Vincent van Gogh left behind an astounding collection of art created over just one decade.
“He is a unique combination of intensity, technique and amazing imagery, which is why we love him today,” said David Bomford, the Audrey Jones Beck curator in the department of European art and chairman of the department of conservation at the MFAH. “What is amazing about van Gogh as an artist is the extraordinary brevity of his career. In this exhibit, we are looking at the entire 10-year career from when he became an artist to when he died.”
Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art takes viewers through the artist’s novice drawings, his discovery of Impressionism in Paris and continues on to the end of his career in the south of France—when he created some of his best-known and most loved paintings.
“When he moved to the south of France, suddenly, this astounding clarity, brilliance and radiance took over his art,” Bomford said. “The combination of color and brushwork is something that had never been seen before.”
But while van Gogh was creating rich, colorful paintings of the French countryside,he was struggling with severe mental health issues.
“His mental state intrigues us,” Bomford said. “We don’t know exactly what mental conditions he had—there are theories as to what psychological state he was in, but clearly he was unstable. That instability, that extraordinary mental passion, just made his art all the more intense.”
Some experts have speculated that van Gogh suffered from bipolar disorder, manic depression and anxiety. In 1888, after a breakdown that led him to cut off part of his left ear, the artist was admitted to a mental health hospital in Arles, France. He was diagnosed with acute mania and generalized delirium.
“You can see changes in his works based on his mood at the time, but it is possible to read too much into that,” Bomford said. “If you look at his final works that were done just outside of Paris, they become very jagged, very angular and fierce, with dramatic brushstrokes. It is possible to read into that the severe state of his mind at that stage and it is tempting to make connections between the imagery and his mental state.”
One of van Gogh’s final paintings, Wheatfield with Crows, seems to foreshadow the artist’s eventual suicide. A reproduction of the painting will be on display at the MFAH.
“It is sort of a path going into a wheatfield and stopping, while these incredibly dramatic, sinister crows circle and wheel overhead,” Bomford said. “This piece is often perceived as being the final statement of his amazingly disturbed mental condition and it seems like a final painting before he shot himself.”
Weeks after creating Wheatfield with Crows, van Gogh apparently took his own life at age 37.
“What would he have gone on to do? That’s the most intriguing question of all,” Bomford said.
The MFAH exhibition goes far beyond the collection of paintings van Gogh created in the last few years of his life and is unlike anything that has been seen in Houston before. The exhibit is a collaboration between the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands.
“It is very unusual these days to have an exhibit like this in the United States,” Bomford said. “Van Gogh’s works are quite fragile and in great demand, so they travel less and less. We have made a special relationship with these two museums—which are the greatest van Gogh collections in the world—to get these precious works here in Houston.”
Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art will be on display from March 10 to June 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main St. Information: 713-639-7300
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