After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, opening next week at London’s National Gallery, focuses on the pathbreaking period from 1886 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 (25 March-13 August). Van Gogh is among the major artists featured, offering a rare opportunity to see pictures from private collections.
The Art Newspaper has already revealed that the exhibition was to have been organised with the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, but this collaboration was brought to an abrupt end when Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Just over a week later Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery director, telephoned his Pushkin counterpart, Marina Loshak, with the message that it’s off.
Among the Russian loans which had been previously discussed were Van Gogh’s The Red Vineyard (November 1889) and Landscape at Auvers after Rain (June 1890), which are now very rarely lent to international exhibitions. But despite the loss of the Pushkin paintings, the National Gallery has succeeded in borrowing a good selection of choice Van Goghs, thanks to the generosity of private owners.
Most exciting will be the chance to see a stunning Van Gogh rediscovery, Sunset at Montmajour (July 1888), which has quite a story attached to it. In 1908 the picture had been bought by the Norwegian industrialist Christian Mustad. Soon afterwards a knowledgeable friend warned him that it was a fake. The painting was promptly banished to the attic, where it remained until his death in 1970. It was forgotten and was omitted in the Van Gogh literature.
Ten years ago, after an extensive technical examination, specialists at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum confirmed that Sunset at Montmajour is indeed authentic. The pigments and canvas correspond to those used by the artist in Arles and the style and brushwork is typical. On the back of the canvas is the pencilled number 180, which links it to a picture listed in an 1890 inventory.
The painting depicts the ancient monastery of Montmajour (the buildings are just visible on the far left of the horizon), with the landscape in the setting sun. In July 1888 Vincent had written to his brother Theo: “I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill… the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold.”
The recent whereabouts of Sunset at Montmajour has been unknown after a loan period at the Van Gogh Museum, but it is now being lent to After Impressionism by its current private owner, courtesy of HomeArt. This company was set up in Hong Kong, which suggests that the Van Gogh may have been sold to a Chinese collector. In last week’s blogpost we revealed that half the most expensive Van Goghs sold at auction have been acquired by Chinese owners, all in the past nine years.
Houses in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (June 1888), which is also coming to the exhibition, is one of Van Gogh’s most boldly coloured landscapes. It depicts a row of low-roofed cottages in the Mediterranean fishing port of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which the artist visited in May 1888. With its plunging perspective, the viewer is led down the road, edged with houses and dense vegetation, towards a tiny triangle of light-blue sea.
The painting demonstrates how Van Gogh was inspired by the intense Mediterranean light. Immediately after his return to Arles, he wrote to Theo: “Now that I’ve seen the sea here I really feel the importance there is in staying in the south and feeling… the colour has to be even more exaggerated.” The picture was until recently in a private Texas collection, although the current lender remains unnamed.
Landscape with Ploughman (September 1889) shows a stylised view from Van Gogh’s bedroom window at the asylum just outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The small figures of the horse and farmer trudge along below the rising sun.
Vincent had written to Theo in September 1889, as he was recovering from another mental attack: “Yesterday I started working again a little—a thing I see from my window—a field of yellow stubble which is being ploughed, the opposition of the purplish ploughed earth with the strips of yellow stubble, background of hills. Work distracts me infinitely better than anything else.”
The painting was among a few which Vincent sent to his mother Anna and sister Wil. Landscape with Ploughman was sold in 1908 for the equivalent of $800. After passing through several owners it was auctioned at Christie’s in 2017 for $81m, going to an anonymous Chinese buyer.
Woman from Arles (February 1890) is based on a portrait drawing by Paul Gauguin of their mutual friend Marie Ginoux, the proprietress of the Café de la Gare, which was almost next to the Yellow House in Arles. The two books on the table in front of her are French editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dickens’s Christmas Tales, both of which Van Gogh admired.
In a heartfelt gesture, Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin that he should regard the painting of Marie as “a work by you and me, like a summary of our months of work together”. Van Gogh made five versions of this painted portrait while he was living in the asylum. This one sold for $40m at Christie’s in 2006.
After Impressionism includes a fifth Van Gogh: Snow-covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet) (January 1890), on loan from the Van Gogh Museum. The artist painted it at the asylum, creating a coloured interpretation of a smaller black-and-white print by Jean-François Millet.
The National Gallery exhibition also features later works by artists who were influenced by Van Gogh, such as Erich Heckel’s House in Dangast (The White House) (1908, now Carmen Thyssen Bornemisza Collection) and Max Pechstein’s Portrait of Charlotte Cuhrt (1910, just acquired by the National Gallery).
For Van Gogh aficionados, the show includes a Gauguin painting done in Arles: The Wine Harvest (Misères humaines) (November 1888), on loan from the Ordrupgaard collection at Charlottenlund, just outside Copenhagen.
As After Impressionism emphasises, Van Gogh, together with Gauguin and Paul Cezanne, laid the foundations for Modern art. The 85 works in the exhibition include key paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Klimt, Bonnard, Matisse and Picasso.
Other Van Gogh news:
Linda Seidel’s book Vincent’s Arles: As it is & As it was (University of Chicago Press) is published his month. Although certainly of interest to Van Gogh fans, much of the text is an engaging account of the Roman and early Christian history of the city, setting the scene for the artist’s arrival.