This summer, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute displayed the works of the post-impressionist Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh in the impressive exhibit “Van Gogh and Nature.” The showcase, which ran from June 14 through Sept. 13, created a narrative tracing van Gogh’s relationship with nature and subsequently with color and style. Van Gogh’s relationship with and interpretation of nature is a story of a creative power struggle, and the Clark’s curators Richard Kendall, Chris Stolwijk and Sjraar van Heugten did well to embody this struggle through an account of his career organized by geography as well as chronology.
The exhibit began with van Gogh’s early, unsuccessful foray into print dealing, displaying examples of the monochromatic prints he encountered. The examples of prints from artists such as Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet displayed the sombre tones that van Gogh subsequently replicated in his earliest depictions of nature. The first room of “Van Gogh and Nature” was enveloped in blacks, grays and browns. On display was a collection of books and novels that guided van Gogh’s early development as an artist, most notably Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin: architecture, sculpture, peinture. Blanc’s guide was opened to put on view the relationships in his color star that propelled van Gogh’s experimentation with more vivid color. As one walked through the room, the sketches, first reserved in style, transformed slowly with infusions of color and gradually more audacity. The changes were most evidently represented in Poplars near Neunen. Van Gogh’s exclamation, “I’m no longer so powerless in the face of nature,” encapsulated the beginning of his evolution in Holland.
Moving through to the next room, one followed as van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 looking for lessons in drawing and painting and firsthand experience of modern art. Taking inspiration from Monet’s impressionist-style landscapes and Japanese woodblock prints, examples of which were tactfully displayed in conjunction with van Gogh’s own works, van Gogh fused the two styles in paintings such as Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day. At first glance, that work is uncharacteristic of van Gogh, stemming more from the Japanese style, which emphasized lines and forms as opposed to color and perspective. The brush strokes, however, show Monet’s impressionist influence on the Dutchman’s work. At this time in his career, van Gogh also employed a modified pointillist style, which lacked the focus and precision of true pointillist painters, but uniquely captured movement and color in a way that showed van Gogh’s growth and development in capturing nature.
In Paris, van Gogh’s experiment in color exploded. Through his still-life paintings, which he called “color studies,” one can trace the development of van Gogh’s audacity in playing with color. The bright, colored and textured backgrounds supporting the flowers themselves render a sense of liveliness and movement to the works. The later the work was created over van Gogh’s stay in Paris, the more complex was its use of color, composition and brushwork.
Between 1888 and 1890, the last years of van Gogh’s career and life, the artist lived in Provence, in the south of France. The Clark’s exhibit further divided this period of artistic explosion into three chapters, each marked by van Gogh’s geographical location: Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers. In the south of France, van Gogh’s lifelong fascination with trees, which was subtly displayed in the exhibit leading up to this point, was given an even greater outlet. The ominous impressions of the cypresses and olive trees in the paintings Cypresses and The Olive Trees reflect van Gogh’s struggle with mental health when he institutionalized himself in 1889.
Van Gogh’s relationship with nature, which first encouraged him, slowly drained him in the south of France. One wall of the exhibit displayed a quote from van Gogh: “Before such nature, I feel powerless.” The exhibit aptly ends with a comparison of the Japanese style of rain depiction and van Gogh’s own use of slashing lines in Rain, closing his rollercoaster of a relationship with nature.
According to Sally Morse Majewski, the Clark’s manager of public relations and marketing, “Van Gogh and Nature” was the most popular exhibit in the Clark’s 60-year history. “Public response – and critical response – has been overwhelmingly positive,” Majewski said. The exhibit’s extreme popularity is unsurprising given the remarkable and unique way it tells the story of van Gogh’s life and ongoing transformation.