Opened in 1973, this remarkable light-infused building—based on a design by famed De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld—venerates the short, certainly not sweet, but highly productive career of everyone's favorite tortured 19th-century artist. First things first: Vincent was a Dutch boy and therefore his name is not pronounced like the "Go" in Go-Go Lounge but rather like the "Go" uttered when one is choking on a whole raw herring.
While some of the Van Gogh paintings
that are scattered throughout the world's high art temples are of dubious providence, this collection's authenticity is indisputable: its roots trace directly back to brother Theo van Gogh, Vincent's artistic and financial supporter. The 200 paintings and 500 drawings on display here can be divided into his five basic periods, the first beginning in 1880 at age 27 after his failure in finding his voice as schoolmaster and lay preacher. These early depictions of Dutch country landscapes and peasants—particularly around the Borinage and Nuenen—were notable for their dark colors and a refusal to romanticize (a stand that perhaps also led in this period to his various failures in romance). The Potato Eaters is perhaps his most famous piece from this period.
In 1886, he followed his art-dealing brother Theo to Paris, where the heady atmosphere—and drinking buddies like Paul Signac and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—inspired him to new heights of experimentation. While heavily inspired by Japanese woodcuts and their hard contrasts and off-kilter compositions, he also took the Neo-Impressionist obsession with light and color as his own, and his self-portraits (he was the only model he could afford) began to shimmer with expressive lines and dots.
With a broadened palate, he returned to the countryside in 1888 to paint still lifes—including the famous series of Sunflowers (originally meant to decorate the walls of a single bedroom in the Maison Jaune he had set up to welcome Paul Gauguin)—and portraits of locals around Arles, France. His hopes to begin an artist's colony here with Paul Gauguin were dampened by the onset of psychotic attacks, one of which saw the departure of his ear lobe (a desperate gesture to show respect for Gauguin—in southern France, ears were cut off of bulls by matadors and presented to their lady loves). Recuperating in a mental-health clinic in St-Remy from April 1889, he—feverishly, one is quick to assume—produced his most famous landscapes, such as Irises and Wheatfield with a Reaper, whose sheer energy in brush stroke makes the viewer almost feel the area's sweeping winds. In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to the artist's village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where he traded medical advice from Dr. Paul Gachet in exchange for paintings and etching lessons. The series of vibrantly colored canvases the pained painter made shortly before he died are particularly breathtaking. These highly productive last three months of his life were marred by depression and, on July 27, he shot himself in the chest while painting Wheatfield with Crows and died two days later. That legendary painting remains the iconic image of this collection.
In 1999, the 200th anniversary of Van Gogh's birth was marked with a new museum extension designed by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. The new annex is a freestanding, multistory, oval structure, built in a bold combination of titanium and gray-brown stone and connected to the main galleries by an underground walkway. It provides space for a wide range of superbly presented temporary shows of 19th-century art, including changing shows of Van Gogh's drawings (more than 500 are in the collection). With all this new space, you might be tempted to take a break at the museum's cafeteria-style restaurant.