he still feeling guilty for the death of his stillborn brother?

Today it is believed that probably a combination of epilepsy and poor diet and living conditions affected him.

When he wasn’t hospitalized in this period, he painted many of his sunflower and cypress compositions and his swirling “Starry Night.” At a time when he was out of the asylum, he was able to go to Paris to see Theo’s newborn son, who had been named Vincent for him. But then, at Auvers-sur-Oise, where he moved in hopes that its peacefulness would inspire him, he was put under a doctor’s care again and on July 27, 1890, went out into the fields, presumably to shoot crows, but instead shot himself in the stomach. He died two days later.

In his lifetime, van Gogh sold only one painting, but he gave many away and left many with Theo, who died just six months after him.

All this is recounted in the exhibits of paintings and photos and memorabilia that will be at the Kroller-Muller Museum until Oct. 12. Helene Kroller-Muller, for whom it is named, was able to purchase so many van Goghs thanks to the money her German husband, Anton Muller, made after he became director general of her father’s company on her father’s death.

W.G. Muller Co. was the largest business venture in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 20th century. This anniversary year is the first time that all of the van Gogh drawings she collected are being shown.

In addition to the van Gogh works, there are paintings by Seurat, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and Piet Mondrian, among others, to be seen in the museum itself. In the sculpture garden outside — one of Europe’s largest — are works by such sculptors as Claes Oldenburg, Jean Dubuffet, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Richard Serra. These are placed among the trees and flowers and along the garden paths.

Although it is Vincent van Gogh’s legacy that is being heralded in the Netherlands this year, as always, the visitor will find much else of interest, especially in Amsterdam. There are canal tours to take to admire the gables and facades of the tall brick 17th- and 18th-century houses that edge the waterways. There are black wrought-iron bridges to cross, benches to sit on to watch houseboat reflections in the still canal waters; antiques shops filled with blue-and-white Delft porcelain to explore; and the house where teenaged Anne Frank wrote the diary of her life as a Jewish child in World War II. A trip to the Netherlands is never disappointing.

Fly Dulles to Amsterdam, then take a bus or train

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Northwest Airlines have a code-sharing agreement for daily nonstop flights between Washington Dulles International Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

In this van Gogh year, visitors to the Van Gogh Museum, which is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, may enter free of charge on their birthdays. Otherwise, the admission fee is about $9 for adults and $2.50 for teenagers and free for those under 12.

The Kroller-Muller Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with the sculpture garden closing at 4:30 p.m. A one-day ticket for the Hoge Veluwe Park that is its setting, and a museum visit, is about $10 for adults and $5 for children 6 through 12. A shuttle bus on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday links the Van Gogh and Kroller-Muller museums for $10. Alternatively, one can go to the Kroller-Muller by taking a train from Amsterdam to Apeldoorn and a local bus from there.

For air travelers with just stopover time in Amsterdam, a Holland Tour Schiphol that leaves from and returns to the airport is a good way to get a glimpse of the city (but there will not be enough time for a museum visit). It costs about $35 for the brief visit to Amsterdam. The bus driver asks to see the travelers’ boarding passes to assure that they get back in time for their flights.

For those staying a few days in Amsterdam, 24-hour, 48-hour and three-day Amsterdam Passes are available for about $25, $35 and $45 respectively from the Amsterdam Tourist Board in front of Central Station, the city’s main railway station. They allow reduced-rate or free entry to many museums and attractions and include free public transportation.

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