WASHINGTON — Already the largest crowd-drawer in the history of the National Gallery of Art, the Vincent van Gogh retrospective, opening Sunday, is a very special kind of show.
Its 70 paintings come from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, founded by Vincent's nephew, Vincent Willem van Gogh, and collected by Vincent's family: his younger brother Theo, who gave him financial and emotional support throughout his life; and Theo's widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who worked tirelessly after the artist's and Theo's deaths to promote Vincent's work.
"Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam" is the largest survey of Van Gogh's art outside the Netherlands in more than a quarter century. Also, it is a landmark presentation of Van Gogh's astonishing productivity. He painted all his 850 works in the 10 years between 1880 and 1890.
But there's an even bigger story than the display of some of his best paintings, including ironic works such as the early "Potato Eaters" (1885), his "Self-Portrait as an Artist" (1887-88), "The Harvest" (1888) - which he called his best work - "The Bedroom" (1888), and, one of his last paintings, "Wheatfield With Crows" (1890).
The important news here is that these paintings come from Van Gogh's family and result from their steadfast belief in his genius. After Theo's death - he had been an art dealer in Paris - his widow moved back to Holland with her young son.
There, she began staging exhibitions of Vincent's work. She also started selling work from the collection, both to build his reputation and to support herself and her son. She was successful in gaining recognition for Vincent and, after 1920, only occasionally sold any of this paintings.
After her death in 1925, the collection remained in the family, going to her son, Vincent Willem. He founded the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in 1962 to preserve the collection. In 1973, the Dutch government built the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the works from the foundation are permanently housed.
It is because the museum is undergoing renovation that the exhibit is touring. The museum will reopen in May 1999.
The museum's paintings show key periods in Van Gogh's life. In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris, a change that transformed his life and art.
In the company of Impressionist painters, color became important for Van Gogh, and he learned that complementary hues, when juxtaposed, set up intense vibrations.
His move to Arles, in February 1888, was another turning point. Located in southern France, Arles was filled with warmth, light, and color. He responded to its sun, working outdoors to create such masterpieces as "The Harvest."
When Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, he painted "Wheatfield With Crows" just weeks before he died. The scavenger birds wheel right at us. They, and the blackening sky, seem to intimate darkness and death. Appropriately, it's the last work in the show.
* The Van Gogh exhibition closes in Washington on Jan. 3. Only same-day passes are still available on a first-come basis at the West Building's pass desk. The show then moves to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jan. 17-April 4.