So much of Vincent van Gogh’s life has been mythologized—his failure to sell more than one painting during his lifetime, his death at 37 from a gunshot wound, his infamous ear—that his work can get overlooked. As Phillips Collection curator Eliza Rathbone puts it, “He doesn’t have the place he has in art history simply because of the drama.”
“Van Gogh Repetitions”—opening October 12 at the Phillips—aims to explore the methodical way he made his paintings. While any van Gogh show is a challenge to produce because of his notoriety, this one is particularly ambitious in the way it compares similar paintings of the same subject. A portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin from the Art Institute of Chicago hangs next to an image of her from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; other works are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Musée d’Orsay. “We wanted to bring together works that aren’t normally seen together,” Rathbone says. “We’re excited about what those juxtapositions have to tell us about what kind of artist he was.”
One of the exhibit’s starting points was a painting from the Cleveland Museum of Art called “The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy)”—done on a piece of printed fabric used to make clothes because van Gogh wanted to quickly capture a scene he saw. Later, he painted a version on canvas, which is now in the permanent collection at the Phillips. “The second version reveals a sophisticated, deliberate, planned execution,” Rathbone says. “We wanted people to get to know both sides of his genius.”
With more than 30 paintings, the show offers a focused look at van Gogh’s process as well as his remarkable ability to produce a number of paintings in a short time. (He once made 70 in 70 days.) Says Rathbone: “You can visit these paintings if you travel all over the world, but it’s not the same as seeing them side by side. There will be revelations even for those of us who’ve been working on them for so long.”
“Van Gogh Repetitions”, October 12 through January 26 at the Phillips Collection. $12. Tickets available at phillipscollection.org.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.