“Ma’am,” whispers the tall, bearded man with deep brown eyes, “you’re getting too close…”
I jump back from the subject of my affection: red beard, furrowed brows, pipe dangling from his lips, a yellow straw hat. I have dreamt of standing inches away from this Vincent van Gogh self-portrait for all my adult life.
“Thank you, ma’am,” nods the security guard when I am at a respectable distance, and walks away.
Around me, the ground floor of Amsterdam’s three-storey Van Gogh Museum brims with people gazing at the artwork of the legendary 19th-century Dutch artist. The museum holds the largest collection of van Gogh’s works anywhere in the world, including over 200 paintings, about 500 drawings, and hundreds of letters exchanged with his younger brother and lifelong patron, Theo. “Sunflowers” is here, as is “Almond Blossom” and 16 evocative self-portraits.
With his use of bold colours and signature short, thick brushstrokes, van Gogh changed the face of modern art. It is little surprise that visitors are often seen holding magnifying glasses in front of paintings, while others shift their spectacles for a better look at the forceful brushwork.
While the museum has a number of famous paintings, there are also more personal exhibits, like the tubes of paint he used. Photo: Jan Kees Steenman
Van Gogh sold few paintings in his lifetime: it was only after his death in 1890 that the world took notice of what he had left behind. “The Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” and “The Bedroom,” are now considered masterpieces, and his artwork peeks out from café facades, mugs, and bags sold across Amsterdam.
This museum is to me what Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory was to little Charlie. Vincent van Gogh was the first artist who stirred my interest in art, and like all first loves, he indelibly coloured my teenage imagination. I am here to know him better; and perhaps see the world as intensely as he did even if it’s just for a few hours. I make my way to one of my favourites. “The Potato Eaters” is a famous 1885 painting of a family of peasants eating a meagre meal. I notice that the paintings preceding it are arranged to tell the story of its conception. After van Gogh decided to be an artist, he elected to paint farmers, people who worked with the earth. He drew a woman’s portrait using coarse swipes of reds and browns to show her sun-hardened features, as if hewn out of the land she tilled. Standing in front of the “The Potato Eaters” I see for the first time how van Gogh used the colours of a dusty potato to paint the peasants’ weary faces, signifying their harsh reality. He wanted this painting to be his “visiting card” as an artist, but it found appreciation only after his death.
The museum is more than a repository of van Gogh’s greatest works. Each artwork, letter, and object pieces together the story of the artist’s life. I feel like I am getting under the skin of his paintings, understanding what went into their creation. In one corner of a gallery, I geek out over a microscope that shows grains of sand trapped between van Gogh’s brushstrokes in an 1888 painting he made at a beach in France. Touchscreens reveal different layers to “The Bedroom,” and I discover how the artist used colour and perspective. Wearing headphones I listen to audio recordings of the earnest letters he wrote to the only man who believed in him, his brother Theo. These multimedia experiences highlight the fervour, anxiety, and hard work that ruled van Gogh’s art and personal life. His work begins to have a visceral impact on me. I feel the melancholy exuded by his painting of Agostina, a pensive woman in a bright red hat, sitting at a table with a cigarette and beer; she was the owner of a Parisian bar and, for a short while, van Gogh’s lover. I almost touch my nose to “Almond Blossom,” marvelling at the intricate cross-hatch pattern he painted as its background, a detail utterly lost on a computer screen. He dedicated this painting to Theo’s newborn son Vincent Willem, to signify new beginnings. Fittingly, it was his nephew who founded the Van Gogh Museum in 1973.
Among the museum’s marvellous exhibits are an evocative painting of van Gogh’s lover Agostina Segatori (right); The museum shop sells timeless souvenirs including delicate jewellery, crockery (left) and leather wallets, all imprinted with famous van Gogh paintings. Photo: JVincent Van Gogh/In the Café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin/1887/Van Gogh Museum (Agostina), &klevering (plates)
Over a century after his death, the myths and theories about van Gogh’s breakdowns are passionately retold, especially the story of how “the tortured genius” sliced his own ear off in a fit of despair. The museum, however, does not indulge this portrayal, focusing instead on his talent and hard work. I walk around the section dedicated to the end of his life. There are letters exchanged between him, his doctors, and Theo, and paintings created in that period—portraits of kind doctors and fellow patients at an asylum. He may have been battling his demons during this period, but the people and landscapes he painted fill the room with life.
To me this museum reinforces how deeply art inspires us and tells us that we aren’t alone in our experience of love, loss, or life. I take one last look at van Gogh’s only surviving palette; every inch is covered in thick daubs of blue, yellow, white, or green, and it feels as if the paint was smeared on it just minutes ago.
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The Van Gogh Museum is closed until June 1, but its treasures have been thrown open to the world. Visit vangoghmuseum.nl/en to wander through the galleries free of visitors, download a free app that lets you view concealed layers to his paintings, and read his feverishly-pitched letters that visitors usually have access to in the Amsterdam museum.
loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes. She is the former Commissioning Editor of Nat Geo Traveller India.
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