There is an excellently curated show of Cezanne's portraits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. right now, and I thought I was going to write about the Cezanne portraits, but instead I felt compelled to write first about the van Gogh paintings that the National Gallery has on display in the permanent collection.
The National Gallery of Art puts van Gogh and Gauguin in the same room, but van Gogh steals the spotlight in every possible way. I don't know if it was the morning sun falling through the ceiling or the carefully aimed gallery lights, but every single one of these van Goghs absolutely leapt from the canvas.
This is a bit of an unusual van Gogh, even when he drew very young children, they are very defined. In this painting, the girl's nose and lips get lost in the color of her face, and even her eyebrows seem to wander off, but her eyes stand out as clearly as the red ribbon in her hair.
What's great about the girl's dress is that the carnelian dots of the dress are full dabs of paint - usually putting blue and orange close together requires careful planning and separation of the paint. In this case, van Gogh just daubs it right on. It's one of the riskiest and most daring things I've seen in painting, and it works perfectly - I believe in the girl's dress completely.
Her hand and wrist contain a surprising amount of pale lime green, but maybe it isn't surprising, given she is holding the green stems of the flowers and she's surrounded by blue. Cezanne, Manet, Toulouse-Latrec, and other painters of the time were similar masters at using green within skintones, but none were this subdued.
Green can be a humbling color to use while painting. Like red, it always runs the risk of looking nuclear or worse, muddy. Red and blue have the advantages of being pure colors, and yellow has the advantages of being easily mixed, but green ... green challenges painters in ways that non painters will never know. Green represents life and growth, yet its so easy to make hideous paintings with green.
Only, this painting isn't just green - dashes of purple, bright pink, and pthalo blue outline the flowers, setting off a splendid contrast throughout the canvas. The range of green stunned me, like many van Goghs, this painting seems to have light coming out of it.
The range of green extends far past what you'd see in a forest - to see it all in a pot of flowers is stunning. To many, a vase of white flowers would appear tricolor at best. The flowers are white, the leaves are green, the vase is clay. To van Gogh, every color fills this vase.
This painting of a wheat field seems like nothing at first, but the coursing waves of wheat and the expansive clouds in the sky get more interesting and more masterful as you get closer.
This painting of a woman in white struck me as another moment where van Gogh captures candid life.
The title of this painting is 'Girl in White' yet the subject's thin hands and dour expression make her look like a much older woman. Her face has a sense of tired duty or boredom, yet she's dressed nicely. I can almost hear her saying 'Welp...' and see her go about her way through the grass. She's not really posing like van Gogh's other sitters, and she's not even really walking, it seems. She's just standing, completely in her own world and all but ignoring the painter.
Everything about this painting should be lively - the girl is young, her embellished dress shines in the sun, and flowers bloom all around her, yet she's not smiling at all. It's an amazing painting where nothing at all is happening.
The National Gallery of Art also houses a Vincent van Gogh self portrait. This is among the most self-assured portraits of van Gogh - he looks at the viewer directly, holding his palette and paints.
Another strange aspect of this painting is how van Gogh himself blends into the background. HIs blue shirt merges with the blue wall or blue sky of the background, making his face and paints stand out. It builds an interesting message - as if he's saying: "I don't care about the background or my clothes - what exists is what I do and who I am."
The National Gallery of Art calls it a 'bold painting' with much more historical background here. All of the van Gogh paintings in the gallery hold the same boldness, and though it's rare to come across a half-hearted van Gogh, there are a few of them out there. Just not at the National Gallery.