The museum dedicated to the work of Vincent van Gogh is situated in a prime location in Amsterdam known as Museum Square. Close by is the Stedelijk Museum and Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum attracts just as many patrons as those esteemed institutions. The nucleus of the museum is based on the private collection Johanna van Gogh-Bonger the wife of Vincent’s brother Theo. But it wasn’t until 1973 that this museum dedicated to the work of Van Gogh was opened.
By way of introduction, beyond the main entrance to the main building are presented numerous self-portraits of the artist from various periods in his career. Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert, Netherlands in 1853, his brother Theo a few years later in 1857. Both men established a close bond and worked together at a branch of the Paris art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. In 1880 Vincent decided to become an artist and studied anatomical drawing in Brussels. By 1882 he had produced his first paintings using peasant labourers and rural landscapes as his subjects. The first floor of the main building features a selection of his early painting such as Farmhouses (1883) or the Old Cemetery Tower at Nuenen (1885)
The far sections of the first level feature work from 1886 to 87 when Vincent joined Theo in Paris living at 54 Rue Lepic. Vincent developed a keen interest in Japanese art which was all the rage in Paris at this time. He collected numerous Japanese woodcut prints and the colours and design had a strong influence on Van Gogh’s art and the museum features his homage to Japanese print style in Courtesan (after Eisen), (1887). Vincent also helped Theo now at the Goupil & Cie Paris branch by making contacts with artists such as Émile Bernard, John Peter Russell and Paul Signac, he also met the Glasgow art dealer, Alexander Reid who visited the city studying the practices employed in the French art market. He lodged with Vincent and both men were so similar in appearance that Philip Hook of Sotheby’s put forward the idea that they swapped lives. With Vincent travelling to Glasgow to be an art dealer and Reid saying in Paris to paint under the Van Gogh name. This theory, needless to say, is nonsense.
The museum’s top level is dedicated to the last two years of the artist’s life. Tiring of Paris, Vincent moved to the South of France to find the kind of patterns and colour schemes he saw in the prints of Hiroshige and Kesai Eisen. During February 1888 he took up residence in Arles and, pride of place in the Van Gogh Museum is ‘The Yellow House’ (1888) where Vincent lived and worked. He hoped to establish an artist’s colony at the House but of the artists invited; only Paul Gauguin traveled to Arles. At first the artists worked closely together but creative differences soon had them at loggerheads and things reached a climax when Gauguin announced his intention to leave. According to numerous accounts, having suffered a breakdown Vincent severed his left earlobe, and wrapping it in cloth, presented it to a prostitute at a local brothel. Art critic, Gustave Coquiot, in his 1923 biography of Van Gogh wrote that a petition by 100 of Arles’ residents was sent to the local authorities, stating that he was a danger to the community.
Recently, researcher Bernadette Murphy has questioned this version of events. Her investigation uncovered a sketch drawn by Van Gogh’s physician, Félix Ray, for author Irving Stone, researching for his book ‘Lust for Life’. This demonstrated that a large section of the ear had been removed. The ear was not given to a prostitute in a local brothel, but rather a farmer’s daughter, Gabrielle Berlatier, who worked as a cleaner to pay off debts incurred from her medical treatment in Paris. The most interesting revelation was that the petition raised by Arles’ residents contained only 30 names, with three of the people were found to be illiterate, their names having been added by a third party. So in real terms only 27 people actually signed it and not the 100 or so that Gustave Coquiot claimed.
There was also an ulterior motive for the petition. The building manager for the Yellow House, Bernard Soulé had made an agreement to lease the property to a tobacconist on the understanding that Vincent would be committed to an asylum. When Vincent returned from hospital apparently recovered, the petition was drawn up with many of the complaints embellished for the resulting police investigation. Bernard Soulé’s police statement was largely hearsay and the fact that Vincent’s behavior had to be exaggerated, calls into question much of the Van Gogh legend. In 2016 the museum hosted an exhibition based on Bernadette Murphy’s research and her book ‘Van Gogh’s Ear’ has a prominent place in the museum’s gift shop.
Vincent continued to work but feeling increasingly insecure about living alone he had himself admitted to the Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy. After a year at the institution he moved to Auvers, a village close to Paris. He did not find the peace he hoped for however and shot himself in the chest two months after his arrival. Theo van Gogh resolved to have Vincent’s work recognised but he died six months after his brother’s own death in 1891. Theo’s widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger took on the task of promoting Vincent’s work organising a show at Amsterdam’s Kunstzaal Panorama in 1892 and a more substantial exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1905. She also began the task of editing Vincent’s letters with the first volumes published in 1914.
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger died in 1925 leaving the collection to her son Vincent Willem Van Gogh work transferred to the state-initiated Van Gogh foundation in 1962. In 1963 the Dutch Government commissioned a museum to house the collection with architect Gerrit Rietveld designing the new building. It was not opened until 1973, but with visitor numbers far exceeding expectations the building soon needed refurbishment. In 1998 it was renovated with a design by Dutch architect Martien van Goor and in 1999 an exhibition wing was added by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. According to a 2019 survey in the Art Newspaper it was 29th in the list of most visited art museums.
The Van Gogh Museum is open Monday to Sunday from 9am – 6pm, except on Fridays when it is open 9am – 9pm.
Ticket price is €19 and free for under 18 years of age.
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Stuart Gibbs is a graduate of Glasgow School of Art; Stuart has participated in numerous exhibitions at home and abroad. Venues have included Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park, Annan Museum, North Ayrshire Heritage Centre, and the Peoples History Museum in Manchester. Stuart has written for Shekicks the Football Pink, Discover Magazine and he has also contributed to MG Alba’s Honeyballers and Rose Reilly documentaries, as well as a historical advisor for the Futures Theatre Production Offside.