Vincent van Gogh’s images are so wonderful, accessible and influential – and thus so readily reproduced on anything from mouse pads and mugs to bags and scarves – that the new exhibition of his drawings at the Metropolitan Museum is quite a surprise at first. Throughout the early rooms, there are no “famous” images – unless of course, I’d imagine, you’re a van Gogh scholar or have visited all the major museums that collect his works. It isn’t until you start to move through the later rooms that some of the more iconic pictures start to appear, and then only as a means of comparison to the drawings in ink, graphite and the occasional watercolor.
What the exhibit showed me was that the man who’s known now for his thickly textured oils full of fantastic color really knew how to draw with the most basic implements. The first pieces, arranged chronologically, are very representational, and while they are skilled, almost seem to have been created by a different artist. Then as you progress, more air gets into the pictures, the lines spread out, and you can see how he was moving toward a more impressionistic approach – although he is usually classified as a Post-Impressionist.
A NYTimes editorial today highlights the use of a reed pen, which shaped the strokes of his later works. The amount of ink the pen could hold, I imagine, helped to dictate the short, stubby, repeated and often parallel lines he used to create the larger images – mostly of the quiet, but not inactive, pastoral scenes he saw in France. Looking at his more fully realized oils is then such a more powerful experience, as the exhibit has revealed where he came from, where he began in his artistic life as well as in the lifetime of individual scenes appearing first in line form and later as paintings. There are even some great sketches on display that show how van Gogh penciled in the names of the colors (in French, I’m pretty sure) that he was planning for the later execution in oil.
Well worth a visit if you get a chance. The exhibit is open through year’s end.