Whether you are an art lover or an aspiring artist trying to develop your own style, “Becoming Van Gogh: Only in Denver” on display at the Denver Art Museum until Jan. 20 will grab your imagination.
When we hear “Vincent Van Gogh,” most of us think about his compelling sunflowers and his daring, colorful garden scenes painted during his last years in Arles, France. But Van Gogh’s early art was completely different. What is unusual and valuable about the show on display in Denver is that it traces Van Gogh’s early art work and shows the critical steps that led to his final work in Arles. It took the exhibit’s curators, Timothy J. Standring and Louis van Tilborgh, seven years to cull together the 70 early paintings and drawings by Van Gogh as well as the many works by artists he responded to. The artworks were borrowed from 60 private and public collections across Europe and North America.
After trying several professions, Van Gogh began to work seriously as an artist at age 27. He worked on his knees because he could not afford an easel. His first pieces were of laborers, worn shoes and a group of workers eating potatoes. And because he could not afford oil paints, his early work is not colorful but masterfully communicates with charcoal, water colors, pencil facial expressions and moods.
He wrote his brother, Theo, an art gallery owner, long letters. Meaningful sentences such as “The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures” are displayed on the walls of the Denver Art Museum as one enters each new room.
Another bonus in this exhibition is that one gets to see works by Hubert von Herkomer, Gustav Dore and Jean-Francis Millet, who inspired Van Gogh’s early works of laborers. It is later that he zeroed in on neo-impressionists like Paul Signac, George Seurat and Pissarro, whom he met during his stay in Paris. One of Van Gogh’s paintings of Montmartre when it still had grass and windmills is especially worth seeing because it shows us a Montmartre we would never dream of today.
At one point, Van Gogh, always short of money, discovered that flowers are less expensive to paint than models. It is during this period that he became known for his verve of color. He pointed out that “There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”
Toward the end of the exhibit we see some of the work of the Japanese artist Katsushik Hokusai, known for his woodblock series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” which includes the internationally recognized print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” It was that print that inspired Van Gogh’s work. It was at the end of the exhibit that I looked at Van Gogh flowers, skies and gardens and recognized the movement and daring seen in Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.”
No matter how you viewed Van Gogh before, you will come out of this exhibit with not only greater insight into his work but also an appreciation of how the art he admired influenced this self-taught artist to arrive at his very own iconic style.
Because the exhibit is popular, it is recommended that you reserve your tickets. For details, visit www.denverartmuseum.org.
Edith Lynn Beer is a local author and journalist who also teaches writing courses at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus.