Opened in 1973, this remarkable light-infused building—based on a design by famed De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld—venerates the short and productive career of tortured 19th-century artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Although some of the Van Gogh paintings scattered throughout the world's museums are of dubious provenance, this collection's authenticity is indisputable: its roots trace directly back to Vincent's brother, Theo van Gogh, who was his 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 Belgian and Dutch country landscapes and peasants were notable for their dark colors and a refusal to romanticize. 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 palette, Vincent 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 artists' colony there 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, matadors cut ears cut off of bulls and presented them to their lady loves). Recuperating in a mental health clinic in Saint-Rémy from April 1889, he—feverishly, one assumes—produced famous landscapes like Irises and Wheatfield with a Reaper, whose energetic brushwork powerfully evoke the area's sweeping winds. In May 1890, Van Gogh moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where he traded medical advice from Dr. Paul Gachet for paintings and etching lessons. The series of vibrantly colored canvases the pained painter made shortly before he died are particularly breathtaking. These productive last three months of his life were marred by depression and, on July 27, he shot himself 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 annex is a freestanding structure, connected to the main galleries by an underground walkway. It provides space for superb temporary exhibitions of 19th-century art, including changing shows of Van Gogh's drawings. With so much to see, it's well advised to take a break in the museum's cafeteria-style restaurant.