Van Gogh’s do-overs

October 10, 2013

Erase your image of Vincent Van Gogh as a mad genius. OK, so maybe he did cut off part of his left ear and give it to a prostitute. But when it came to painting, the 19th-century Dutch artist was often thoughtful and methodical, says Eliza Rathbone, chief curator at The Phillips Collection.

“He wasn’t always painting in a mad state of passion or inspiration,” she says. “Sometimes he painted the same subject again and again.”

These works are the subject of a new exhibit at The Phillips, “Van Gogh Repetitions.” Different versions of the same landscape or portrait will be displayed side by side, to illustrate how Van Gogh refined his vision over time. The repetitions let him experiment with color, composition and brush strokes, but they did not improve his profit margin.

“Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime,” Rathbone says.

Among the images are landscapes Van Gogh painted during excursions from the asylum where he was a patient and 10 portraits of one of his doctors. But don’t let the subjects distract you from the art itself, Rathbone says.

“One of the things that intrigues people about Van Gogh is his life, but his work alone makes him great,” she says.

Spot the Differences

In 1889, Van Gogh painted “The Large Plane Trees,” left, from an easel set up outdoors in the French village of Saint-Remy-de-Provence. About a month later, he painted a second version of the landscape, titled “The Road Menders,” right, from his studio inside the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.


Left: The farthest tree has much wavier lines in the second painting than it does in the first. “It has a much more expressionistic kind of contour to it than the original tree,” Rathbone says. “You feel the invention and the desire to make the trees come even more alive.”

The road-paving blocks on the right of each painting become more geometric and inert in their second iteration, providing a clearer foil to the gnarly, lively trees.

The two people in the painting’s center are barely visible in the first version of the landscape. In his later version, Van Gogh makes it clear they are workers mending the road. He also adds a worker to the group on the right, bringing manual labor — one of his favorite themes — to the fore.

Right: The bright yellow foliage and crystalline sky in the second painting show that Van Gogh traded his original, naturalistic color scheme for a heightened palette. “He’s left that sense of the moment to make something more timeless, more invented, more free,” Rathbone says.

The green door at the center of the second painting is more prominent than it is in the first, and Van Gogh plays up other instances of green and red throughout the painting. “He was fascinated by color theory,” Rathbone says.

The ruddy colors on the first painting come, in part, from the canvas itself — a piece of red fabric with a diamond pattern. Van Gogh ran through canvases as quickly as his brother Theo could send them, Rathbone says, and he often painted on whatever was available.

Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; Sat. through Jan. 26, $12; 202-387-2151. (Dupont Circle)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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Scott Shigeoka · October 10, 2013