Here is a caveat about expectations: If you are planning to visit the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art and hope to see the work of a post-impressionist icon in the full flower of his creativity, you may be somewhat disappointed. There are no radiant sunflowers and spiraling starry skies in this particular exhibition.
What visitors will find, however, is something perhaps even more interesting: an exploration of what made Vincent Van Gogh the artist that he would eventually become. A few later paintings and drawings, like his magnificent 1887 self-portrait presaging the phenomenal, psychologically revealing achievement of his last three years, are here. But the bulk of the exhibition focuses on the artist’s apprenticeship and the influential achievements of his gifted precursors and contemporaries.
What elements contribute to the making of an artist? He might be inspired by the work of others, by a direct engagement with the world around him, or by his own inner landscape. The current CMA exhibition highlights how much Van Gogh imbibed the subject matter, compositional design and the technical skills of artists active before and during his time.
Most of these fine pieces offering context to the artist’s own career come from the impressive collection amassed by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith during the years that they were working on their definitive biography of the artist. The works the co-authors accumulated during the decade that they researched 2011’s Van Gogh: The Life reveal how thoroughly they immersed themselves in the artist’s milieu. In his essay in the catalog that accompanies this important exhibition, Steve Naifeh refers to how both his head and Smith’s “were filled with the images that filled Van Gogh’s head,” works by the artists that both Vincent and his brother Theo loved.
All of the 30 paintings from the Naifeh-Smith collection now on view at the CMA reveal a significant Van Gogh connection, some quite personal. Consider, for example, a very dramatic seascape by Jules Dupre, a work that Van Gogh himself spied in a gallery window in the Hague in 1883. This image of a sailboat caught in a sudden squall mesmerized the artist, who studied the painting closely and derived inspiration from the emotive qualities of the subject matter and the expressive brushwork. In the case of Dupre’s Avant la Tempete, we have a direct biographical link to Van Gogh.
This is also the reason both Naifeh and Smith included in their collection an 1842 etching based on an Ary Scheffer painting entitled Christus Consolator. This popular nineteenth-century image of Christ comforting by his very presence those troubled in body and spirit offered personal consolation to Van Gogh, who often mentioned the work in his letters to Theo, who had gifted him a copy.
Sometimes subject matter chosen by one artist led Van Gogh to try his hand at tackling the same topic. Consider the example of Leon Augustin Lhermitte, who is represented in the current exhibition by Grand Tisseuse Bernaise (circa 1870-1880). This atmospheric treatment of a female weaver at her loom, a single window illuminating her solitary figure as she takes advantage of the waning daylight, inspired Van Gogh’s own 1884 oil of a weaver in the village of Nuenen. Van Gogh admired Lhermitte for his focus on the quiet heroism of working class people.
Most of the artists whose works are on view now at the CMA, however, manifest more general associative ties to Van Gogh. What Van Gogh admired perhaps most in other artists was what he once described as an outpouring of soul. Other Naifeh-Smith acquisitions that meet this standard are George Michel’s masterful, keenly observed landscapes and Charles Emile Jacque’s depictions of rural husbandry.
Indeed, one of the great pleasures to be derived from perusing this exhibition is making these more metaphorical connections between Van Gogh and his fellow artists. How does, for example, the seated woman in the Breton dress captured in black chalk by Jean Francois Raffaelli around 1890 mirror Van Gogh’s own chalk rendering of a seated man with a spade? Both character studies exalt common folk at rest from their labor.
In Van Gogh and His Inspirations, the 48 works by artists that curator Will South refers to as the subject’s “friends, colleagues and teachers” offer visual commentary on the evolution of one of the world’s most legendary and enduringly popular creative geniuses. Kudos to Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, whose lives as dedicated scholar-collectors proved to be the driving force behind this groundbreaking exhibition.
What: Van Gogh and His Inspirations
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Through Jan. 12
More: 803-799-2810, columbiamuseum.org