Vincent van Gogh’s life and work have long been subjects of fascination for art lovers, with books, films, and, more recently, immersive experiences dedicated to the Dutch artist. Van Gogh’s dreamy landscapes and eerie self-portraits have drawn massive crowds at art institutions across the globe, and, with newly authenticated pieces cropping up at the Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, interest in the world-famous artist continues to grow. To survey some of his most significant artworks, ARTnews asked several curators of van Gogh from institutions around the world—including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery in London—to discuss their favorite paintings by the artist. Their responses, listed below, offer insight into van Gogh’s iconic style.
Curator, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Van Gogh painted this sunlit landscape during his stay in the asylum of Saint-Rémy in the south of France, where he had voluntarily committed himself because of mental illness. It was a difficult and lonely period in which he clung to his work, hoping that that would help cure him. This is the view from his window, which he painted and draw many times. For me, this is the quintessential image of Provence: the wide landscape, the scorching sun, the sky trembling with heat. The golden wheat becomes an undulating sea in van Gogh’s vivid brushstrokes. The painting’s symbolism is also beautiful. For van Gogh, wheat was a symbol of the eternal cycle of nature. He saw in this reaper the image of death, “in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. […] But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.”
Renske Cohen Tervaert
Curator, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
Country Road in Provence By Night is probably van Gogh’s last painting from the Provence period. He paints it shortly before leaving the asylum at Saint-Rémy. It is not an existing landscape, but instead one composed at his own discretion: a final reminder of Saint-Rémy and a summary of the many impressions he acquired during his stay. He describes the painting beautifully in a letter to Paul Gauguin: “a night sky with a moon without brightness, the slender crescent barely emerging from the opaque projected shadow of the earth—a star with exaggerated brightness, a soft brightness of pink and green in the ultramarine sky where clouds run. Below, a road bordered by tall yellow canes behind which are the blue low Alpilles, an old inn with orange lighted windows and a very tall cypress, very straight, very dark. On the road a yellow carriage harnessed to a white horse, and two late walkers. Very romantic, if you like, but also ‘Provençal’ I think.”
Senior curator of European art, Dallas Museum of Art
During his first month at the asylum of Saint-Rémy, van Gogh was confined to painting scenes within its walls. He longingly wrote of the view glimpsed through the iron-barred window of his bedroom: a wheatfield enclosed by a stone wall, beyond which silvery olive trees and small farmhouses dotted the foothills of the Alpilles. The moment he received permission to leave the asylum grounds, he captured this stunning scene of the wheatfield after a violent storm. It shows van Gogh at the height of his expressive powers, where the line, color, and form coalesce into something transcendent. Van Gogh believed in the healing power of art and of nature, and this painting has taken on new meaning these days as I glimpse what I can of the outside world from my own bedroom window. It’s a painting of freedom, of renewal, and ultimately of hope as he picked himself up after his own terrible storm, the inspiration for us all.