Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) is the very epitome of an artist overlooked in life who achieved unimaginable posthumous fame. Even when Van Gogh began to gain renown, thanks to the tireless advocacy of his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, his reception around the globe was rather uneven—celebrated in some places, shrugged off in others.
Among the Johnny-come-latelys? The United States. Van Gogh’s work wasn’t exhibited here until 1913, at the famed Armory Show in New York City, Chicago, and Boston. But none of his works sold—likely because their prices were similar to those of works by more internationally known masters like Monet and Cézanne. Van Gogh-Bonger refused to budge on the pricing, and she had good reason for her obstinance: Europe was beginning to buy. She didn’t realize, however, that America was a notoriously conservative art market.
“We weren’t quite ready for him yet. It’s mind-boggling to me that there was a moment when America didn’t embrace this artist, considering how ever-present he is today,” says exhibition curator Jill Shaw, head of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ modern and contemporary department and its curator of European art from 1850 to 1970.
Interestingly, when Van Gogh was finally embraced Stateside, elite East Coast collectors and institutions weren’t the ones leading the charge. Instead, for decades, Van Gogh’s greatest U.S. stronghold was the Midwest. In 1922 the Detroit Institute of Arts became the first public museum to acquire and display a Van Gogh—a Self-Portrait With Straw Hat (1887)—as part of its permanent collection. (Albert Barnes was the first American individual to acquire a work for his private collection, but it was rarely exhibited.) The Art Institute of Chicago followed in 1926 (The Bedroom, 1889), as did Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1932 (a painting in the “Olive Trees” series, 1889) and the St. Louis Art Museum in 1935 (Stairway at Auvers, 1890).
Currently, American-held Van Goghs are on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts for its “Van Gogh in America” exhibition, timed to the centennial of the institute’s acquisition of its Self-Portrait. According to Shaw, authorities at the Van Gogh Museum believe the exhibition is the first to focus on the artist’s reception in the United States.
Shaw says “Van Gogh in America” will expose audiences to a fuller view of Van Gogh than his “greatest hits.” “It’s incredible what we latch on to as his signature works,” she says. “There’s much more to Van Gogh than his swirly, thick brushstrokes.”
Below, Shaw gives us a rundown of some of the premier Van Gogh works in the United States, nearly all of which are on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts through January 22, 2023.
The Wounded Veteran, c. 1882–83, Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA
While living in the Hague, Van Gogh got creative in finding live models. For a time he recruited sitters, many of whom were war veterans, from a home for the elderly in the Hague. Van Gogh often dressed up the sitters; it is unknown whether the anonymous subject in this drawing actually used an eye patch or was given one for the purposes of Van Gogh’s study. Face to face, Van Gogh’s somewhat severe portrait is softened by the bluish-white smoke coming from the aged gentleman’s pipe. “It’s really a different aspect of his career that I think most people are just shocked by,” Shaw says.
The Wounded Veteran is among Van Gogh’s relatively few works with a documented American provenance dating back to the 1920s. The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, which houses the painting today, exhibited the work for the first time in 1929. It was lent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York later that year for its ribbon-cutting exhibition, a survey of the Post-Impressionists. Six years later, it returned to that museum for Van Gogh’s first solo retrospective in the United States.
Landscape With Wheelbarrow (1883), Cleveland Museum of Art
This early watercolor dates to when Van Gogh was living in Drenthe, a northeastern province in the Netherlands. There he honed his skills as a landscapist, setting aside the monochrome mediums at which he beavered in the Hague.
Landscape With Wheelbarrow’s surprising medium sometimes throws off viewers. (“People are, like, ‘This is Van Gogh?’” says Shaw.) Indeed, Van Gogh becomes much harder to identify without the characteristic textural brushstrokes that became so evident in his oils. But we can still observe some Van Gogh calling cards—like the dreary, wintry sky; the unexpected streaks of color; and the bucolic, agrarian setting.
An interesting addendum: When the Detroit Institute of Arts moved to buy a Van Gogh work for the first time, its commission nearly bought Landscape With Wheelbarrow when it was offered up by a German gallery instead of the 1887 Self-Portrait. Remarkably, the work still made its way to the American Midwest, to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Le Moulin de la Galette, 1886–87, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
To some, this painting—of a windmill near the apartment Van Gogh and his brother Theo shared in the still relatively rural neighborhood of Montmartre in Paris—might seem to be yet another oddity in Van Gogh’s catalogue. But it can also be viewed as a very Impressionist bridge to the Post-Impressionist style he would later cultivate, painting with a sunnier, lighter color palette and gestural strokes.
It was one of several works Van Gogh created depicting this windmill. The mill, dating back to the 17th century, was no longer in use, but its ground had been transformed into an event venue and eatery that still exists today. From there, Van Gogh could take in breathtaking views of the entire city.
A Pair of Boots, 1887, Baltimore Museum of Art
This work also dates from Van Gogh’s Paris period. At the time, the artist was broke; traveling to scenic locales for the express purpose of painting them, as some better-off artists would have done, was out of the question for him. So he painted what he and Theo kept around their flat—in this case, his own well-worn, brown leather boots.
“It’s elevating these humble and unconventional subjects,” Shaw says. “They’re so worn out, but he paints them as if they’re the most precious objects in the world. It’s beautiful to see him finding beauty in these everyday objects.”
A Pair of Boots is part of the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, established by sisters Claribel and Etta Cone. Much like Johanna van Gogh-Bonger in her early advocacy for Van Gogh’s work, the Cone sisters played a key but underappreciated role in enshrining the artist’s legacy in the United States.
Self-Portrait With Straw Hat, 1887, Detroit Institute of Arts
This painting has the distinction of being the first Van Gogh acquired and displayed by an American cultural institution rather than accessioned into a private collection. Van Gogh painted some 40 self-portraits over his lifetime. But that output says more about Van Gogh’s poverty than it does about his predilection for the genre. “He didn’t have the money to pay for professional models,” Shaw says. “So, what’s the cheapest subject? Yourself.”
Like most of his other Self-Portraits With Straw Hat, Van Gogh painted this work in Paris, in the summer of 1887. With its flamboyant, vibrant palette, this Self-Portrait is a seasonal and spiritual departure from his gloomy wintertime portraits done in the same year. His brushstrokes likewise are more dappled and evocative, evincing his recent encounters with French Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. This particular Self-Portrait grew especially well known after being prominently featured in the 1956 film about the artist, Lust for Life.
Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Van Gogh painted Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during a high point in his artistic career. Exhilarated by a successful exhibition in which he’d exchanged work with Gauguin and other artists, he became fixated on the idea of starting an artists’ collective in the south of France. Of his acquaintances, only Gauguin joined him in remote Arles.
The view depicted here was right across from the yellow house in which he lived with Gauguin from October 1888 to nearly the end of that year. Here we see a snatch of town life—people strolling or resting on benches, a man puzzling over a map, or maybe a newspaper—nearly overwhelmed by the dense green overgrowth of the gardens. “He takes this scene he sees every single day leaving his house and turns it into a monumental landscape,” Shaw says.
Olive Trees, 1889, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
After the heady artistic rush of his time in Arles, disaster struck. In December 1888, in the throes of a mental breakdown, Van Gogh severed most of his left ear after quarreling with Gauguin. Gauguin fled back to Paris, and police escorted Van Gogh to a hospital. After a tumultuous several months, Van Gogh couldn’t ignore the fact that he needed help greater than Theo could provide. Just before summer 1889, he was voluntarily admitted to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He would remain there for a year.
While recuperating, Van Gogh was occasionally permitted to stroll beyond the clinic grounds. He found a new muse in a nearby grove of knotty, twisted olive trees, producing at least 15 of these landscapes. The religious symbolism of the olive grove was not lost on Van Gogh, who had very nearly followed in his minister father’s footsteps as a young man, nor was its resonance with Gauguin’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, painted just before their falling out. Van Gogh preferred a more oblique approach. “I shall not paint a Christ in the Garden of Olives, but shall paint the olive harvest as one might see it today,” he wrote to Theo. “By giving the human figure its proper place in it, one might perhaps be reminded of it.”
The Starry Night, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York
An obvious and essential inclusion any American Van Gogh survey, The Starry Night was something of a companion piece to his olive treepaintings from the same period. The landscape is based on the view from his room in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, plus fanciful touches like an imaginary village and crescent moon (actually in a different phase at the time the artist painted it). Lust for Life, the film that popularized Van Gogh’s Detroit Self-Portrait, contributed to the canonization of this work as well, depicting the artist creating it in a state of fevered inspiration.
The reality is a bit different from the Hollywood version. For its current exhibition, the Detroit Institute of Arts borrowed not Van Gogh’s The Starry Night but a predecessor from the year before, The Starry Night Over the Rhône, visiting from the Musée d’Orsay. That painting sees Van Gogh probing the same color scheme, scenario, and short brushstrokes as his later version, making clear that his most famous American-held work didn’t spring forth from a vacuum—or from one passionate night of painting. “We wanted to provide a corrective to some of the mythology of Van Gogh,” Shaw says.
Wheat Fields After the Rain (The Plain of Auvers), 1890, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Van Gogh left the clinic in Saint-Rémy in May 1890 and moved closer to Paris, to the same suburb as his doctor. He turned his attention to town scenes and landscapes, returning to the wheat fields motif he’d used in earlier paintings. His late exemplars emphasize intricacy and contrast, with distinct, discrete brushstrokes.
“He’s really coming to his signature stroke,” Shaw says. “People like to read that the end is near here, but there are moments when Van Gogh seems to have been incredibly fulfilled and gratified by painting these landscapes.”
Stairway at Auvers, 1890, Saint Louis Art Museum
Van Gogh painted this scene in 1890 just weeks before he died by suicide. Stairway at Auvers is compositionally dense, realized on a small canvas and containing little to no negative space. It feels bustling despite containing relatively few people: Two pairs of women walk in the foreground and middle ground, but the eye is eventually coaxed to the least imposing figure, the silhouette of an elderly man descending a staircase from a villa on the hill.
“For me, this is the perfect painting. I say so in the audio guide, too,” Shaw enthuses. “You see these incredibly swervy lines and the varied way he applies the paint—sometimes it’s in these short, staccato strokes, and other times they’re much longer and thicker. It’s so tactile and three-dimensional.
“It’s hard to say that it’s the culmination of his career, because who knows what could or would have been? But it is incredible.”