Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 at the National Gallery of Art, a recent gift from the Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon
Vincent Van Gogh’s Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into Washington’s National Gallery of Art on December 20, 2013. It’s a windswept scene that sucks us in with intensity and urgency. Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is among the 70 or so paintings he did during the two months of 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Experts believe he painted it in June, 1890, the month before he died.
Fortunately the new painting entered the museum at the same time Washington’s Phillips Collection is hosting an exhibition, Van Gogh Repetitions, until February 2, 2014. The exhibition of 14 paintings examines why the artist repeated compositions in the same format with different colors and very minor design changes. It features several portraits, The Bedroom at Arles and two magnificent Van Goghs owned by the Phillips Collection, The Road Menders, 1889, and The Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889, from the Phillips Collection, Washington
Like the National Gallery’s new canvas, the paintings from the Phillips Collection are also landscapes with sweeping roads veering to the right side. They have predominantly yellow-green color harmonies, rushed perspective and ground levels that are tilted. Although people are included in these paintings, they’re small compared to nature. Trees and rocks are more powerful than the people and nature is a force to behold. Like many Japanese artists, it seems that Van Gogh felt the power of the natural world more powerful than an individual.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection
To gain an historical perspective, he painted The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during the period he lived in Arles, and he did The Road Menders during his sojourn in the asylum of Saint- Paul de Mausole in St-Remy de Provence in 1889, the year after his notable breakdown. The National Gallery’s new painting comes from the next year, the last phase of his life, when he returned to northern France. Most of his landscapes from this time period totally lack figures, as it seems to him that the power of nature, as in Rain, Auvers, was taking over more and more in Van Gogh’s view.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, hung in a private residence from 1955 on, but now hangs with other Van Goghs: a very intense self-portrait, a vase of Roses, The Olive Orchard and Roulin’s Baby. Each of these paintings have variations of the magnificent Van Gogh greens or blues, including olive-greens, chartreuse, lime green, forest green, blue-greens and mint.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers gives feelings of total immersion as the best Van Gogh paintings, including The Starry Night, do. It’s hard to imagine walking in this field without sinking or drowning in it. The road is very irregular and there is a roughness to this place. Texture is thick and visibly tactile even in the reproductions. The swirls of clouds feel like the swirls of fields. A swiftly rushing road on the right suggests the wind also flows from the same direction and brings field and clouds together. Colors of field and cloud are not the same, but they are in the same family of colors, analogous blues and greens.
Van Gogh was swept into this landscape, but a strong upright shaft of wheat in center seems to have brought him back to his center. It is here the viewers can be brought into focus, because the painting would not hold together as well without this strong vertical focus.
Van Gogh, Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, 1889, painted in St-Remy Private Collection, photo taken from www.vggallery.com
In the same way, the power of the sun brings the viewer into focus on Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, aview he painted looking out of the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. He expanded the natural vista, using a very wide-angle perspective. Tilted landscapes, openings in the foreground, and exaggerated perspective are some of Van Gogh’s best tools for making us feel his perspective.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
He painted wheat fields over and over, but some of the best renditions of man in nature come from his portrayals of The Sower, of which he did several versions, acknowledging the artistic legacy of Jean-Francois Millet. These are my favorite paintings by Van Gogh because they remind us of mankind’s dependence on nature and the interconnectedness of nature.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower with Rising Sun, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Van Gogh felt a oneness with the natural world, as if he saw the separate parts of the natural world as one unifying force. The best of his landscape paintings, are so powerful when they remind us, like Green Wheat Fields, Auvers or The Starry Night, of the interconnectedness of all things.
In the end, we, the viewers, are swept into his psyche and feel an empathy for him and his vision.
Albrecht Dürer, The Head of Christ, 1506 brush and gray ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue paper overall: 27.3 x 21 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in.) overall (framed): 50 63.8 4.1 cm (19 11/16 25 1/8 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
The National Gallery of Art is hosting the largest show of Albrecht Dürer drawings, prints and watercolors ever seen in North America, combining its own collection with that of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria. Across the street in the museum’s west wing is the another exhibition of works on paper, Color, Line and Light: French Drawings Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac. The French drawings are spectacular, but it’s hard to imagine the 19th century masters without the earlier genius out of Germany, Dürer, who approached drawing with scientist’s curiosity for understanding nature.
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484 silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 19.5 cm (10 3/4 7 11/16 in.) (framed): 51.7 43.1 4.5 cm (20 3/8 16 15/16 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Dürer’s famous engravings are on view, including Adam and Eve, but with the added pleasure of seeing preparatory drawings and first trial proofs of the prints. Some of his most famous works such as the Great Piece of Turf and Praying Hands, are there also. In both exhibitions, as always, I’m drawn to the beauty and color of landscape art, especially prominent in the 19th century exhibition. However, both shows have phenomenal portraits to give us a glimpse into people of all ages with profound insights.
Dürer drew his own face while looking in the mirror at age 13, in 1484. He still had puffy cheeks and a baby face, but was certainly a prodigy. Like his father, he was trained in the goldsmith’s guild which gave him facility at describing the tiniest details with a very firm point. Seeing his picture next to the senior Dürer’s self-portrait, there’s no doubt his father was extremely gifted, too.
Albrecht Dürer, “Mein Agnes”, 1494 pen and black ink, 15.7 x 9.8 cm (6 1/8 x 3 7/8 in.) (framed): 44.3 x 37.9 x 4.2 cm (17 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
In his native Nuremburg, the younger Dürer was recognized at an early age and his reputation spread, particularly as the world of printing was spreading throughout the German territories, France and Italy. We can trace his development as he went to Italy in 1494-96, and then again in 1500, meeting with North Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini and exchanging artistic ideas. Dürer is credited with bridging the gap between the Northern and Italian Renaissance. I personally find all his drawings and prints more satisfying then his oil paintings, because at heart he was first and foremost a draftsman.
Though we normally think of Dürer as a controlled draftsman, there are some very fresh, loose drawings. An image he did of his wife, Agnes, in 1494, shows a wonderful freedom of expression, and affection. He married Agnes Fry in 1494 and did drawings of her which became studies for later works. She was the model for St. Ann in a late painting of 1516 and the preparatory drawing with its amazing chiaroscuro is in the exhibition.
Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann, 1519 brush and gray, black, and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?) overall: 39.5 x 29.2 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) overall (framed): 64 x 53.4 x 4.4 cm (25 1/4 x 21 x 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Also on view are Durer’s investigations into human proportion, landscapes and drawings he did of diverse subjects from which he later used in his iconic engravings. We can trace how the drawings inspired his visual imagery. There are also several preparatory drawings of old men who were used as the models for apostles in a painted altarpiece.
Albrecht Dürer, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, 1521 brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white, on gray-violet prepared paper overall: 41.5 28.2 cm (16 5/16 11 1/8 in.) overall (framed): 63.6 49.7 4.6 cm (25 1/16 19 9/16 1 13/16 in.) Albertina, Vienna
My favorite drawing of old age, however, is a study of an old man at age 93 who was alert and in good health (amazing as the life expectancy in 1500 was not what is today.) He appears very thoughtful, pensive and wise. The softness of his beard is incredible. The drawing is in silverpoint on blue gray paper which makes the figure appear very three-dimensional. To add force to the light and shadows, Durer added white to highlight, making the man so lifelike and realistic.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte, An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878 charcoal, overall: 47.5 x 39.6 cm (18 11/16 x 15 9/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1996
In the other exhibition, there’s a comparable drawing by Leon Lhermitte of an old woman in Color, Line and Light. Lhermitte was French painter of the Realist school. He is not widely recognized today, but there were so many extraordinary artists in the mid-19th century. What I find especially moving about the painters of this time is more than their understanding of light and color. I like their approach to treating humble people, often the peasants, with extraordinary dignity. Lhermitte’s woman of age has lived a hard and rugged life and he crinkled skin signifies her amazing endurance. We see the beauty of her humanity and the artist’s reverence for every crevice in her weather-beaten skin.
Jean-François Millet Nude Reclining in a Landscape, 1844/1845 pen and brown ink, 16.5 x 25.6 cm (6 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
There are many portraits of youth in the French exhibition, too, including fresh pen and inks such as Edouard Manet’s Boy with a Dog and Francois Millet’s Nude Reclining in Landscape, who really does not look nude.
Camille Pissarro’s The Pumpkin Seller is a charcoal without a lot of detail. She has broad features, plain clothes and a bandana around the head. She’s a simpleton, drawn and characterized with a minimum of lines but Pissarro sees her a substantial girl of character. The drawing reminds me of Pissarro himself. He may not be as well-known and appreciated as Monet, Renoir, Degas, yet he was the diehard artist. He was the one who never gave up, who encouraged all his colleagues and was quite willing to endure poverty and deprivation for the goals of his art. Berthe Morisot‘s watercolor of Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle has a minimum of detail but is a quick expression of her daughter’s infancy.
Camille Pissarro, The Pumpkin Seller, c.1888 charcoal, overall: 64.5 x 47.8 cm (25 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.) Dyke Collection
Taking in all the portraits of both exhibitions, I’m left with thoughts of awe for beauty of both nature and humanity. The friends I was with actually preferred the French exhibition to the Dürer. There were surprising revelations of skill by little known artists like Paul Huet, Francois-Auguste Ravier and Charles Angrand. The landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School and the Neo-Impressionists, are important and beautiful, but perhaps not recognized as much as they should be. In both exhibitions, we must admire how works on paper form the blueprint for larger ideas explored in oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle, 1879 watercolor and gouache, 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
It was a curator a the Albertina who wisely connected a mysterious Martin Schongauer drawing of the 1470s owned by the Getty to a Durer Altarpiece. The Albertina is a museum in Vienna known for works on paper, much its collection descended from the Holy Roman Emperors, one of whom Dürer worked for late in his career. The French drawings come from a collection of Helen Porter and James T Dyke and some of it have been gifted to the National Gallery. They’re on view until May 26, 2013 and Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Prints and Watercolors from the Albertina will stay on view until June 9, 2013.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Gust of Wind, 1871-73, National Museum of Wales
It’s disappointing that the Corcoran exhibition, From Turner to Cezanne, had to be taken down early as a precaution over environmental concerns……I was counting on going Friday, April 9, three days after it abruptly closed. What am I missing? A spectacular collection from the National Gallery of Wales, little-known paintings of well-known artists that are seldom seen in the US………………… Torrents of Rain and Gusts of Wind…..
Vincent Van Gogh, Rain, Auvers, 1890, from the National Museum of Wales
Vincent Van Gogh’s suns, stars and flowers from sunny Provence express the intensity he experienced while living there. But in May, 1890, he moved north of Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise and painted Rain, Auvers in July. Van Gogh used such a heavy impasto of paint that this painting conveys a heavy impact of rain. Van Gogh had an uncommon ability to combine actual texture of the paint itself with the tangible, tactile sense of objects painted. I really wanted to see Rain, Auvers to experience the downpour. Exaggerated or not, Van Gogh has the power to create a reality that makes us feel its presence more keenly. But the rain in this painting, deliberate gashes to the canvas surface, warns of a downpour more powerful than rain, the artist’s impending doom–he shot himself July 29th.
Even more than the Van Gogh, I was also looking forward to seeing paintings by Daumier and Millet, two mid-19th century French painters who are often overlooked, particularly in their gifts of great draftsmanship. Van Gogh seems to have admired them. One of Millet’s paintings from this Davies Collection at the National Museum of Wales is The Gust of Wind, 1871-73. Millet conveys the full fury of a storm in the countryside. He captures the birds, leaves and branches with jagged, undulating brushstrokes. Along with the wind, his tree is uprooted and the birds, man (a shepherd whose sheep can barely be seen) and flock scatter in a fury, as the luminous colors of daylight poke through the background.
It is commonly understood that Van Gogh’s paintings of The Sower were inspired by Millet’s The Sower. No doubt Van Gogh knew many paintings by Millet and shared his appreciation for man’s connection to the land. He adopted Millet’s expressive lines, but thickened the contours and turned up the volume on color. Brandon, one of my students, was amazed to discover the wind that Van Gogh captured in The Olive Orchard, now on view in the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art. Certainly Millet was one of Van Gogh’s most inspiring teachers, along with the Japanese artist Hiroshige, whose woodcuts gave Van Gogh the motif of diagonal cuts for rain.
In May and during most of the summer, this exhibition travels to Albuquerque Museum of Art in New Mexico. However, while the O’Keeffe exhibition remains at the Phillips until May 9th, its worth seeing the weather photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and comparing them to paintings about weather. Ando Hiroshige, Rain Shower on Ohashi Bridge,1857
woodcut, at the Library of Congress. The rain, treated like gashes in the wood, influenced the gashes in “Rain,Auvers”
Van Gogh, The Olive Orchard, 1889, Chester Dale Collection,National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
detail, The Gust of Wind, shows how Millet’s lines influenced Van Gogh