The word “genius” implies all-encompassing knowledge. When we use the word to describe an Albert Einstein or a Ludwig van Beethoven or a Vincent van Gogh, we are not just saluting their accomplishments, but acknowledging their status as singular trailblazers.
But it’s important to remember that these were human beings in a specific time and place, and that their work didn’t simply spring forth fully formed and without context. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) may be one of the most well-known and highly regarded artists in history, but the creator of beloved paintings like Café Terrace at Night and Sunflowers and The Starry Night was influenced and inspired by those who came before him. Just ask Steven Naifeh.
There are few people on Earth who know more about Van Gogh than Naifeh. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer spent a decade researching Van Gogh’s life alongside his late husband and fellow author Gregory White Smith to produce 2011’s Van Gogh: The Life, a best-selling 1,000-page account of the artist’s life (and death) that won critical acclaim around the world. Naifeh credits Smith with taking the research and turning it into compelling prose, and no less an authority than the curator of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, Leo Jansen, called the book, “the definitive biography for decades to come.”
Naifeh and Smith’s work, and the art by Van Gogh and others they collected over 10 years of research, are the basis for a new exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art called Van Gogh and His Inspirations. The exhibit combines 12 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh with paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Jean-Francois Millet, Charles-François Daubigny and more artists who influenced or inspired Van Gogh’s work.
Naifeh says that it’s particularly difficult to imagine Van Gogh, hailed as a master of vibrant color and composition for more than a century, being influenced by anyone else, partially because of the details of his turbulent life, and partially because of his brilliance.
“In the case of Vincent, because he was largely self-taught, the image we have of him is of this slightly addled genius, creating these crazy paintings,” Naifeh offers. “It’s easy to think that they came out of nowhere. And there’s no question the genius is there, in the brushwork and the color combinations and the composition, in all of the formal characteristics we use to assess the quality of a painting. But what this exhibition does is say that it didn’t just come out of his soul and his genius.”
Through painstaking research, Naifeh, Smith and a small team of assistants were able to piece together not just the events of Van Gogh’s life, but the specific authors and artists that inspired him.
“Even though he couldn’t stay in school because he couldn’t do well enough academically, he read as much as five hours every day,” Naifeh says. “One of the positive side effects of having no social life is that he read constantly. He would pick an author like [French novelist and playwright] Honore de Balzac or Alexandre Dumas and read everything they wrote and then read it over again. That had an enormous effect on his art.”
Naifeh says that Van Gogh had a similar obsessive approach to artists he admired.
“In that time, if you wanted to see a color version of a painting, you pretty much had to go and look at the painting itself,” the author explains. “You couldn’t take it home with you. All you could take home with you was the memory. But his memory and his eye were such that he could remember these paintings intensely for the rest of his life and draw on that when he made his own paintings. He famously spent an entire day looking at The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt and studied every brush stroke of that painting. Visual experiences like that stayed with him for the rest of his life.”
The CMA exhibition pulls both from Naifeh and Smith’s own collection and that of 12 different museums around the country, runs at the Columbia Museum of Art through January of 2020, and Naifeh says he hopes that it will allow people to see where Van Gogh’s work fits in in the timeline of 19th century art.
“What will be most interesting to people coming to the exhibition is that his paintings are so revolutionary and so brightly colored, I think people will be surprised to see the kinds of paintings that inspired him,” Naifeh says. “Because they don’t immediately look like his art. But you can look closely and see the lessons he learned. You’ll see it in the composition of these painters, in the subject matter, in the affectionate grouping on still life objects in his own paintings. I think people will be very interested to see what he found interesting.”
“He didn’t just come out of nowhere,” Naifeh adds. “This work didn’t just come out of him. It came out of his deep immersion in the art he loved.”
What: Van Gogh and His Inspirations
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Oct. 4-Jan. 12
Price: $15 (free for CMA members)
Info: 803-799-2810, columbiamuseum.org