Vincent van Gogh’s "The Postman Joseph Roulin." (Kroller-Muller Museum)

In the art world, to repeat oneself is often synonymous with being washed up, recycling a few good ideas you had 20 or 30 years earlier and have now branded for popular success. Public art is often very repetitious, as is most commercial hackwork, pictures of cottages on flower-dappled shores with moon-kissed mountains in the background. The word “repetitions” in the title of a new van Gogh exhibition at the Phillips Collection means something very different and is not at all about exhausted inspiration or cynical marketing. Van Gogh’s repetitions were more akin to variations on a theme, in a musical sense, a process of reinterpretation, refinement and experimentation through which the artist explored new possibilities in a portrait of a friend, a picture of his bedroom or a scene of road workers toiling beneath thick, shady trees. The Phillips Collection exhibition began with the last of these three “repetitions,” two paintings van Gogh made in 1889: “The Road Menders,” owned by the collection, and “The Large Plane Trees,” owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art. The two works explore the same visual material, a line of venerable trees that seem to be pulling the earth upward with a combustible energy. Beneath them, dark-clad townspeople pass on their daily business while men labor at repairing a torn-up street.

The two paintings were seen together in Cleveland in 2005 but have not been paired in Washington until now. Reuniting them was the germ of this larger show, which explores the role of repetition in van Gogh’s oeuvre, and how his self-conscious use of the term should refine our larger sense of him as an artist, revising the old canard that he was simply crazy and worked only in fits of frenzied inspiration. Rather, the curators argue, repetition — by which they mean refinement, evolution, development, variation — played a central role in his painting and drawing. He was, “Van Gogh Repetitions” insists, an artist like most other artists, capable of much more than one-off displays of pure, unthinking creative spontaneity.

The idea is a good one, and to the extent that the curators have managed to assemble multiple iterations of the same image, their argument is compelling. But one wants more. The subject is perfect for the Phillips’s intellectual strength, which is all about focus and concentration; but it is also too large a topic for the Phillips’s space and resources. This is a blockbuster uncomfortably wedged into a confining space.

And padded. A room devoted to van Gogh’s inspiration brings out work from the museum’s collection that might plausibly have been an influence on the Dutch artist: drawings, paintings and prints by Daumier, Delacroix and Rembrandt, and work based on designs of Jean-François Millet (who had perhaps the strongest impact on the artist). Another small room takes up the work of artists who were in turn particularly inspired by van Gogh. One would happily exchange both for more of the basic repetitions explored in the core of the show.

But to be fair, gathering those isn’t easy. One example: Between the summer of 1888 and spring of 1889 Van Gogh made six paintings and three drawings of “The Postman,” whose name was Joseph Roulin, and who worked in Arles and was a good friend and drinking companion of the artist. It is one of van Gogh’s most arresting portraits, with Roulin directly facing the viewer, a large, curling beard flowing from his chin, and his uniform a strikingly rich hue of blue against the background. It’s easy when you run into a version of this painting — at the Barnes in Philadelphia, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, and elsewhere — to assume you are seeing the definitive, and perhaps only, image of Roulin painted by van Gogh. The power of any one iteration is strong enough to give the viewer the illusion that there is only one painting, and it must somehow teleport from institution to institution when you’re not looking.

But each image is also markedly different from the others, and seeing them together is a privilege. Unfortunately, the exhibition brings together only three of the six “Postman” paintings, and one particularly unfortunate omission is the version in Philadelphia, at the Barnes, which is forbidden by its founder’s stipulations from lending works. This is a stupid, shortsighted and selfish thing for any donor to do, and the work’s absence from the Phillips exhibition demonstrates all too painfully why.

Still, there are enough repetitions assembled to develop a basic taxonomy for how and why the artist returned to his basic themes. In the case of “The Large Plane Trees” and “The Road Menders,” the repetition was about making work in one case directly “from life,” and then repeating and refining it in the studio. The Barnes Collection repetition of “The Postman” may have been made as a gift to the sitter: It is, the curators argue, more “naturalistic” than some of the others, and the only one signed by the artist. Other examples of van Gogh’s repetitions may have been made to give to other artists, or to retain a copy for van Gogh’s collection, and in some cases for purely commercial reasons.

The excitement of the exhibition, however, are those works that give us a more musical sense of the artist’s work, as if he is interpreting a visual idea the way a musician interprets a sonata. Van Gogh, who used the term “repetition” in his letters, also played with the idea of some repetitions being essentially exercises in performance. Copying is never just copying, and artists who seem to copy may, he suggests, be like “a person [who] plays some Beethoven,” adding “his personal interpretation to it.”

A close look at the portraits of “The Postman” draws the viewer immediately into interesting philosophical territory. Is an interpretation simply a variation on a preexisting idea? Or does it add something more fundamentally new and distinct to the world? Van Gogh’s multiple images of Joseph Roulin, with details altered here and there, tempt the viewer into sorting the picture into foreground essentials (a fuzzy-chinned man in a deep blue uniform) and background elements (the wallpaper and curls of the beard). But if you allow the background and foreground equal importance — which seems to be where van Gogh is going — then paintings such as MoMA’s “Postman” and the likely slightly earlier version borrowed from the Kröller-Müller Museum (in Otterlo, the Netherlands) feel more like entirely separate, distinct, and self-sufficient works, not variations on or iterations of one idea.

The exhibition ultimately forces you to acknowledge how much baggage you bring to van Gogh, baggage that limits and distorts understanding. The core pairing of the show, “The Large Plane Trees” and “The Road Menders,” seems at first to be about work made spontaneously from nature and work made in the studio, with the former suggesting more direct truth and the latter a process of visual subtlety and refinement. The first painting fits with our sense of van Gogh as an unmediated artist, a pure conduit for registering hidden energies in the visual world; yet the more “finished” painting seems more essentially van Gogh, with its brushwork rigorously channeled to echo the forms represented. Which van Gogh do we prefer? The seemingly unselfconscious artist, or the artist who carefully assembled the illusion of being unselfconscious?

Around the same time that van Gogh painted these works, Monet was “repeating” himself with his iconic series of haystacks. Yet how differently we think of these projects: Monet registering, like a finely tuned scientific instrument, tiny differences of light, mood and time of day, while Van Gogh’s repetitions often feel more like representations of the artist’s state of mind. The benefit of this exhibition, which one can only wish were larger, is that it compels a confrontation with this lasting and pernicious habit of pigeonholing van Gogh as a troubled mind, his art limited to pure subjectivity, his paintings seemingly clinical pictures of an over-agitated, self-consuming state of neurosis, or worse.

He was much more than that.

Van Gogh: Repetitions

is on view at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 26. For more information, including admission fees, call 202-387-2151 or visit