Amsterdam: van Gogh

November 22, 2009 • 1:07 pm

The Netherlands produced three of my dozen favorite painters (see below), an amazing yield for so small a land. Amsterdam houses museums for two of them—Rembrandt and van Gogh—and the Rijksmuseum also has a few specimens from the limited output of Vermeer. But perhaps a sunny Saturday was not a good time to visit the van Gogh Museum: regardless of the month, weekends bring out flocks of locals and tourists. And the Dutch are tall, so that seeing the paintings among them is like examining a distant deer through thick forest. But go one must, for if you like van Gogh — and who doesn’t? — you’ll find loads of his works — an orgy of color and line filling two of the building’s three floors. If you’ve been to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, you may think you’ve had a good ration of van Gogh, but you haven’t.

Here you find many public favorites: his room at Arles, a vase of irises, another of sunflowers, The Potato Eaters, self-portraits, landscapes from southern France. There is one of his last paintings, Wheatfield with Crows. And other fantastic pieces: a stunning near-monochrome still life and a lascivious portrait of almond blossoms writhing, almost sexually, across a cerulean blue sky. You can locate the most famous paintings by the knots of visitors before them, but many masterpieces inhabit the interstices.

What you see in person, but miss in reproductions, is the thick impasto that makes the museum-shop postcards such poor replicas of the originals. The paint is laid on in thick dollops, like frosting rising high above the canvas — so high that it makes its own highlights. And many of van Gogh’s paintings, as he admitted to his brother, were done quickly, perhaps to exorcise the demons of anxiety and depression that plagued him in his final years.

Van Gogh’s output in the last three years of his life (1888-1890) is astonishing. Despite his depression, for which he was famously hospitalized, he turned out painting after painting, all of them great. The thick lines of paint that sometimes appear in his earlier works now are ubiquitous, lined up like armies of worms marching across the canvas. Nobody else had seen like that before.

Many of van Gogh’s letters are also on display, revealing not only superb penmanship (and lots of drawings: he worked out many of his ideas in these screeds), but a surprising eloquence. He was clearly not an unlettered proletarian of native genius, but a learned and deeply thoughtful man. And he worked hard: many letters, especially to his brother Theo, describe Vincent’s torturous efforts to get things visually right. How sad that when he finally did, he nevertheless imagined himself a total failure, and ended his life.

van Gogh shot himself in the chest soon after finishing Wheatfield with Crows (it is not, as is often believed, his last painting), and many have commented on the symbolism: a road disappears into a field, and death-presaging birds rise from the wheat while a menacing black sky looms like a veil. One wonders whether van Gogh had already planned his suicide, and was painting in desperation. The work reeks of haste and anxiety — the crows are ciphers, each bird four quick strokes of a black-daubed brush, two upside-down “v”s.

Near the end of the exhibit is van Gogh’s last letter, unfinished, in French, and addressed to his brother. It was found on Vincent’s body, and Theo later annotated it in memoriam of “that tragic day.” In several places the letter is spotted with light orange stains; the accompanying label suggests that this may be Vincent’s blood but that the matter is unclear. The geneticist in me cried out for forensic analysis.

Favorite painters (i.e., the best painters,in order)

1. Rembrandt
2. van Gogh
3. Picasso
4. Michelangelo
5. da Vinci
6. Dürer
7. Johannes Vermeer
8. Raphael
9. Caravaggio
10. Monet
11. Turner
12. Toulouse-Lautrec

Wild cards:


A few favorite paintings:

The Isenheim Altarpiece; Mathias Grünewald

Las Meninas; Velázquez

Guernica; Picasso

Virgin of the Rocks; da Vinci

Rain, Steam, and Speed: the Great Western Railway; Turner.

The Prophet Hannah; Rembrandt

Wheatfield with a Reaper; van Gogh

Self Portrait at 28; Dürer

44 thoughts on “Amsterdam: van Gogh

  1. My list, also known as “The One True List”, would be a little different from yours. Most of the differences would be in the order of artists, but, I would add a few, too. Picasso would be lower, Kandinsky would be in the main list, Pissaro and Chagall might be there, too, as might Matisse. Of course, the whole thing is a matter of taste. Mine, obviously is biased toward more modern painters than yours.

  2. What! no Goya, your list is emasculated. The man can do no wrong, the most lascivious nude, etchings of great compassion, vile violence, rational hope. Pictures that never lie just look further than the most famous, you will only find one weak uncharismatic picture, his one Crucifixion.

  3. Great list, I would probably bump 2 out of the top ten to make room for Chagall and Rodin. But there are tough choices.

    Monet and Picasso would be in my top 5.

  4. You missed van Dycke; how can you miss him?

    @JetFLyingV: I love many of Rodin’s sculptures, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a painting by him.

    I love Picasso’s early work (charcoals, sculptures, paintings) – when it actually resembled something. His later stuff just got too weird.

    1. You are right, yank Rodin. Or place him on an alternate list for his sculptures.

      Picasso weird…? I am grateful that my parents took us to see the Picasso exhibit in NYC before they were shipped back to spain after Franco’s death.

  5. Jerry, I am amazed that you missed that contemporary of Rembrandt and Vermeer, not often thought of as an artist, but a consummate draughtsman – Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680). You could even have gone to visit the house where he was born… For some of his amazing drawings go here:

    1. Ummm. . . . I’ll put Swammerdam, as an artist, somewhat below R. Crumb but above the artist who paints dogs playing poker.

  6. I recall hearing an eyewitness account of the Trinity atom bomb test many years ago in which the blast was compared to a painting by Grünewald!

  7. 1.- Velázquez -Las Meninas

    2.- Dali – Crucifixion-hipercube

    3.- Vermeer-Whichever

    4.- El Greco – El entierro del Conde de Orgaz

    5.- Picasso – Gernika

    6.- Durer. Self Portrait

    7.- Van Gogh – Sunflowers

    8.- Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

    9- Botticell – Birth of Venus

    10.- Micheangelo – The sistine chapel

    Criterion: I would like to have them at home. And also these two gadgets:

    1.- This for hanging my hat

    2.- And this mug for the coffe

  8. Since Vermeer’s on your list, you may enjoy the book “The Forger’s Spell”, which describes the rediscovery of Vermeer, as part of the story of Hans van Meegeren. He painted and sold fake Vermeers to the Rijksmuseum, starting bidding wars between Dutch institutions and prominent Nazis including Goering.

    It was a pretty interesting book.

  9. And not a mention of Poussin, who is one of the greatest painters ever to have lived, or, since I live in Japan, Sesshu or Hasegawa Tohaku or (Chinese) Shih Tao… I admire van Gogh, too, though less than when I was young (he is a young man’s painter), but think that Edgar Wind was justified in pointing out that the cult of van Gogh had led to a deprecation of, or insensitivity to, the achievements of far subtler colourists, such as Degas.

  10. Correggio is an oft overlooked master from the Italian Renaissance. Much better colorist than the pedestrian Michelangelo Buonarotti. Titian and Rubens are notables missing, and from the distaff set, Artemisia Gentileschi is an unquestioned master, and Judith Leyster was as in much demand as her teacher Frans Hal. A nice site for looking at this flat stuff is World Gallery of Art.

  11. As I’m living in Amsterdam currently I often go to the Van Gogh Museum. Wonderful stuff there.

    My own favorite Van Gogh painting is ‘Cafe Terrace’:

    If you buy a Museumkaart you can get in for free to this and (almost) any other Amsterdam museum. The new Hermitage (sister museum from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg – Russia) is wonderful too.

  12. No Cezanne? Oh come now. Good to see a vote for Shi Tao, I would add Chu Ta, but even fewer Americans have heard of him. Something that has long puzzled me (apart from his inflated reputation) is the odd way Americans pronounce van Gough’s name – does anyone know where this comes from?

  13. Yes! Yes! By all means! Go and see the original paintings, drawings and/or sculptures of these great artists. It makes all the difference. Visiting museums is part of my early childhood memories and I still love museums of any kind.

    When I visited the Van Gogh Museum some years ago the colours and textures simply blew me away, not even the best reproduction can come close to it.
    And the Rijksmuseum is so great too, there’s more than enough to see in there for several days.

    I’m happy to live in Hamburg, our museums have wonderful exhibitions. And every year we have the “Long Night of Museums” (Die lange Nacht der Museen), heavily sponsored by the town. Between 18:00 and 2:00, you buy one ticket and you can visit each of the participating museums, more than 40 and there’s a free shuttle service too. The ticket is valid for a follow up visit the next day. The atmosphere is quite different during those nightly visits.

  14. There is one fairly small museum called the Mauritshuis in The Hague that generally gets forgotten by the tourists, but it houses some of my favorite paintings, not least among them the girl with a pearl earring by Vermeer.

    Yes, yes, now that I’ve spoken that name, I do believe I must go there immediately.

    1. In the title piece to Lawrence Weschler’s collection of essays entitled Vermeer in Bosnia Weschler discusses going to the Vermeers at the Mauritshuis in an attempt to dispel the strain of sitting through a war crimes trial. Weschler is a phenomenal writer and when he gets to talking about Vermeer it’s enthralling.

  15. And in Haarlem, at cycling distance from my house, there is the Teyler’s Museum, the oldest museum in Europe, with a large collection of fossils, including one of the eight known specimens of Archeopterix, an art collection with some drawings and prints by Rembrandt and Michelangelo, a room full of antique scientific intruments, endless cases of minerals, and generally an amazing amount of stuff for such a small museum. I’d be happy to give you a tour, as it’s my home away from home.

  16. I second robhoofd: the Mauritshuis in The Hague and Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem should be on your must visit list. Vermeer’s View of Delft, which was Marcel Proust’s favorite painting, is in the former, as are some marvellous Rembrandts.

    Talking of favorite painters, surely Titian should be in any such list (number three on mine, after Rembrandt and Vermeer). Although I admire Van Gogh very much, he doesn’t make it to my top ten list (perhaps I shouldn’t say this as a Dutchman).

  17. If Haarlem is a destination, one should definitely visit the Frans Hals Museum too. Not just for his portraits, but also for the authentic 17th century interior.

    But that may be too late for Jerry before he is due in Italy (was it Padova?) — I’m sure they will want him there tomorrow, on the exact 150th anniversary of Origin.

  18. I’d like to throw in some female artists, most noteably Artemisia, i’m very fond of her self portrait. But also Frida Kahlo, Natalia Goncharova and Paula Becker;

    A sculptur i like very much is Camille Claudel.

    When typing this i realise i’m wholefully ignorant of african/asian and aboriganee art, sorry.

    One of my favorite paintings is a self potrait by Paul Citroen;

    For those art enclined visiting the Netherlands a little detour via De Hooge Veluwe and the Kröller-Müller Museum is a must.
    Mrs. Helene Kröller-Müller collected many great works of art and the museum has a vast van Gogh collection, she was quite partial to his works.
    When you tire of the indoors, you can go outside. This museum is wonderfully situated in a state park and has a grand sculpture garden with beautifull works like Jardin d’email by Jean Dubuffet.

  19. Yes, the Americans actually think that the pronunication of Van Go is how Europeans pronounce it and are shocked and dismayed to find out they are wrong and usually insist that Van Go is the correct pronunciation that Europeans use although they do not. Very odd.

    Very excellent choices in the the post and the comments. Manet is another goodie (if you like Lautrec, Degas, Caraveggio, Goya for their use of black, you will adore Manet even more).

    In the top 25, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Alice Neel, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keefe, Frieda Kahlo along with Jackson Pollock, all merit a place. (this selection is just for Western artists I gather?)

    1. Well, I usually hear the pronunciation “van goff”. But when I visited the Netherlands, what they actually said there was, as close as I can represent it in English-speakers’ consonants, “van hock”.

      Do Americans really say “van go”? I’ve heard that pronunciation, but only very rarely.

      1. Actually, Van Gogh should be pronounced as Van Choch, with the ‘a’ as in the British pronunciation of can’t and the ‘ch’ as in the Scottish pronunciation of loch. If the name sounds as if you are scraping your throat you are getting it right.

        I am ignoring the fact that Van Gogh came from the Dutch province of Noord Brabant, where in the local dialect people pronounce the ‘g’ more like the ‘ch’ in which). But never like a ‘k’ or an ‘h’, anyway.

      2. Dutch G or CH or GH as in Van Gogh might sound like an full H to Americans, depending somewhat on the speaker. The very sharp throat rasping sound is from the west provinces.

      3. With all of these varied ways of saying this name, and varied assertions as to which is best and correct, no wonder the Americans smartly just said “the hell with it” and went with “van go.”

      4. Regarding ‘gh’ and ‘f’: that made me think of what Bernard Shaw once said (as mentioned by Steven Pinker in his book “The Lnaguage Instinct”): We may as well spell ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’.

        (‘gh’ as in tough, ‘ow as in women, and ‘ti’ as in nation).

  20. Where’s the American love?!?

    i.e., John Singer Sargent

    And let’s not forget the famous Hudson River School of landscape painters. These would include Frederic Edwin Church and William Hart.

  21. “What you see in person, but miss in reproductions, is the thick impasto that makes the museum-shop postcards such poor replicas of the originals. The paint is laid on in thick dollops, like frosting rising high above the canvas — so high that it makes its own highlights.”

    Yes, and seeing them in such quantity and concentrated form at that museum is remarkable.

  22. Caravaggio, that cantankerous freak. He could make a comatose horse look sublime; he could make a Naperville city council meeting appear spiritually nuanced if he brought his oils to capture the nothingness that goes on there. His flair for ordinary details compel us to feel his subjects as they leap out of their canvas ethos and into ours. Love that weirdo.

    I think the Art Institute still has The Supper at Emmaus on loan from London.

  23. Coyne, that was a beautiful post. I admire your ability to write about science AND art with such lucidity and grace.

    It’s interesting to read people’s artistic preferences in the comments; my favorite painting is probably Zim Zum by Anselm Kiefer, but I’m stunned as well by van Gogh, Turner, Ernst, Schiele… for whatever reason I’m not as moved by pre-19th-century painting. But I could still spend all day in front of a Velazquez.

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