It wouldn't be a good idea to give much more of Becoming Van Gogh away, but in the course of writing our story of the Denver Art Museum show, I ended up with a lot of great material left I just couldn't help but to share.
Like, for instance, the fact that Van Gogh attempted four careers before becoming a full-time artist. And in each of those endeavors — art clerk, theologist, school teacher, evangelical preacher — Becoming curator Timothy J. Standring says, he failed.
And that, despite his stalling push to spread the faith in south Belgium, he still tried to convey a religious message in his early artwork. Those efforts, though earnest and energetic, are dark and rustic. “He liked worn-out subjects," says Louis van Tilborgh, senior researcher of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, who helped curate the show.
This goes on for about five years. And Van Gogh's teaching himself to draw and paint in the process.
“He scrambled," says Standring. "He had to learn how to draw as fast as he could because he wanted to do these kind of moralizing subject matter.”
Then, says Standring, in 1885 he visits the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national art museum: “And he goes through this gigantic, this titanic shift and he discovers color."
With that, Van Gogh slows down on drawing and figures, and begins to focus on color and still lifes. All these elements that before felt "frivolous" to the didactic artist absorb every part of Van Gogh's oeuvre. Now, even portraits get the color treatment, which the DAM displays in two paintings that portray the postman Joseph Roulen and his wife and daughter.
And while the hues verge on electric and the tense brushwork trembles, typical of the artist we know so well, Standring insists that Van Gogh is still learning and borrowing.
“If you took this into ochers and dark colors, you’d find that it’s nothing more than a Frans Hals 17th-century portrait, and that this is based on a prototype that he had seen at the Rijksmuseum by Rembrandt of a mother and a child together.”
And there is one thing that Tilborgh would like to also teach: How to correctly pronounce Van Gogh's name.
It's like this.