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Painting a different picture of Van Gogh

Pop quiz: Name the 19th-century European painter who was only recognized as a genius long after he checked himself into an insane asylum, sliced off his own ear and committed suicide when he was 37.

Too easy? Try this one: Which artist from the same period read Shakespeare and Zola, wrote fluently in three languages and found inspiration in Japanese woodblock prints?

The answer to both questions is Vincent van Gogh, the creator of some of the most important, loved and, these days, expensive canvases in Western art.

But decades of mythmaking have reduced the artist himself to a few broad brush strokes for many people, a romanticized vision of a tortured soul who produced works of dynamic beauty between -- or during -- bouts of madness that ultimately led to his tragic self-mutilation and destruction.

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Few are aware of Van Gogh’s rich and cultivated inner life that belies such a simplistic portrait.

“One of the surprises that people don’t recognize about Van Gogh is that he was a really great mind,” said Ann Dumas, a curator at the Royal Academy of Art here in London. “He was very, very well read, very knowledgeable about art, and his letters are just filled with constant references to books he’s reading and artists and so on.”

Dumas has just finished putting together an ambitious new exhibition that offers a counterpoint to the popular view of Van Gogh as a “crazy genius.”

“The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters,” which opened in late January, explores the Dutch painter’s evolution as an artist and the influences on his work, from his discovery of the effects of color to his enduring fascination with peasant life.

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Remarkably, it’s the first major exhibition of Van Gogh in this culture-vulture capital in more than 40 years, even though individual works, such as “Sunflowers” in London’s National Gallery, are iconic enough to draw visitors by themselves.

To produce the show, which was five years in the making, Dumas traveled the world cajoling museums into letting her borrow some of their most valuable masterpieces and persuading private collectors to lend works rarely seen in public.

On display are more than 60 paintings spanning Van Gogh’s career, including an absorbing self-portrait and two famous but normally separated companion pieces, “Van Gogh’s Chair” and “Gauguin’s Chair.”

But just as important are 40 original letters written by Van Gogh that form the basis of the exhibition.

Culled from the artist’s 1,000 extant letters, the ones on display contain sketches -- Van Gogh called them “croquis,” or scratches -- of the artworks on the walls, often accompanied by his own explanation of why the subject inspired him or what he was trying to achieve formally.

Most of the missives are addressed to Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, his emotional and financial bulwark, and offer a mine of personal and art historical information.

“He writes in such detail about so many of his works, so eloquently, more than any other artist that I can think of,” Dumas said. “It’s an amazingly direct line into the way a great artist thought about and made his art.”

In 1886, for example, after moving to Paris, Van Gogh was dazzled by the use of color by Impressionist and other French painters, a revelation that eventually culminated in his own palette of searing, almost riotous hues. That summer, he painted “Vase of Cornflowers, Daisies, Poppies and Carnations,” slashing the canvas with blazing strokes of red, blue and purple.

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Writing to the English artist Horace Mann Livens, Van Gogh explained that he was “seeking THE BROKEN AND NEUTRAL TONES to harmonise brutal extremes. Trying to render intense COLOUR and not a GREY harmony.” He wrote in impeccable British English, a language he had had the opportunity to perfect during a brief stint in London.

Later, in the south of France, where he lived out the rest of his short life, he described for Theo a new self-portrait that shows him in a blue smock, brushes in hand, standing before a waiting canvas with “a pink-gray face with green eyes, ash-colored hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full.”

The letters are on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which recently published a new edition of the artist’s prodigious correspondence.

The compendium, which contains 902 letters and took 15 years to complete, is exhaustively annotated: Every sketch is matched with the corresponding painting, every literary quotation is sourced, every letter is dated as closely as possible (Van Gogh often did not date them himself). Researchers even visited various meteorological institutes in the Netherlands and France to try to nail down dates of letters in which Van Gogh refers to weather-related events, such as a storm that lasted three days.

The collection takes up six thick volumes but is free to view online (vangogh letters.org) and includes new English translations.

“It really shows a more complete image of the artist,” said Nienke Bakker, a researcher on the project. “You can see how his mind works.”

Securing the Van Gogh Museum’s collaboration for “The Real Van Gogh” was relatively easy. Getting the artworks was far harder.

Dumas’ quest for paintings brought her to institutions in Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where she stopped by the Getty Museum.

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But “as soon as I walked through the door, the curator said, ‘I hope you haven’t come for the “Irises,” because we never, ever lend it,’ ” she recalled.

The same was true for “The Starry Night,” which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The National Gallery here in London refused to lend its “Sunflowers " because it had just launched a publicity campaign using the famous painting as its emblem.

As a result, many of Van Gogh’s most celebrated works do not appear in the show.

But as compensation, it features some never-before-seen works in private hands, such as “Pollard Willow,” one of his early watercolor landscapes.

“The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters” will be on display at the Royal Academy of Art in London (www.royalacademy.org .uk) until April 10.

henry.chu@latimes.com


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