Day 2 in Amsterdam, after the Rijskmuseum the day before, I went to the Van Gogh museum. My hotel was conveniently located in Museumplein and a sub-5min walk to Amsterdam cultural treasures! Before my visit, I wondered if the Van Gogh museum would be one of those museums with minor pieces from its local artist, with the best pieces sold to museums in Paris and New York… This is not the case, the Van Gogh museum has early and less known works but its last floor is filled with masterpieces.
> Main art periods: Van Gogh, Van Gogh and Van Gogh, and Post-Impressionism
> My coups de coeur, not to miss: many… Gauguin’s chair, The Yellow house, The Bedroom, Almond blossom, Gauguin’s Van Gogh painting sunflowers
> Tip: Although floors 1and 2 give valuable insight into Van Gogh’s technique, budget most of your time for the 3rd floor – the “swirling” paintings Van Gogh is known for are there
The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam provides valuable insights into the artist’s techniques from his early painting years (including how he went to, left and came back to thick oil painting) until his late works (when his brush started “swirling”). Also included are paintings from Van Gogh contemporaries including Gauguin’s imagined scene of Van Gogh painting sunflowers.
Self-taught but methodical
Contrary to appearances, Van Gogh was highly methodical, despite spending only eight months in academic training in Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Van Gogh was aware of his technical weaknesses but favoured self-teaching. He used perspective frames in Montmartre: windmills and allotments. He worked extensively on complementary colours based on Delacroix studies, juxtapositioning colours that are diametrically opposed on the chromatic circle (red/green, yellow/purple, blue/orange).
The beginnings: Hague school earth tones
He started painting with Mauve, a leading Hague school painter who taught him oil painting. Van Gogh also befriended Breitner, an impressionist from Amsterdam with whom he painted outdoors. Aged 30, Van Gogh then moved back to parents home in the Dutch village of Nuenen. It was there that he began to paint peasants and weavers, drawing on his knowledge of Millet’s peasant paintings. He painted them in the earthy tones typical of the Barbizon school, but adding blue tones to his potato eaters and weavers (ahead of Picasso’s blue period). Thicker brushstrokes are visible in his Head of a Prostitute. He seemed to use heavier touches of paint for those with a tougher life.
Paris-Arles: Thicker paint and Japanese influence
His brushstrokes and paint layers became thicker, inspired by Monticelli, his contemporary in his Paris years. In the South of France, he drew inspiration from Japanese prints: bright colours, strong contours and surprising compositions. His contemporary Emile Bernard was even more influenced by Japanese prints, painting with little depth with large areas of colours, abrupt framing and using perspective differently. Van Gogh’s copies of Hiroshige are exhibited side by side with Hiroshige’s prints. Among the many masterpieces on offer at the museum is Gauguin’s chair (1888) with nothing signaling us to the presence of Gauguin. Van Gogh invited Gauguin to join him in Arles to help form an artist community. But the collaboration ended with Van Gogh famously cutting his ear.
Later life: Swirling brushstrokes in St Remy and Auvers
Van Gogh was admitted to a mental health care home in St Remy de Provence following his self mutilation. To me, that’s where his best paintings were created. The last room is filled with Van Gogh masterpieces from this final period, where his brushstroke starts swirling, he adds pointillist dots in diagonals and stretches long layers of paint horizontally. The Starry Night, in MoMA’s collection and perhaps Van Gogh’s most famous part of his oeuvre nowadays, was painted during this time is St Remy. The collection ends with his last painting, Tree Roots, painted in Auvers-sur-Oise.