mon 18/11/2019

Van Gogh’s Inner Circle, Noordbrabants Museum review - the man behind the art | reviews, news & interviews

Van Gogh’s Inner Circle, Noordbrabants Museum review - the man behind the art

Van Gogh’s Inner Circle, Noordbrabants Museum review - the man behind the art

Light on paintings, heavy on the biography

Woman (‘Sien’) seated near the stove, March-April 1882© Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Vincent van Gogh (b. 1853) could be difficult, truculent and unconventional. He battled with mental illness and wrestled with questions of religion throughout his life. But on good form he was personable. He was said to be an excellent imitator with a wry sense of humour, and was a loyal (if often fierce) friend and family relation. The Noordbrabants Museum's new exhibition seeks to humanise the artist and people his world. It comprises paintings, drawings and personal documents spread across three main rooms that are either by van Gogh or people close to him, and shed light on his life. Here, the tortured genius is fleshed out. Man and artist align.

Van Gogh’s minister father adhered to a strand of Protestantism from the Dutch city of Groningen which instilled early in him strong associations between nature and God. But this association could also be playful, blithe. One of the first vitrines in the exhibition holds sketch books from 1874, sweetly filled with animals and insects for Betsy Tersteeg, the four year old daughter of Herman Gijsbert Tersteeg, his manager at the art dealership Groupil, at which he worked from the age of 16 until his dismissal in 1875. They include sketches of a snail, a cricket, a dragonfly and a nesting bird. While they are arduously done, the creatures appear inquisitive, almost as if ready to be brought to life by a child’s imagination. 

Portrait of Marcelle Roulin, December 1888 © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)Later sketches from the year he spent living with Sien Hoornik, a former prostitute, in The Hague show a different kind of attachment — sexual and semi-marital. They give an insight into the closest he came to a domestic, if typically unconventional, arrangement. In Saying Grace, 1883, he depicts Sien seated at a table. Her worn hands are clasped, her eyes closed and her lips tightly pressed together; her apron is patched but she is dignified. A Mother Suckling her Child, 1882, depicts Sien breastfeeding. Her arms are wrapped protectively round the baby’s body. Her expression of concentration is edged with concern but the baby’s eyes are blissfully closed. Small details such as the tender arch of an ear, and the baby’s instinctive grasp of her breast describe van Gogh’s close observation and the intimacy between mother, child and artist. Another, Girl Kneeling by a Cradle, 1883, shows Sien’s daughter at the foot of the cot of her younger sibling. Her back is to us so we cannot tell from her face whether she is entranced or threatened, but her posture is relaxed, her head tilted downwards and her arms free from tension. The air is reverent, she is almost at prayer. 

As a teacher, van Gogh could also be personable. While living in Nuenen (1884-1885), he taught painting to a small group in Eindhoven. While he could be dry and sarcastic, it was clear he cared deeply for his students' development. He suggested to Anton Kerssemakers that he join him for three days’ painting, and convinced Willem van de Wakker’s employer to allow him time off to improve his painting. In many ways the arrangement was reciprocal, for he too was indebted to them. A third, the goldsmith Antoon Hermans, lent him "beautiful" objects that he made into still lives for his students to paint. He too painted from these and offered a still-life to Theo to adorn his walls.

Nevertheless, his work took primary importance and his friendships were often tied up with art. Notoriously, this association could be fraught. He broke with his friend, artist Anthon van Rappard over whether his representation of the De Groot-van Rooij family (who he depicted in The Potato Eaters, 1885). Later, when he moved to Paris in 1886, he struck up friendships with artists such as Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Émile Bernard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Bernard especially was a close friend with whom he exchanged paintings — but later, when Bernard's work took a religious turn, van Gogh's criticism was merciless. Yet it was common among his circle for such subjects to elicit strong emotions. The year van Gogh died, Toulouse-Lautrec challenged artist Henry de Groux to a duel for criticising van Gogh’s paintings in an exhibition. The duel was only dropped when Signac waded in, threatening to kill de Groux if Toulouse-Lautrec was killed.

Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La berceuse), 1889, © The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial CollectionMore than 900 of van Gogh’s letters survive, over two thirds of them addressed to his art dealer brother, Theo, who was younger by four years and supported him financially throughout much of his artistic career. The brothers were close, but correspondence was important for both sentimental and practical reasons. Given the contingencies his peripatetic existence placed upon the practicalities of his artistic work, it is no surprise that, towards the end of his life, while living in Arles (1888-1889) he developed a close relationship with the man who managed the town's deliveries. All of van Gogh's correspondence would have gone through the hands of Joseph Roulin who also organised transport of his paintings: in Arles he was literally van Gogh's lifeline to the outside world. During his time in Arles, the Roulin family (Joseph and his wife Augustine, Armand, Camille and Marcelle) became the subject of 25 paintings. The lavish portrait, Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle, 1889 (pictured left) hangs adjacent to Portrait of Marcelle Roulin, 1888 (pictured above) Madame Roulin’s attention is focussed on the cradle out of frame, and the flower motif background lend the portrait a lush, pastoral intensity. Marcelle appears as a chubby, bulbous-eyed little chap. His pout and double chin amply show the affection lavished on him; and his fingers pinch each other in a maladroit manner typical of babies learning to control their bodies. 

Van Gogh’s Inner Circle is on show at 's-Hertogenbosch — within easy reach of many other sites of biographical interest: Zundert, where he was born and spent the first years of his life; Etten-Leur, where he first registered in 1881 as an artist at the town hall; and Nuenen, where he painted The Potato Eaters and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884. For those interested in van Gogh’s upbringing, his life and times this is convenient, for what comes through in the show is the extent to which he was reliant upon the friends and family who surrounded him. The exhibition is far from a run-down of his greatest hits, but rather a deeply researched, dedicated show sensitively curated by Sjraar van Heugten and Helewise Berger, squarely aimed at those who want know more about the man behind the art.

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