Where else can you find 30 Vincent van Goghs together in the U.S. other than at The Phillips Collection, where they are set to depart Sunday, Super Vincent Day?
It is the first van Gogh (1853-1890) exhibition in 15 years in Washington, the first at The Phillips, and the first anywhere to focus on his "repetitions," the word he used to call his different versions of the same subject. They are on loan from collections around the world, juxtaposed to make changes from one to the next easier to view, detect, and discuss.
Who knew the master painted so many of the same subject?
If you saw the Yes, No, Maybe exhibition which closed last month at the National Gallery of Art, you got a glimpse of dilemmas and decisions artists face and make and the number of times they re-work results. The theme of Van Gogh Repetitions, is to "examine how and why [van Gogh] repeated certain compositions," says The Phillips.
Visitors will observe the evolutions of 13 repetitions with adaptations noted in shapes, positions, colors, and facial expressions.
The man whose career only spanned a decade before he died, did not hurriedly slosh paint upon the canvas outdoors, a mental picture many van Gogh fans may share: There he is, standing in the fields with brush and easel along a dusty road, amidst the tall sunflowers wearing a hat with a large brim to shield his already-sunburned head from the sun and heat. Repetitions "shows how the artist was also methodical and controlled."
The display opens with The Road Menders (1899) from The Phillips and another version on the adjacent wall painted in the same year, The Large Plane Trees, on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Stand and compare the two and note variations. Which do you think he painted first? Are the styles the same? Does one have brighter colors? More life?
Drawn from The Phillips' collection in the second gallery are paintings by artists who influenced van Gogh, who had personal connections to many: Delacroix, whom van Gogh called "the greatest colorist of all," Seurat, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Millet, Rembrandt, and, of course, Gauguin, are some. Van Gogh copied many of them and built a personal print collection of 3,000 images which he used as basis for his own productions.
From there to the next, to the next gallery, the paintings flow, a vast van Gogh bliss for followers.
One version of three of The Bedroom at Arles (1889) (yes, it is that bedroom, the one which immediately leaps to mind) is included. Text reveals van Gogh made all the walls in each Bedroom violet, however, time has turned some of the reds into blue walls.
That rendition looks unlike the van Goghs you know, and the stilted subject sits in a weird way with his head tilted and his eyes seemingly focused on separate points, its exceptions extreme in a garish way, almost a character from a haunting novel.
Only one of Joseph Roulin is signed, the Barnes' Roulin, which The Phillips calls "the most naturalistic" of three done in 1889, and it is that one which appears to be the most popular, one I know well, a print of it purchased long ago somewhere that now hangs in my bedroom.
The postman was a friend to van Gogh, helping and visiting the artist when he was in the hospital at Arles. Van Gogh loved the Roulin family and painted individual portraits of all the family members, all found in the presentation.
Accompanying the show is a catalogue published by Yale University Press with 125 color illustrations and available at the shop or online. Preparation and research for Repetitions began eight years ago. A cell phone tour provides more information.
If you miss Repetitions at The Phillips, you may travel to Cleveland where it will be staged from March 2 - May 26, 2014. The Phillips and the Cleveland Museum of Art organized the show. The Musee d'Orsay was a major lender, and Lockheed Martin, a major sponsor.
What: Van Gogh Repetitions
When: Now through February 2, 2014. Saturday, from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Where: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., N.W. at Q St., Washington, D.C. 20009
Tickets: $12, $10 for those over 62, and free for members always, for children 18 and under, and for students (with I.D.). Advance ticket purchase, highly recommended since tickets are timed.
Metro Station: Dupont Circle (Q Street exit. Turn left and walk one block.)
For more information: 202-387-2151