Wednesday Wanderings – Van Gogh Museum

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Mondays can be difficult, but I always found Wednesdays to be more of a hurdle. Starting today I will be sharing stories from my wandering.

Our first Wednesday diversion takes us to the city with more canals than Venice, Amsterdam!

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I know what you’re thinking. Amsterdam is so high…in the volume of art by the Dutch masters. My girlfriend and I visited in December and booked our tickets for the Van Gogh Museum shortly after arranging flights and hotels. For my local readers, the Art Institute of Chicago just opened an exhibit on the Dutch phenom. The exhibit highlights Vincent’s Bedrooms.

The more I travel, the more I combat sounding like a snob when sharing stories. In reading up on the Art Institute’s exhibit, I realized I have unintentionally seen all three versions of Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles. To balance that statement out, I must admit that I didn’t know there were three versions. One painting is in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection. Another was at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, one of my favorite museums in the La Ville Lumière, which we saw in 2014. So much for not sounding like a snob. The third was in Amsterdam.

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Having a rudimentary knowledge of art, Van Gogh’s body of work has always been unique, identifiable and enjoyable to view. In school I learned basics about Van Gogh: he cut off part of his ear, he painted near the time of the impressionists and he was in an asylum. It wasn’t until visiting Amsterdam’s museum that I learned more about the man and his evolution as an artist.

One of the most staggering discoveries was that he painted for nine years. That’s it. All of his works in less than a decade. If you ever get the opportunity to explore a museum dedicated to a single artist, it is well worth the price of admission. In Chicago we are fortunate to have a world-class art museum with a breadth of pieces from masters and from different periods. Other cities may not be as lucky. Even so, while museums may have several pieces by a certain artist, it cannot compare to a museum dedicated to their oeuvre.

Bachelor Date Tip: Use the word ‘oeuvre’ on a museum date to describe an artist’s body of work (unless your date is an artist or majored in Art).

Amsterdam’s museum has three floors of Van Gogh’s work, organized chronologically. Alongside his work, the museum also displays pieces that inspired his work. This arrangement serves to walk you through his life like a biography, seeing how his work changed along with his environment.

He started painting the austere, bucolic life, following the tradition of the Dutch masters. After a few years of realistic depictions of farms and portraits, he visited his brother Theo in Paris. That visit forever changed his work.

Here are a few other things I learned from our visit to the Van Gogh Museum.

How to Sound Art Smart on Museum Date (and 9 other things I learned about Van Gogh)

  • Vincent’s brother Theo was an art dealer in Paris.
  • Theo financially supported his older brother during the nine years Vincent pursued painting.
  • While Vincent is currently regarded as one of the most famous artists, during his lifetime he was unknown and received little to no accolades.
  • Vincent corresponded with many of his contemporaries and started a painting trade with other artists. He wrote often and expressed admiration of the technique of other artists. Think of it as re-posting or re-tweeting in the 1800s.
  • You can draw several connections between Munch and Van Gogh’s works. Their work focused on similar topics early on, but their paths splintered with time.
  • There is speculation that when Theo wrote he was going to start his own art business and that he couldn’t continue supporting his brother, the prospect of financial instability triggered Vincent’s mental unrest. Vincent wrote his brother that he didn’t have enough money for the stamp to send Theo the return letter.
  • Toward the end of Vincent’s short life, he checked himself into an asylum. Treatment for his condition was two ice baths a month. During one of the initial trips to the asylum, they restricted him from painting.
  • His work from the asylum, and the end of his life, displays a much heavier stroke, adding a third dimension to his paintings. The paint forms visible mountains on the canvas.
  • The prominence of Vincent’s work and place as a master is credited to Theo’s wife, Johanna. Vincent shot himself and died a few days later. Theo died six months later from a syphilitic infection. Johanna took up dealing Vincent’s work. It is because of her that we are able to see the world as Vincent did.

Experiencing museums always awakens whatever I had previously read or known about an artist, plus piquing newly found curiosity about venereal diseases in the late 1800s. Take some time to see the three bedrooms in one spot and save nearly $2k in airfare! Or wait for the paintings to return to their homes and start your own wandering.