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One Step at a Time
by Phyllis Tuchman
Holland, the early 1880s. As the decade opens, a 27-year-old who has failed as a teacher, a social worker, a clerk in a bookshop and an evangelist among miners ponders another career change. Although he doesn’t know how to paint or sculpt, he decides to become an artist. He takes one step at a time. Instead of immediately picking up brushes and oils, he consults how-to manuals and teaches himself to portray on paper images of downtrodden people and forlorn places.

Rapidly and stylishly, van Gogh mastered a difficult medium. In nine years, he executed more than 1,100 works on paper. Inventive, animated, and jam-packed, many of the 100 or so drawings in the recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art conveyed the notion, "Wish you were here." Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Van Gogh wanted to be remembered for the portraits he painted. This notion is a leitmotif in his letters. He even declared, "What impassions me most -- much, much more than all the rest of my métier -- is the portrait, the modern portrait." He seems, however, to have associated putting marks on paper with views of rustic villages, farm yards, all sorts of trees and, as he put it, "fields. . . as far as the eye can reach." The exquisite survey at the Met featured acres of landscape. More than five dozen were on view. As for portraits, there were fewer than ten.

By the winter of 1882-83, with various combinations of graphite mixed with milk, black chalk, lithographic crayon and opaque watercolor he applied to watercolor paper, van Gogh was depicting the old, the impoverished and the forgotten with a pathos that can bring tears to your eyes. To his brother Theo, he wrote, "More and more. . . I am becoming interested in the figure. . . [it] touches us as human beings more directly and personally than meadows and clouds." His gloomy scenes call to mind characters and events in novels he was reading by Dickens, Eliot, Balzac and Zola. Leafless, tree-filled landscapes executed during March 1884 resemble sets for a Tim Burton film.

Besides being a quick learner and multilingual -- van Gogh spoke Dutch, French and English -- the fledgling artist had an acute visual memory. Curators and critics often cite as van Gogh’s influences paintings by Hals, Rembrandt and Ruysdael as well as Constable, Gainsborough, and Turner that van Gogh saw in London when he was employed by the art dealers Goupil & Co. Ragamuffins by Murillo in English museums inform these sorrowful sheets, too.

Paris, March 1886 to-February 1888. Six years into his brief, nine-year career, van Gogh changed course. As he became better acquainted with avant-garde practices, he gave up wanting to become an illustrator. His brother Theo introduced him to the major Impressionists, and the emergent artist painted outdoor scenes in the company of Emile Bernard and Paul Signac. The Dutchman’s drab tones disappeared as his palette exploded with color. Instead of executing narrative scenes reminiscent of novels, he created still

lifes with books resting on tabletops. Momentarily, he focused more exclusively on painting than drawing.

Early in his stay, van Gogh executed more than 30 still lifes of flowers of varying hues. His compelling, small-sized self-portraits formed from what the artist termed "patches of color" -- a repertory of dots, dashes and curlicues -- as well as a pair of portraits of Pere Tanguy reveal his gift for generating serial images. Because he was preoccupied with painting, it shouldn’t be surprising that the drawings done in Paris were the least interesting works in the exhibition at the Metropolitan.

Arles, 1888-April 1889. In Arles, van Gogh hit his stride. He painted some of his most popular portraits and interiors; and he made mesmerizing black-and-white works on paper. The landscape drawings from this period are as captivating as any of his colorful oils. They merited their own fine show in New York long before autumn 2005.

Once van Gogh added the ingredient of Southern light to his visual vocabulary, his canvases and works on paper offered equally compelling pleasures. Though sharing subject matter, the fields, cottages, wheat sheaves and boats at sea were handled differently. The paint strokes are so pronounced, they practically feel as if they were carved from color. Varying from thick to thin and ranging from dots to dashes, the diverse marks on paper almost have a manic character. 

Van Gogh made works on paper with reed pens and ink applied over graphite; then, he painted similar scenes; and sometime afterwards, he drew variants of the oils. This last body of work, he posted to Theo, Bernard and John Russell, an artist friend from Australia. Between mid-July and early August 1888, he executed 32 "translations" and "improvisations," as he called the sheets inspired by his paintings. As co-curator Susan Alyson Stein puts it, the artist was "revisiting, reassessing and reinvigorating painted motifs in graphic form."

Surprisingly, the nine paintings on view in "Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings" were treated as if they were afterthoughts. Yet, they engender a richer appreciation of the works on paper. Compare the oil of Street in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (ca. June 6, 1888), with the drawing of thatched cottages along an angled path leading to the sea

executed a few days earlier. Van Gogh transformed a fulgent view filled with bold, assertive marks -- diagonal patterns that double as roofs and pinwheel-like skeins that form bushes, trees and other vegetation -- into a scene with vibrant violets and ochres, blues and greens. The variant he sent weeks later to Bernard has better defined plants, smoke rising crisply from the chimneys and a ship floating on the water. Each work functions independently, but when the trio is observed together, it’s clear van Gogh envisioned all sorts of possibilities from simple rustic and agrarian sites. The works on paper tend to be more detailed than the oils. And sometimes, with the absence of color, the names of pigments appear next to the images themselves.

Something similar occurs in the set of drawings that accompany Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, an oil from the spring of 1888. In the painting, the bobbing boats and the roiling, pigmented waves are more intriguing than the sky or the skipper. But the sheets van Gogh sent to Theo, Bernard and Russell feature mesmerizing skies (stippled in two examples and filled with short horizontal lines in the other), sails formed from areas of paper left bare and additional sailors.

The three galleries with work from Arles resembled a three-star Guide Michelin meal. The earliest, less hectic drawings by the 35-year-old artist were the appetizers. The main course was comprised of the elaborately patterned harvest scenes, including a two sided letter written in English to Russell. These views of wheat fields and farm yards are astonishingly animated, even when nothing seems to be moving except clouds scuttering across the sky. Because they were executed rapidly, it’s hard to figure out how van Gogh generated so many different design elements on the spot. The portraits of The Zouave, the postman Joseph Roulin, and the young La Mousme were the Arlesienne dessert. More tranquil than the landscapes, they also don’t exist in deep space. The faces, with their searching eyes, are practically pressed to the surface of the paper.

Saint-Remy and Auvers, 1889-June 1890. The last works from van Gogh’s truncated career express his pain. After basking in the glow of dozens of sunlit, rosy views of Arles and other Provencal towns, museumgoers faced frenetic scenes the artist made during the year he was institutionalized in an asylum in Saint-Remy. During this period, he mostly painted, only making drawings when he didn’t have supplies of oil pigments or canvas. His patterns aren’t gentle or refined. Lines sputter, stall and go every which way. When depicting interiors, the despondent van Gogh projected his loneliness.

The works on paper van Gogh made after he moved to Auvers look as if a Sunday painter made them. They’re slight compositions by an artist who was practically completing a canvas a day to keep the doctor away. You feel his anguish. Yet, van Gogh was looking towards a brighter future. Days before he shot himself, he ordered paint.

And, the curators report, "In Auvers, just before his death in 1890, van Gogh began again to copy the pages from Charles Bargue’s Exercices au fusain as he had done at the outset of his career in order to master the rudiments of figure drawing."

There’s no way to know where van Gogh was headed. But where he had been in a short space of time occupies a thrilling chapter in the history of modern art. In recent years, the exhibitions "Van Gogh’s Van Goghs," "Van Gogh: Face to Face" and "Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings" have attracted record crowds as well as critical acclaim. Keep’em coming. Though eventually overwhelmed by his circumstances, van Gogh manages to show us all what it means to be alive, truly alive and filled with awe and heartfelt emotion.

"Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings" was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 18-Dec. 31, 2005.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.