Although he is one of the world's best-known artists, Vincent van Gogh might also be one of the most misunderstood. A new display of the permanent collection at the city's Van Gogh Museum — the largest anywhere of the artist's work with some 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 letters — is attempting to debunk some of the myths, particularly that he worked in isolation and only when afflicted by madness.
The museum has rehung its collection in part to coincide with the 2015 Europe-wide celebration of the 125th anniversary of the artist's death. Van Gogh, anxious over financial uncertainty and his mental health after cutting off part of his ear in late 1888, shot himself in the chest with a pistol in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, on July 27, 1890, and died two days later.
I toured the new permanent exhibition on March 30, the 162nd anniversary of Van Gogh's birth, with his great-grandnephew and namesake, Vincent Willem van Gogh. Now 61 and advisor to the museum's board, Van Gogh is the great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, the painter's brother, a Parisian art dealer and supporter of Vincent and his work. Theo died six months after Vincent; his widow, Jo, worked hard to raise public awareness of Vincent's work, while her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, known as "The Engineer," established the Vincent van Gogh Foundation.
The foundation moved the artist's work to a museum in Amsterdam, designed by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld, that opened in 1973; it is this institution's permanent collection that is newly rehung.
Vincent Willem van Gogh, known as Willem and a grandson of "The Engineer," recalled spending "many vacations" with his grandfather, who he said stored the artist's paintings in "a walk-in closet" next to his bedroom.
The new presentation is displayed thematically rather than chronologically, as in the past. Among the themes are the artist's self-portraits; early rural scenes; interactions in Paris with Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others; inspiration from Japanese woodblocks; painting techniques, such as use of a perspective frame and balls of yarn to determine complementary colors; and mental decline. The museum's walls are painted colors such as teal blue and olive green to reflect the themes; previously, they were white.
Van Gogh called the painter's correspondence with Theo "a document without parallel in art history. He started writing letters to Theo before he became an artist. The most intimate person in his life was Theo," Van Gogh said.
The artist "depicted what he saw. He painted everyday life. He was the first in art history to paint his own bedroom, his chair in his rented house, everyday subjects. He appeals to people all over the world. He never gave up; he's an inspiration to contemporary artists," Van Gogh said, adding, "All artists have the same problems: love and emotions like fear, religion, innovation."
The reinstallation is only part of the museum's 125th anniversary celebration. The museum has sent copies of the artist's letters to 23 contemporary Dutch artists who are creating works inspired by this correspondence; these will be on display May 19 to Jan. 17.
A new entrance building for the museum will open the first weekend in September, designed in part to accommodate growing crowds. Last year more than 1.6 million people visited the museum, a 10% increase over 2013. The new building will also contain space for another major component of the anniversary celebration: From Sept. 25 to Jan. 17, it will offer "Munch: Van Gogh," developed with the Munch Museum in Oslo, where it will be on display May 9 to Sept. 6. This exhibition will explore for the first time the connections and similarities between Edvard Munch and Van Gogh, their influences, artistic development and goals, and personal works they considered significant, such as Van Gogh's "Wheatfield With Reaper" and Munch's "The Scream."
If you go:
THE BEST WAY TO AMSTERDAM
From LAX, KLM offers nonstop service to Amsterdam, and Delta, Air France, British, Lufthansa, United and US Airways offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfares from $1,250 to $1,751, including taxes and fees.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 31 (country code for the Netherlands), 20 (city code for Amsterdam) and the local number.
Van Gogh Museum, 7 Paulus Potterstraat, Amsterdam; 570-5200, vangoghmuseum.nl/en. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Fridays, when it is open to 10 p.m. From July 1-Aug. 31, the museum is open until 10 p.m. on Saturdays.
WHERE TO STAY
Ambassade Hotel, 341 Herengracht, Amsterdam; 555-0222, http://www.ambassade-hotel.nl. The 58 guest rooms are spread among 10 restored buildings along the Herengracht canal, one of Amsterdam's three major 17th century canals. Décor is Louis XV and Louis XVI; artwork is mid-20th century. Doubles from $298.
Conservatorium, 27 Van Baerlestraat, Amsterdam; 570-0000, http://www.conservatoriumhotel.com. The hotel, opened in 2011, is in a 19th century building most recently occupied by a music conservatory. Modern décor by Milanese designer Piero Lissoni. Doubles from $374.
De l'Europe, 2-14 Nieuwe Doelenstraat, Amsterdam; 531-1777, http://www.leurope.nl. The hotel occupies the Rondeel, an Amsterdam landmark built on the site of a 16th century tower. There is also a two-Michelin-stars restaurant, Bord'Eau. Doubles from $358.
WHERE TO EAT
Caffe Toscanini, 75 Lindengracht, Amsterdam; 623-2813, restauranttoscanini.nl/english. This 30-year-old Italian restaurant offers homemade pasta; a wine list features wines from across Italy. Entrees start at about $17 and can climb higher for the daily specials.
Eye Bar and Restaurant, 1 IJpromenade, Amsterdam; 589-1402, http://www.eyefilm.nl/en/bar-and-restaurant. This bar and restaurant are in the Eye, a film museum that opened in 2012 on the northern bank of Amsterdam's IJ Harbor; the architecture and views are stunning. Open daily for coffee, drinks, lunch and dinner; dinner entrees from about $19 to $25.
Restaurant Blauw Amsterdam, 158-160 Amstelveenseweg, Amsterdam; 675-5000, http://www.restaurantblauw.nl. This Indonesian restaurant is famous for its rijsttafels, which range from about $29 to $34. Entrees range from about $23 to $30.