Sunflowers, wheat fields, and cypress trees might leap to mind when one considers the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. But it's his portraits of people, not studies of nature, which this important 19th-century artist cared about most of all.
"What fascinates me much, much more than does anything else in my mtier," van Gogh wrote to his sister in 1890, "is the portrait ... I should like to do portraits which will appear as revelations to people in one hundred years' time."
Today, more than a century after the artist put this wish in writing, his portraits indeed still appear as revelations. And thanks to a touring exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Detroit Institute of Art; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a larger collection of these works than ever before can now be seen under one roof.
"This exhibition, the first to show the artist exclusively as a portraitist, reveals the greatness of van Gogh's genius in capturing the image of his fellow man," says George Shackelford, co-curator of the Boston exhibit, where "Van Gogh: Face to Face" is now on view. "But more than that," Mr. Shackelford adds, "it reveals van Gogh's great humanity - his abiding love for people, and the joy he found in what he called their 'impassioned expressions.' "
In a letter penned to his brother Theo in 1882, just after he'd abandoned plans to become a minister, van Gogh wrote that "an artist needn't be a clergyman or a churchwarden, but he certainly must have a warm heart for his fellow men."
Van Gogh's strong sense of humanity is clearly evident in the 80 drawings and paintings assembled from museum collections around the world and strikingly displayed on the French blue, mustard yellow, and deep cranberry gallery walls. This comes from what Shackelford calls his "profound interest in the heart and soul, not just the intellect, of the people he paints and draws."
Organized chronologically, the show spans the artist's brief, intense, and prolific career from the time of his first portrait in 1881 until his death in 1890. It opens with van Gogh's drawings of urban poor and peasants in his native Netherlands. It then follows him to Paris, where the Impressionists' luminous palette, feathery brushstrokes, and pointillist techniques forever changed his style, and later, to southern France, where the sun-drenched countryside inspired even more vibrant and expressive canvases.
Among the most remarkable portraits are those that van Gogh painted of the postman Joseph Roulin, his wife, Augustine, and their three children. He struck up a friendship with the Roulins while living in Arles, and painted them more often than anyone other than himself.
In another of those revealing letters to Theo, also his financier and closest confidant, he wrote: "I have made portraits of a whole family ... if I manage to do this whole family better still, at least I shall have done something to my liking and something individual."
Of the show's 17 individual portraits of the Roulin family, all painted within a single year, seven are versions of "The Postman Joseph Roulin" and three of Madame Roulin. In 1888, when Mr. Roulin first began to model for him, he told Theo, "I am now at work with another model, a postman in a blue uniform trimmed with gold, a big bearded face, very like Socrates ... a man more interesting than most." Van Gogh later wrote that Mr. Roulin "has a tenderness for me."
Like Monet with his haystacks, van Gogh created multiple versions of the same subject, varying textures, patterns, and intensity of color quite radically.
Throughout most of his career, van Gogh, who was entirely self-taught, could not afford to hire professional models. Instead, he would offer a pittance to the poor, rely on the kindness of friends who posed for free, or look into a mirror and paint his own image.
"Van Gogh: Face to Face" contains seven self-portraits, many of which are recognizable, such as "Self-Portrait with a Felt Hat." Others are less so, such as the self-portrait he painted for his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, in which he sought to portray himself as a "Japanese monk." When he created his two final self-portraits, he wrote, "They say ... that it is difficult to know yourself - but it isn't easy to paint yourself either."
One of the most powerful features of the exhibit is an audio tour that features voices of contemporary artists who have been influenced by van Gogh. American painter Chuck Close, known for detailed renderings of the human face, considers "Self-Portrait with Felt Hat" one of van Gogh's most exciting - albeit haunting - portraits. "The eyes glow with fervor, and the face explodes like a star casting out rays of light," he says, adding that in the painting's lively brushstrokes, one can see "thinking and decisions being made."
Van Gogh's thinking, decisions, and those frenetic brushstrokes were intended to help him reach his ultimate goal, to "immortalize the people of his time," says Shackelford, "and to communicate the essential qualities that project a sense of human dignity."
*'Van Gogh: Face to Face' will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Sept. 24. After Boston, the exhibit travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 22 to Jan. 14, 2001.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society