Van Gogh’s Repetitions: New each visit

October 24, 2013

Vincent van Gogh’s paintings are sculpture. Using a technique called impasto, his brush strokes are so thickly applied that they create peaks and canyons of paint. These mountains and caverns create an image of a furious flurry of activity in his paintings. Consistent throughout van Gogh’s oeuvre, his technical virtuosity appears improvised.

Enter The Phillips Collection’s current exhibit on van Gogh’s work. Based on eight years of research, Van Gogh Repetitions aims to shatter the popular image of van Gogh as an improviser. The exhibit opens with a comparison of two different paintings of the Saint-Rémy street Cours de l’Est. The first is improvised, probably painted while van Gogh actually observed it. The second, The Phillips Collection’s own The Road Menders, is a planned composition with subtle but distinct changes. The motif of repetition, but even more so the idea of subtle improvement, is the focus of this exhibit.

But remember, this is van Gogh, not Albrecht Dürer. The exhibit has a hard time distinguishing repetition with exploration in color. For example, in the exhibit’s third room, Weavers is displayed as the starting point of van Gogh’s evolution in color. We see his influences, Monticelli’s being the most obvious to a casual viewer, and the chromatic effect his surroundings have on his work. In the artist’s words, in the south of France there is “more color, more sun” than in Paris and Antwerp. We are even treated to his personal musings on color: “NO BLUE WITHOUT YELLOW and WITHOUT ORANGE.”

It is not until the second half of the exhibit that the subject of repetition is really addressed in paintings (as opposed to preliminary sketches), when three, four, or five different works of the same subject are directly juxtaposed. Van Gogh Repetitions can be misleading, as the exhibit addresses his artistic process more heavily than simply repeating subjects.

While the immediate juxtaposition of pieces makes for a wonderful game of Spot The Difference, the placement of the works throughout the space can be disorienting. The exhibit mixes orders of paintings, sometimes displaying the preliminary sketches before the painting, and sometimes doing the opposite. It makes for a circular viewing experience. I found myself returning to paintings I had already seen to better understand how the works differed.

The exhibit encompasses 35 different pieces from museums and private collections all over the world—the Parisian Musée d’Orsay, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, as well as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts represent just a handful of the works displayed. Washington, D.C. has not seen an exhibit of van Gogh this comprehensive for 15 years. It would be ludicrous to miss this, for even a casual audience will delight in a group of paintings ranging from some of the master’s best known works to those that made one patron ask, “Is this really van Gogh?”


The Phillips Collection

1600 21st St., N.W.


$10 student tickets

Read More

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments