If you’ve ever seen Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” in person, you’ve experienced chaos. The 1889 landscape, on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is usually surrounded by a crowd, vying for a glimpse. But when we flock, en masse, to visit Van Gogh’s best-known works — or worse, turn them into dazzling virtual experiences with the flashiness of a stadium concert, like the one now on view in the new Bryant Street NE development — are we trying to understand the art or just bask in the glow of its greatness?
Visiting a Van Gogh in D.C., Maryland and Virginia is a very different experience. Scattered across five area museums are 16 paintings by the post-Impressionist master. They’re a quieter bunch: One landscape hangs at the base of a staircase at the Phillips Collection, in a setting so cozy it feels like your own house. A pair of flower paintings grace a corner of the Kreeger Museum with so little fanfare you might overlook them entirely. A handful of portraits at the National Gallery of Art seem almost shy.
Call them Van Gogh unplugged. You aren’t likely to find them reproduced on socks. They don’t lure a crowd. You might not even want to see them enlarged to Imax size. The beauty of these pictures is in the brushstrokes, in the feeling of proximity to Van Gogh himself — the human, his hand and his process. Encountering one is less like a celebrity spotting than dinner with a friend.
Together, these paintings cover significant periods in Van Gogh’s short, nine-year career as a painter. We see him figuring out his style in Paris; falling in love with the vivid colors of Arles in the South of France; finding beauty at a decrepit mental hospital in Saint-Rémy, where he was a patient; and connecting with the landscape of Auvers-sur-Oise in the months before his 1890 death.
After looking at any one of these works, you might be able to go back to “Starry Night” and see, instead of Van Gogh, simply Vincent (as he signed his canvases). During his life, he was mesmerized by the ordinary: he found souls in trees, infinity in a baby’s eyes, determination in a pair of boots. His awe was childlike. To share in it, all you have to do is get close and look. Here are five museums where you can do just that — and for a lot less than the price of a ticket to a virtual Van Gogh show. Several of these museums are even free.
National Gallery of Art
La Mousmé (1888)
Roulin’s Baby (1888)
The Olive Orchard (1889)
Girl in White (1890)
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890)
At first glance, “Roulin’s Baby” seems like evidence that even Van Gogh could have an off day. The fingers are the color of raw meat; the eyes a beady blue. The face of the infant, Marcelle Roulin, is a pale, sickly green. She looks like an alien.
Van Gogh painted several portraits of Marcelle. With that in mind, this one seems less final, more like a peek into the artist’s process. You can see him thinking through color choices, maybe even dealing with color blindness.
The child was the daughter of postal worker Joseph Roulin, whom Van Gogh came to know while living in Arles, along with the rest of his family. But this was more than a procedural portrait. Van Gogh could see the big picture in the smallest of things. Around the time he painted it, he wrote to his brother Theo, “A baby in its cradle … if you look at it at your ease, has the infinite in its eyes.”
There are six Van Gogh paintings displayed in one West Building gallery: three portraits; two landscapes; and a still life with almost surreal proportions.
It’s hard not to keep coming back to the portraits; there’s just something odd about them. Van Gogh said portraiture was the highlight of his working life at this time. And it seems so — as if he might have loved painting these people a little too much. His portraits are painted with the same vigor as his landscapes. Marcelle’s skin is as lush as a field. The girl in “La Mousmé” has a countenance rendered almost as rugged as terrain. In” Girl In White,” the subject’s body appears strangely elongated, like a fast-falling raindrop.
His letter to his friend and fellow artist Émile Bernard after painting “La Mousmé,” suggest a process akin to manual labor: “I’m so worn out from it that I hardly have a head for writing,” he wrote.
Compared with the portraits, “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers” is crisp and final. Painted in the months before the artist’s death, the entire image is in motion, as fresh as a light breeze on a hot afternoon. Unlike most of his landscapes, there are no buildings or people. From the field to the roiling clouds, the entire painting seems to bend rightward, as if it might blow away.
For Van Gogh, green wheat captured a sense of both transience and calm: “Young wheat can have something ineffably pure and gentle about it,” he wrote. "[It] evokes an emotion like that aroused by the expression of a sleeping child.”
West Building, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street NW. 202-737-4215. nga.gov. Free.
The Road Menders (1889)
House at Auvers (1890)
In the first two paintings, Van Gogh captures a natural world that is overgrown and gloriously untamed. You can see it in the loud foliage of “Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles” and the enormous, fiery trees in “The Road Menders.” But you also can see it in smaller details. The fence in “Public Gardens” seems to be collapsing with the weight of the garden behind it. The small, almost ghostly figures in “Road Menders” seem at the mercy of nature, as if weaving their way through hilly terrain. The third painting is on view, through May, as part of a special installation, “Nature [Unframed].”
Van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888, and “Public Gardens” might depict the park entrance across from the yellow house in which Van Gogh lived. At Arles, on the southern coast of France, Van Gogh was entranced by the colors of the Mediterranean, writing to Theo that, “it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without thinking about any rule.”
Here, nature too seems to know no rule: the sky cascades like a waterfall, the trees roll into one another like crashing waves. Each leaf cluttering the sky seems to be shouting for attention. Meanwhile, the people below pay them little mind.
“The Road Menders” shows grand plane trees, outlined in a bold black, dividing the painting into four scenes. In one scene, two hunched figures echo the posture of “The Gleaners” by painter Jean-François Millet. Van Gogh admired Millet for his empathetic rendering of farmworkers, and here he extends that care to men repairing a road.
Although “The Road Menders” was meant to capture an autumn scene, it seems to contain multiple seasons within its frame. Mounds of sand have the thickness of snow; the orange trees have an autumnal flare; the pale yellows of the background have the muted calm of midsummer.
Looking at this canvas, it’s as if we are there with Van Gogh on the walks he took around the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he received treatment in 1888 and 1889. It’s easy to imagine him living in a hospital, trying to recover his sanity and taking comfort not just in the boundless splendor of the natural world, but in the humble process of roadwork.
1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillipscollection.org. $16; $10 for seniors; $10 for students and teachers; free for members and ages 18 and younger. A limited number of pay-what-you-wish tickets are available for the first entry time of each hour, available first come, first served, via online reservation. Timed-entry passes required.
Bowl with Zinnias (1886)
Tucked away in the westernmost part of D.C., you’ll find two still lifes that are as unassuming as they are pivotal in Van Gogh’s career. On a wall directly across from an austere painting of Venice by Pierre-August Renoir, Van Gogh’s maximalist use of paint looks almost self-indulgent.
Made in 1886, while Van Gogh was living in Paris with Theo, the works show traces of the Van Gogh we’ll come to know later on. It’s here where he starts moving on from the more conservative palette of his earlier work to the vivid colors — and the beginnings of his signature thick brushstrokes, or “impasto” — of his most famous works.
“Bowl with Zinnias” features paint so thick it’s almost sculptural. Looking at its luxuriant reds and oranges, you feel especially close to his hand. It seems as if he might have placed the dabs of pigment mere seconds ago, and that he could return at any moment to touch them up.
Van Gogh was an enthusiastic follower of the art scene, and this piece was likely inspired by the work of painter Adolphe Monticelli, who died that same summer. Monticelli’s name would be mostly forgotten by the mainstream — though the Kreeger does own one of his works — yet his brushwork and color inspired Van Gogh, who called Monticelli a colorist “straight and directly from [Eugene] Delacroix.”
In “Vase with Carnations and Other Flowers,” the blooms appear almost withered. But just as “Zinnias” shows Van Gogh’s early use of impasto, here you can see his distinctive sense of motion. The bowl looks as if it’s spinning, and the petals, collected at the bottom of the image, seem as if they might fall away before your eyes.
2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. 202-337-3050. kreegermuseum.org. $10 suggested donation; $8 for students, seniors and military personnel. Timed-entry passes required.
Baltimore Museum of Art
Landscape with Figures (1889)
A Pair of Boots (1887)
Van Gogh was never one for the finer things. He was drawn to the flickering light of a dingy cafe, worn gloves, a wrinkled face, a dirty field. He liked things that had been bumped and bruised by life.
While living in Paris, Van Gogh made several paintings of shoes, which he’d buy at the flea market and walk through mud until they became interesting enough to paint. In “Pair of Boots,” one boot is shown standing upright. Its laces coil forward like a snake. Its sides flare outward with so much energy you can almost see his gait. The other boot is flipped upside down, revealing flecks of green — traces of where he’d been.
There’s an intimacy to shoes. Looking at Van Gogh’s, it’s tempting to view them as a symbolic self-portrait or a sculpture molded by the hand of time. For Van Gogh, boots may well have been metaphorical. In a letter to his friend Bernard, Van Gogh instructed the painter to “make his constitution as tough as old boots.”
It’s not surprising then that Van Gogh might also find humanity in a forest. He wrote to Theo that, in trees, he saw “expression and a soul,” adding that, “a row of pollard willows sometimes resembles a procession of orphan men” — a reference to the elderly almsmen he drew early in his career.
In “Landscape with Figures,” it’s the trees that seem like the main characters, full of personality. Painted in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh was still figuring out how “sinuous” to make his lines. His brother Theo had just criticized a newer work: “The Starry Night.” Here, you can see him reigning in his distinctive curves.
Van Gogh often anthropomorphized trees, likening one that lost a branch, to “a proud man brought low.” These are akin to humble men brought high. There isn’t much special about them. But they seem full of jubilation. Their leaves are laced with the happy gold of fall, like highlights of sun-kissed hair.
10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore. 443-573-1700. artbma.org. Admission to the permanent collection is free. Timed-entry passes required.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The Laundry Boat on the Seine at Asnières (1887)
Daisies, Arles (1888)
The Wheat Field Behind Saint Paul’s Hospital, Saint-Rémy (1889)
Here, you’ll find Van Gogh in two very different states of mind: wandering the sunny streets of Asnières, and behind the iron-barred window of a mental hospital.
In summer 1887, Van Gogh often visited the village of Asnières, four miles from Paris and home to Emile Bernard’s family. During this time, he was plugged into the wider contemporary art scene, experimenting with Georges Seurat’s pointillist style and painting outdoors, in the footsteps of Claude Monet and Renoir.
The Asnières painting depicts a laundry boat — one of many that were scattered along the Seine in the 19th century. Renoir and Alfred Sisley had also painted them — and 20 years later a young Edward Hopper would do the same in “Les Lavoirs … Pont Royal.”
While Van Gogh’s work often feels outside of time, this image quietly captures social change. Laundry boats would eventually be outlawed in an effort to push sanitation out of the public eye. In the distance, you can see the faint outline of towers, industrialization looming on the horizon. But up close, there is just the lapping, expansive blue of the Seine.
Two summers later, Van Gogh would follow in the footsteps of some very different artists. Upon his arrival at the asylum, he wrote a letter to Theo, noting how he used to find it “distressing” to consider the many artists who struggled with mental illness. Now, he wrote, “I find it no more atrocious than if these people had [suffered from] something else … syphilis, for example.”
Even in a place as bleak as Saint Paul, Van Gogh was enlivened by the visual world. He noted an “armchair covered with a tapestry flecked in the manner of [the artist Narcisse Virgilio] Diaz or a Monticelli,” and relished the view from his window: “a square of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective in the manner of [the artist Jan] Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory.”
From a spartan hospital room Van Gogh produced about 150 works, among them “The Wheat Field Behind Saint-Paul Hospital,” which captures that poignant, poetic view from his window.
Whether he was looking at boats on the Seine or curtains in a hospital, Van Gogh had a way of finding beauty in everything. For him, beauty wasn’t aspirational or earned. It was as ubiquitous as shoes, as accessible as a sunset, as abundant as the thick paint on his canvases. It was the very fabric of his reality.
200 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., Richmond. 804-340-1400. vmfa.museum. Admission to the permanent collection is free.