Looking at a portrait titled “The Postman,” Josien van Gogh talked about her great-uncle’s time in Ireland, when the locals wanted him out of town and a disagreement with artist Paul Gaugin led to van Gogh famously cutting off his own ear.
“The Postman” offers a slightly different view of the troubled painter during his troubled time.
“He was his friend,” van Gogh said, “and he didn’t have so many friends, Vincent,”.
She was on hand Sept. 29 to reveal the DIA’s latest exhibit, “Van Gogh in America,” a collection of 74 paintings by Vincent van Gogh commemorating the 100th anniversary of when the DIA was the first American museum to acquire a van Gogh.
Van Gogh, who can speak at length about the paintings in the exhibit, brought a unique perspective to anyone lucky enough to talk with her in the gallery. Her stories behind the paintings weren’t just art history. They were family history.
“A version of that painting hung in my house,” she said, walking by a painting titled “The Bedroom.” Another, she said, perfectly captures the south of France, where Vincent van Gogh spent time in an asylum for mental health issues.
The original idea for the exhibit, was not to celebrate the 100th anniversary of acquiring that first van Gogh, a self-portrait. The plan was to hold the exhibit in the summer of 2020, which the COVID-19 pandemic delayed. Holding it in 2022 on the centennial of that first acquisition, was a “silver lining,” Jill Shaw, curator of the exhibit, said.
Shaw said in 1922, most Americans weren’t ready for van Gogh’s work and that the DIA took a bold step by buying one of his paintings, even if it was more than 30 years after his death.
Figuring out why America was so slow to take to van Gogh, Shaw said, was her driving question in putting the gallery together.
“Americans in the early 1900s, they were getting on board with Monet,” she said. “We really liked realistic paintings. We liked paintings that told stories and what rural life looked like, and just more conventional landscapes. This [van Gogh] was very different, very different.”
Shaw pointed to the “brevity of the strokes” and “vibrant colors” that define so much of the Dutch master’s work.
There was also that whole cutting off his ear business.
“Those stories very early on were very sensationalized: ‘It’s the work of a madman!’ which is not true,” Shaw said. “He had his mental health crises for sure, but there was a lot bound up in his introduction to the United States,” Shaw said.
The exhibit opens Oct. 2 and will run until Jan. 22.