Portraiture is a good way to get a cross-section of Van Gogh’s 10-year career. He painted portraits from start to finish, after all, alongside his famous landscapes.
The remarkably executed “Face to Face” exhibit explores each phase of the famous Dutch painter’s work via his portraits, many of them self-portraits. (He frequently was too broke to pay models.) These portraits anchor each portion of the exhibit with a more famous landscape or still life (“Sunflowers” in one, “Rain” in another) to help contextualize things.
The experiment is wholly effective, and should elicit nods of approval from art-history types along with greater understanding from the rest of the museum-going public.
“Face to Face” holds a big surprise for both groups, in the form of Van Gogh’s early drawings, most of which are here on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Superficially, the drawings are interesting for their severity. Using a mixture of graphite, pen and, later, some watercolor, the young artist, perhaps contemplating his recent failures as both a missionary and seminary student, attacked with such ferocity that, in a few cases, the paper is visibly gouged.
What really makes these early drawings stunning, perhaps even shocking, is the subject matter. Van Gogh’s sense of social mission carried over from his religious period into his early drawings, compelling him to paint unlikely subjects: peasants, sailors, the old and abandoned. Stylistically, he is still very much under the influence of Rembrandt, rendering his subjects in dark, foreboding tones. The result is, for want of a better term, a 19th-century social history of the Netherlands.
Later, when Van Gogh discovered color and left for Paris to create the most poignant and innovative paintings of the 19th century, his criteria for subject matter became less particular. Whatever happened to be going on in front of him became the subject.
It would, of course, be foolish to dispute the greatness of Van Gogh’s later work. But just for a second, observe these early drawings and ask yourself, if young Vincent had let the sense of political purpose that inflects these drawings determine the trajectory of his career, what would the world have lost … and gained?
Van Gogh: Face to Face. $15-20. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Through January 14, 2001. Tickets may be purchased at the Museum or by phone: (215) 235-SHOW (7469)