Van Gogh Repetitions at the Phillips Collection This Fall
Washington, D.C.—This fall, The Phillips Collection takes a fresh look at the artistic process of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). While recognized for the intensity and speed with which he painted, van Gogh also could work with careful deliberation, creating more than one version of some of his most famous subjects. The first exhibition in Phillips Collection history devoted to the artist, Van Gogh Repetitions goes beneath the surface of some of his best-known paintings to examine how and why he repeated certain compositions during his ten-year career. Thirty-three paintings and works on paper are on view at The Phillips Collection from Oct. 12, 2013, through Jan. 26, 2014.
The exhibition is the first to focus on van Gogh’s “repetitions”—a term the artist used to describe his practice of creating more than one version of a particular subject. He often began by sketching a person or landscape rapidly from nature. Back in the studio, he could repeat the subject, reworking and refining his idea on a fresh canvas, in some cases many times. In contrast to the popular perception of van Gogh wielding his brush with wild abandon before nature, Repetitions shows how the artist was also methodical and controlled.
“This is a rare opportunity to get to know one of the world’s most recognizable artists in a fresh, new way,” said Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection. “He is such a beloved figure who has earned great renown, but there is still much more to be learned. Through a close examination of this fascinating but only partially understood aspect of his work, we can create a richer, more meaningful picture of his personal life and artistic production.”
Van Gogh Repetitions is inspired by The Road Menders (1889) in The Phillips Collection and a painting of the same subject, The Large Plane Trees (1889), in The Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibition reunites the two masterpieces—never before seen together in Washington—and invites deep, focused study of the similarities and differences between them, revealing some surprising facts about van Gogh’s process and motivation.
Examples from 13 of van Gogh’s repetitions will be on view, in some cases reunited for the first time in many years. The exhibition reveals the vitality and persistence of this method across van Gogh’s career in significant locales in the Netherlands and in France, including Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers. It brings together portraits and landscapes from some of the world’s most renowned collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The exhibition offers an exceptional opportunity to see masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, including Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles (1889) and L’Arlésienne (1888).
BENEATH THE SURFACE
In 2005, The Phillips Collection sent to The Cleveland Museum of Art an exhibition of masterworks from its collection, including van Gogh’s celebrated The Road Menders, which Cleveland displayed beside its own closely-related painting The Large Plane Trees. Recognizing a unique opportunity, Cleveland’s Senior Conservator of Paintings Marcia Steele undertook a study of the two paintings in the conservation studio.
Steele brought the fascinating new information she discovered to Phillips Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele (no relation) and Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. Though the two paintings are nearly identical in size and composition, it turns out that Cleveland’s version had been painted rapidly on a patterned cotton fabric while the Phillips’s was rendered with greater subtlety and deliberation on a prepared artist’s canvas. As with many of the repetitions, these differences reveal how van Gogh began by sketching the subject from nature before using his imagination and a variety of techniques to refine subsequent versions in the studio.
Inspired by these findings, the team of curators and conservators embarked on a half-decade investigation of van Gogh’s known series of repetitions around the world, from Boston to New York and Philadelphia, Chicago to Detroit and Toledo, and to France and the Netherlands. Numerous major institutions allowed them to examine their treasures by van Gogh, unframed and under stereo-binocular microscopes. The exhibition features the results of this unparalleled research into the artist’s process of producing repetitions, including x-radiography and digital overlays, to shed new light on van Gogh’s methods and intentions.
THE POSTMAN'S FAMILY
In 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, hoping to form an artist cooperative there. Though this plan never materialized, he did forge an important friendship with postal clerk Joseph Roulin and found comfort and companionship in the Roulin family. Van Gogh completed portraits of each family member—Joseph, his wife Augustine, and their three children Armand, Camille, and new baby Marcelle—fulfilling one of his greatest ambitions to paint a suite of portraits that capture the rustic people of Provence.
During his months in Arles, van Gogh made repetitions of each of these portraits. He often produced more than one, to be able to present a copy to the sitter. More than mere gestures of thanks for the subject’s time in sitting for him, these gifts were heartfelt expressions of appreciation for his friends. Roulin and his family continued to lend support and loyalty to the artist after his mental breakdown in December 1888.
In repeating their portraits, van Gogh transformed the individual likenesses of his sitters into universal types that embody human dignity. His six paintings and three drawings of the postman convey deep admiration for the ardent socialist and devoted father. At first the portraits focus naturalistically on Roulin’s distinctive physical features, which van Gogh described as Socratic, but in subsequent versions the portrait becomes grand and abstract. Van Gogh painted five versions of Madame Roulin as La Berceuse, a woman rocking a cradle. In this series too, the artist increasingly portrays his subject as a modern icon of comfort and consolation. These works offer clear evidence of van Gogh exploring the repetition process to refine and advance his art.
VAN GOGH'S INSPIRATIONS
Van Gogh also found inspiration in repeating work by other artists he admired. A particularly intimate example is his painting after Paul Gauguin’s drawing L’Arlésienne: Madame Ginoux.
Gauguin made this drawing in November 1888, when the two artists appear to have worked in tandem, sketching Madame Ginoux, the wife of a café owner in Arles. At that time, Van Gogh painted his renowned first portrait of Madame Ginoux (Musée d’Orsay). That painting and the repetition that he made subsequently in the studio (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) will be on view side-by-side in the exhibition. Many months later in February 1890, van Gogh returned to Gauguin’s chalk and charcoal drawing and made a repetition of it in oil paint. His subtle refinements to Gauguin’s composition, adding color and a pair of books, make van Gogh’s repetition at once his own work of art and an homage to his friend and fellow artist.
The exhibition also includes a selection of works from the Phillips’s permanent collection by artists van Gogh admired, including Honoré Daumier, Eugène Delacroix, Paul Gauguin, Matthijs Maris, Jean-Francois Millet, Adolphe Monticelli, and Rembrandt van Rijn.
VAN GOGH IN THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION
Museum Founder Duncan Phillips first expressed his desire to acquire “examples of the inventive genius of van Gogh” in 1926. In 1930, Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles (1888)—one of the first paintings by van Gogh in an American museum—entered the collection. In 1949, Phillips acquired The Road Menders (1889), which he ranked “among the best van Goghs,” and in 1952 added House at Auvers (1890). Phillips also purchased two van Gogh works on paper: an etching of Dr. Gachet (1890) and a pencil and ink drawing of Moulin de la Galette (1887). All of these works will be on view.
A beautiful and groundbreaking catalogue, published by Yale University Press in association with The Phillips Collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art, accompanies the exhibition. It features 125 color illustrations, including numerous examples of Vincent van Gogh’s repetitions along with related works and technical studies. Essays by Phillips Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone and Cleveland Curator of Modern European Art William Robinson consider the many unresolved issues and controversies surrounding van Gogh’s repetitions, exploring their origins, development, and meaning in van Gogh’s art. Analyses of specific paintings by Rathbone, Robinson, Phillips Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele, and Cleveland Paintings Conservator Marcia Steele make use of technical and analytical examinations to understand how the artist worked. Available this fall for $50.00 in the museum shop and shop.phillipscollection.org.
ORGANIZATION AND SPONSORS
Van Gogh Repetitions is co-organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. After opening at The Phillips Collection, it travels to The Cleveland Museum of Art where it is on view March 2 through May 26, 2014.
The exhibition is proudly sponsored by Lockheed Martin. Additional support is provided by Louisa Duemling, Nancy M. Folger, and Barbara and Arthur Rothkopf.
ABOUT THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION
The Phillips Collection is one of the world's most distinguished collections of impressionist and modern American and European art. Stressing the continuity between art of the past and present, it offers a strikingly original and experimental approach to modern art by combining works of different nationalities and periods in displays that change frequently. The setting is similarly unconventional, featuring small rooms, a domestic scale, anda personal atmosphere. Artists represented in the collection include Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Claude Monet, Honoré Daumier, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, Jacob Lawrence, and Richard Diebenkorn, among others. The Phillips Collection, America's first museum of modern art, has an active collecting program and regularly organizes acclaimed special exhibitions, many of which travel internationally. The Intersections series features projects by contemporary artists, responding to art and spaces in the museum. The Phillips also produces award-winning education programs for K-12 teachers and students, as well as for adults. The museum’s Center for the Study of Modern Art explores new ways of thinking about art and the nature of creativity, through artist visits and lectures, and provides a forum for scholars through courses, postdoctoral fellowships, and internships. Since 1941, the museum has hosted Sunday Concerts in its wood-paneled Music Room. The Phillips Collection is a private, non-government museum, supported primarily by donations.