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Museum Monday: Van Gogh Repetitions

I am always reading about interesting art exhibits around the world, and while I hardly have the time or budget to visit them all, I have decided to do a series of posts highlighting them here. Maybe you will have the opportunity to visit and report back on these “Museum Mondays” so I may live vicariously through you!

I’m sorry for the lateness of today’s post- you would think I would have had some time to plan ahead while I was home for Thanksgiving- but of course I fell completely off the grid! However, on the train ride home, as I was reading the Amtrak gem “Arrive” magazine, I found an ad for the exhibit “Van Gogh Repetitions” currently on view in Washington DC. It looks fascinating, so of course I had to share it here!

The exhibition is a study of a lesser known side to Van Gogh’s artisitic process- examining the paintings whose subjects he visited multiple times. The term “repetitions” is actually one coined by Van Gogh to “describe his practice of creating more than one version of a particular subject.” The exhibit was originally inspired by the close relationship between the Cleveland Museum’s The Large Plane Trees (the first below) and the Phillips Collection’s The Road Menders (the second one) both dating from late 1889. I think you’ll agree- even the phrase “close relationship” is an understatement! Curators for the exhibit studied the two at length, using microscopes, digital photography, and X-radiographs, trying to decide which is the original and which was created later in the studio. Can you guess? While the colors are a notable difference, it is the brushstrokes that truly sets them apart. The Road Menders has more deliberate and controlled lines, while the spontaneity of the brushstrokes in The Large Plane Trees suggests it is the original field painting.

Large Plane Trees the Road Menders

This curatorial process was repeated for 13 different repetitions- some with as many as nine variations on a theme! I have to imagine it was very fun to try and dig into each piece’s history and uncover the “original”. The Postman Joseph Roulin was one of Van Gogh’s favorite subjects and in real life, a true friend- visiting him in the hospital soon after the artist cut off his ear. Below are Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin, December 1888 and The Postman Joseph Roulin, May 1888

portrait-of-the-postman-joseph-roulin The Postman Joseph Roulin

The curators of the exhibition aim to suggest that these refined repetitions are proof in point that Van Gogh is much more of true artist than history might remember him as. While many people suggest that it was only his mental illness creating beautiful masterpieces in frenzied fits of inspiration, these works show the more thoughtful side of the artist.

I know in the past when I have created my own paintings, I can never decide when it is “finished”. “One more brushstroke here.. or what if I added a hint of this color?..” It seems to me that Van Gogh had the same issue- but then struggled to the point of needing to completely start over- to reinvent the work as a new experiment. A first draft, a second draft, etc. Did he ever consider any of them “final” or “perfect”? I guess we will never know, but we can certainly visit and pick our own favorites!

Van Gogh Repetitions will be shown at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C., from October 2013 to January 2014, and then will make its own “repetition” at the Cleveland Museum of Art from March 2014 to May 2014. Please report back if you visit either! Van Gogh’s works are definitely ones that must be experienced in person.


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Museum Monday: John Singer Sargent Watercolors

I am always reading about interesting art exhibits around the world, and while I hardly have the time or budget to visit them all, I have decided to do a series of posts highlighting them here. Maybe you will have the opportunity to visit and report back on these “Museum Mondays” so I may live vicariously through you! For this first week though, I thought I’d start with the City that I live in, and one of the largest exhibits this fall- John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors.

I don’t know where my passion for art museums came from. One of the earliest museum memories I have is of course, visiting the MET as a kid with my school on one of our yearly field-trips. The book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was also one of my favorite reads in third grade (can you imagine living in a museum!?) But I think my enthusiasm really solidified when my parents took us to see the John Singer Sargent oils exhibit at the MFA way back in 1999 (don’t I feel old!) It was a big deal, and the first modern retrospective for the artist- and how fitting that it was in the City of Boston, his American home and at the Museum so closely tied to his history- he after all painted the murals on the ceiling there! Either way, I remember driving up from New York and experiencing masterpieces such as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and Fumee d’Ambre Gris which to this day, remain some of my favorite paintings. In fact, when I visited London 4 years later, I INSISTED to my Aunt that we visit the Tate just so I could see “Carnation” in person again. So imagine my delight when I learned that once again the MFA would be doing a collection of Sargent’s works, and this time specifically, his amazing watercolors.

When Sargent began painting in watercolor, he was already a well established portrait artist. Everyone can agree he had mastered the art of oil painting and it is suggested that he was becoming flat out bored. He needed a change of medium, and he craved to take his easel out in the field and around the world. Which is exactly what he did: traveling to deserts of Syria and the canals of Venice. However, while anyone who saw them gave the paintings glowing reviews, Sargent largely considered these watercolors to be for himself, they gave him great pleasure and they were NOT FOR SALE.

The Bridge of Sighs

His friend from Boston, Mr Edward Darley Boit (yes, the one with the daughters), insisted that he consider putting the pieces in an exhibit and selling- and Sargent agreed – but ONLY if the works were sold as a collection. I get the impression Sargent hoped the works would land at the MFA, but in a twist, the Brooklyn Museum won the collection of 83 works. Sargent was soon certain that the patrons in Boston, realizing they had missed out, would also want a watercolor collection of their own. So of course, for this second round, he spent more effort creating each one- a little less of a “study in watercolor” and instead more standalone pieces of art. The pieces were larger and most of them were signed. In the end, the MFA acquired the collection of 45. This current exhibit brings the paintings from both collections back together in one place. It is interesting to compare and contrast!

Villa di Marlia, Lucca- A Fountain

Sargent’s watercolor painting are very unique in the way they are created. In fact, there is a video playing at the exhibit where an artist tries to recreate one of the paintings- it was incredible to see how she had to work to achieve the lightness of the brushstrokes while at the same time creating such dark opaque colors.

Bedoins

What else makes these watercolors special? Well at the end of the day, they are still very Sargent. It has been said, that NO artist has been quite able to capture white the way that he was. Take his work “Reading” as an example. The whites in her dress are not pure white brushstrokes, but also grays and blues and yellows and even the slightest tint of green reflecting from her parasol. There is also an entire room of watercolors capturing the carrara marble quarries in Italy. The immense stones are cast in 1000s of shades of white and gray.

Reading

Carrara- Lizzatori I

John Singer Sargent Watercolors is running now through January 20th at the MFA- and I have a membership if you are looking for a tour guide! Nick and I attended the opening for this exhibit so I can say firsthand how magnificent it is. I hope you have the opportunity to visit. (And if you are wondering, yes- it wasn’t by accident that I chose to wear a watercolor print dress)

us at opening