New Van Gogh show in Paris focuses on artist's extraordinarily productive and tragic final months

A new museum exhibition in Paris focuses on the last months of Dutch master Vincent van Gogh before he shot himself in 1890

John Leicester
Monday 02 October 2023 13:03 BST

Planted in a field, Vincent van Gogh painted furiously, bending the thick oils, riotous yellows and sumptuous blues to his will. The resulting masterpiece, “Wheatfield with Crows,” bursts off the canvas like technicolor champagne. Art historians believe the Dutch master painted it on July 8, 1890.

As far as they can tell, Van Gogh then churned out another stunning work the very next day, July 9, of more wheat fields under thunderous clouds. In the painting's vibrant greens, the mind's eye can imagine the artist working frenetically amid the sashaying stalks.

On or around July 10, then came yet another Van Gogh marvel — a painting of a tidy garden with a prowling cat. And the day after that, July 11, the artist appears to have headed back to the fields, likely having risen early as was his habit, painting them spotted with blood-red poppies, under skies of swirling blue.

At age 37 and the height of his powers, Van Gogh was splurging out genius at a rate of a painting a day. But less than three weeks later, he was dead, shot by his own hand.

A new exhibition at Paris' Orsay Museum that focuses on Van Gogh's last two months before his death on July 29, 1890, is extraordinary and extraordinarily painful — because this final period in the artist's life was also one of his most productive. The tragic paradox of the unprecedented assemblage of paintings and drawings is that it shows Van Gogh on fire creatively just as his life was tick-tick-tocking to its fateful end.

After a year's stay in a psychiatric hospital, which he entered voluntarily a few months after cutting off his left ear, Van Gogh had resettled in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris. It had picturesque landscapes that also inspired Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and other artists. And it had a doctor who specialized in depression, Paul Gachet, who took Van Gogh on as a patient.

Adhering to the doctor's advice, Van Gogh went into creative overdrive, throwing himself into his work to not dwell on his mental illness. He churned out an astounding 74 paintings, including some of his masterpieces, and dozens of drawings in 72 days.

After arriving May 20 in Auvers and checking into an auberge, Van Gogh immediately got busy with his brushes and paints, apparently polishing off at least seven paintings of houses, flowering chestnut trees and Dr. Gachet's garden in his first week.

“Painting quickly was important for him, to capture a feeling, to capture a vision,” Emmanuel Coquery, one of the show's curators, said.

“He’d get up very early in the morning, around 5 o’clock, have his coffee, go out with his easel, canvas and brushes, and set up in front of the subject he’d identified. He would paint all morning and go back to work in the studio in the afternoon,” Coquery said.

“He’d spent his whole days painting, perhaps 12 hours a day.”

For the exhibit titled “Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise: The Final Months,” the Musée d'Orsay, which boasts the world's richest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, has assembled around 40 of Van Gogh's paintings and about 20 drawings from this fleeting, tragic period. It took four years of research and persuasion to liberate valuable works on loan from other museums and collections, with the Orsay clinching deals by also loaning some of its pieces in return.

The exhibit includes 11 paintings that Van Gogh painted on unusual elongated canvases, experimenting to stunning effect. Their dimensions — 1 meter long, 50 centimeters tall (30 inches by 19.6 inches) — give the paintings a dramatic, wide-screen, panorama look.

Loaned from eight museums and collections, it is the first time the 11 paintings have been shown together. Another version of the exhibition, with 10 of the elongated canvases, was first shown at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum earlier this year.

They include the masterful “Wheatfield with Crows,” loaned from Amsterdam, with its foreboding black birds that can almost be heard caw-cawing as they take flight.

Equally poignant, but also unnerving, is “Tree Roots,” in part because it is thought to be Van Gogh's last work.

He is thought to have painted it on July 27, 1890, before shooting himself in the chest that evening. Van Gogh managed to get back to his room but died two days later. Two American authors cast doubt on this account in 2011, suggesting the artist was shot by two teenage boys. But the ultimately fatal suicide attempt is the version more widely believed.

In the painting's jumble of tree roots in blues that wrestle for attention with the greens of shaggy undergrowth and the browns of soil, the viewer imagines confusion, angst and pain. In 2020, a Dutch researcher pinpointed the exact location where Van Gogh painted the work, a discovery that shed new light on the anguished artist's final hours.

Like the music of rock god Jimi Hendrix, the poetry of Sylvia Plath or the graffiti wildness of New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Van Gogh show forces the question: What other marvels would he have left had he lived longer?

Yet being able to experience the world through Van Gogh's eyes, with his colors and scenes so alive that they seem to breathe, is also a gift that keeps on giving. For the viewer, the show is a mind-blowing combination of regret and awe.

“The quality is dazzling,” said Coquery, the curator. “It’s a real fireworks show.”

"Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise: The Final Months" runs at the Musée d'Orsay through Feb. 4, 2024.

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