Today has been… overwhelming. If someone had told me just a couple of months ago that one of the last things I’d do this year is visit Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, I would have laughed. Like London, Amsterdam felt like an out of reach city to me and so I never did much research on it, only knowing that if my Path ever took me there, I would pay anything to see the works of the painter who most influenced my own artistic talent and use of colour.
I was young when I oil painted; it was during my adolescence, so a period roughly 20 to 25 years ago. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I’d kept up the hobby. But after I moved out on my own, I never had room for a studio and oil painting is too unforgiving a medium for a temporary space.
The museum is one of Amsterdam’s top attractions and lines can be long. Even with a Museumkaart, you are advised to book a timeslot online, for which there is no extra fee. I managed to score a spot at nine this morning. I set off in almost balmy gloom around 8:30, with Google surprising me by taking me through a lovely park.
I went down a street that reminded me of Belgravia and paused for a moment to look at this lamp hanging over the street. At first, I thought it was a bell!
I was early upon arriving and there was not yet any queue for folks with a time slot, so I popped into a café for a pricey, but oh-so-pretty café cortado.
Here’s the exterior of the Van Gogh Museum. This is the group entrance. The regular entrance is around back to the right. The queue for folks without a booked time slot was getting long!
The museum is in Amsterdam’s museum quarter. You’re looking here at the Diamond Museum, which doesn’t interest me.
Here’s the café, Healthy Food Coffee.
I was a little irked that at no point in my Museumkaart research was I told I had to activate the card before use/that it would not be activated at time of purchase. So after queuing for a few minutes in a much shorter line than the regular one to get in and then queuing to have my e-ticket with my time slot scanned, I was told I had to go back out to the ticket window to have my card activated. I couldn’t believe it since the line to said ticket window was a block long! But, thankfully, a museum employee had been told by radio to look for me and guided me to the head of the queue and then right back in. So it was fine in the end.
There’s a free coat check in the museum, which I took advantage of as I knew I’d be there a while.
Photography was, of course, not permitted in the museum. Visitors are encouraged to use stock images, so that’s what I will do in this post. I took copious notes as I went through. An audiovisual guide to the museum is an extra 5 euros and I got one. I don’t think I would have appreciated my visit as much without it. I read somewhere that 1.5 hours should be allotted to the museum and I was there a full three, including the special exhibit!
The guide and signage give a lot of context to Vincent’s life, but I don’t think it would have been quite enough for me. I highly recommend the movie “Painted With Words,” a unique piece in which all words spoken are from actual correspondence. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Vincent and the resemblance is striking as both share the same carrot orange hair and bushy beard, pale green eyes that change according to the light, and a marked Cupid’s bow to the upper lip. No other actor I’ve seen play Van Gogh so closely resembles him in both his self-portraits and the one photograph I’ve seen. Combine that with his remarkable acting skills and you’ve got a truly remarkable film.
So the museum starts with the self-portraits. They were not meant to necessarily represent Van Gogh as he was, but to play with textures and colours. You’ll notice that his eyes, for example, change colour from portrait to portrait. Painting himself was also a way to get around the fact that he could not afford models.
I then saw Vincent’s palette, thick with paint showing the brush strokes. My palette was like that. Like Van Gogh, I painted thickly, so there was no point limiting how much I squeezed onto my palette. Van Gogh used colour to represent emotions, not reality, and I did much of the same. I regret not having at least photographs of my works. I saw them as very crude and childish, but they were the works of a child and according to my instructor, they showed potential. She was always struck by how I used colours that were not true to nature, especially with skies. Many years later, in college, I took an art class and the teacher told me she could tell that my biggest influence was Van Gogh.
The first really important of his works that I saw was The Potato Eaters.
This one is from his early days, when he was still trying to figure out who he was as an artist. It was a crowning achievement for him even though it got scathing reviews. His ideal models were peasants, people who lived rough with the salt of the Earth, and this scene depicts all that he found to be noble about them.
Vincent’s father was a very religious man and Vincent broke away from that, but was still religious in his own way and even worked as a preacher. This art was very much about his own search for God.
And then… the Sunflowers.
I cannot tell you how many times I attempted to recreate this painting in my own style, using his example of one colour in many tones. To see it up close was to realise I’d never seen it before. The background is almost like a woven pattern. I was amused that the guide told me to step away and let someone else have a look. But I had it all to myself! I was so lucky to have been able to visit the museum when it was not crowded and I could take all the time I wanted at each painting.
Bridge in the Rain is done in a Japanese style, which Vincent admired.
You can really see the rain coming down and feel how cold it is.
I learned so much I didn’t know about The Bedroom.
The painting was damaged and has been restored. Vincent used a lot of paints that faded over time and so many of his paintings are not as vibrant today as they once were. Amazing!
We saw how Van Gogh dabbled with Seurat’s pointillism style of painting and how that led to his own iconic style of placing side-by-side unmixed dabs of painting of contrasting colours and letting the viewer’s mind mix them.
I saw some of his drawings that look like his painted style and some of the reed pens that he cut himself.
This still life of fruit, Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes, is the only one that still has the original frame that Vincent made himself.
Like with Sunflowers, this is another painting where he plays with yellows and a bit of contrasting blue.
And here is the single painting that most influenced my own style, Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
There are three things of note here that I applied to my own paintings. First is how the painting is divided with a third devoted to the sky and the rest to the foreground, with a very narrow sliver of background between them. Second is how he used his palette knife to sculpt the waves with white paint. I applied that technique to snow. Finally, it’s this painting that inspired me to sign my own artwork in a bold contrasting colour.
Like Vincent, I appreciate how using complementary colours (eg. red and green or blue and yellow) can add depth and interest to a scene, as we can see here in the Yellow House, his last home, which he shared for a time with Paul Gaugin and in which was the bedroom he so famously painted. The bright blue sky really pops against the yellow and orange of the house.
The Sower is the painting that inspired me to create landscapes in odd colours.
I distinctly remember my painting teacher criticising my choice of sky colour in one of my paintings and my telling her, “Van Gogh would have understood!” Funny the things one remembers!
I just went through the blog hoping to find a picture of one of my only surviving paintings, which is above the entry door in Miranda, as it really illustrates all this influence, but alas, I don’t seem to have one. 🙁
At any rate, the museum moved on to the end of Van Gogh’s life, when he was in the grips of mental illness. There is a misconception that he painted because of his illness when, in fact, he painted in spite of it.
There is some controversy as to which of his paintings his his last and Tree Roots is most likely it as it is unfinished and unsigned.
Like me, Van Gogh found great inspiration in a Prairie-like landscape, “expanses of wheatfields, large as a sea.”
If that style of painting birds was good enough for Van Gogh, it was good enough for me. My painting that I referenced above has birds like these in it. I love this painting so much that I bought a small metal tin at the gift shop with this painting on the cover. I’ve been wanting a tin like that to carry Advil and it was only 3 euros. 🙂
And here’s Under Thunderclouds that so reminds me of home and which I was sad not to see in the main collection, but thrilled to view in a special exhibit, an unexpected bonus!
I didn’t know until today the story behind the striking Almond Blossom.
It was painted for his brother Theo and his wife Jo upon the birth of their healthy son, whom they named Vincent, with the blossoms representing rebirth. His nephew Vincent was the founder of the museum.
Irises is just a bit less famous than Sunflowers and I prefer it because I love the contrast of the blues and the yellows.
The paint is layered on so thickly that this painting took a month to try, something I remember too well since I also caked the paint onto my canvasses to give them a 3D feel. I appreciate Irises so much more now that I’ve seen it up close.
After this main exhibit, I was able to visit a special exhibit about Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh. Daubigny was much older than the other two and greatly influenced their style. I wasn’t familiar with him. Monet is my second favourite painter after Van Gogh. I could not believe that this exhibit did not have a surcharge. Little did I know what awaited me…
Daubigny’s Moonrise at Auvers reminded me of my favourite Monet painting, which hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Paris.
I saw a painting of poppy fields by all three, showing their different styles. Vincent’s was very hands on, with him squeezing the red painting directly from the tube onto the canvas and then manipulating it with his palette knife.
And then something so incredible happened that I had to pinch myself. My favourite Monet, Sunset on the River Seine, was not hanging in Paris, but at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam!!!
I just love that bright bit of orange against the muted blue.
Landscape with Peasants Reaping shows how Vincent’s drawing style also evolved to match his iconic painting style.
Visiting the Van Gogh Museum was more than a dream come true. What an amazing gift!
My day of tourism wasn’t quite over, but this post has been long and I have work to do. More later!