Orsay’s Van Gogh Exhibition
The Final Days of Van Gogh
The Orsay’s “Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise: Exhibition
Orsay Museum Paris 2023
Vincent van Gogh (1853 to 1890) is one of the most celebrated figures in the world of art. The singular way he viewed the world shaped art forever — bringing us out of the Impressionist’s eye-and-light-centered works into the full force of the artist’s own vision. He no longer wanted to show us the world as it “really” was. He wanted to show us what it felt like. A new, richer form of truth.
The artist’s life is famous for both its tragedy and brevity — the final months of which were spent in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. It was during this period that he produced some of his most revered works.
The Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise exhibition, held at the Musee d'Orsay from October 3rd, 2023, to February 4th, 2024, examines this critical phase of the artist’s life. Curated by Emmanuel Coquery and Nienke Bakker, it offers a glimpse into the master’s complex relationship with his own art. It also reminds us of the influence that Paris and France had on the man.
When we take the time to look at the artist’s relationship with this area, as well as the legacy he left on the arts and culture of France, we get a greater appreciation for the exhibit as a whole. In this article, we will also take a look at some of the defining works from Van Gogh’s final months before reviewing the exhibition.
Van Gogh’s Relationship with Paris and France
Van Gogh’s time in Paris was relatively brief, spanning from 1886 to 1888. Despite being so short, the two years proved a transformative period for the artist. It brought him directly into the heart of European painting — where, only a generation before, the Impressionists had upended everything the establishment held dear about art.
In Paris, he found himself at the epicenter of a community of artists that included the likes of Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. These visionaries played a crucial role in shaping his approach to art — giving him influences to admire and aspire to while at the same time providing examples that he could rebel against. The city also gave him the opportunity to collect endless Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which had a massive impact on his style.
He exhibited in the city, with a show at Montmartre proving to be an eye-opening experience for the art scene, even if it led to little commercial success for Van Gogh.
Being rebellious and defiant by nature, Van Gogh’s relationship with his fellow Parisian artists was not without its rifts and schisms. In particular, his friendship with Gauguin vacillated from love and respect to deep enmity. The intensity of his passion led him to seek out the creation of an artist commune in the rural French town of Arles, though he would not stay there for long.
His time in Arles, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and ultimately, Auvers-sur-Oise were all significant in his artistic development. The picturesque landscapes, the quality of light, and the vibrant colors of the French countryside helped shape his ongoing evolution.
The Final Months in Auvers-sur-Oise
The final two months of Van Gogh’s life took place in Auvers-sur-Oise, through a period of prolific activity in the studio. In the serenity of rural life, his work continued to exude a thrumming undercurrent of emotional intensity without the distractions of a bustling metropolis like Paris.
Under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic physician interested in art and an amateur painter himself, Van Gogh found both a friend and a subject for many of his later paintings. But the treatments for melancholia Gachet provided were not effective — leading to the artist’s death.
Despite extreme mental distress, Van Gogh worked tirelessly for those two months. He produced an astonishing 74 paintings and 33 drawings. These include some of his most beloved creations.
The Exhibition Experience
The Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise exhibition is a sensory journey through the final chapter of Van Gogh’s life.
The presenters weave through the various facets of Van Gogh’s life and work during his time in Auvers-sur-Oise. The four stages of the exhibit highlight significant aspects of his life, from his interactions with Dr. Gachet to the portraits he produced during this time to the landscapes known as “double-square” paintings.
The exhibition showcases around forty paintings, providing a comprehensive look at the development Van Gogh was still undertaking in his final months. Key pieces, such as The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise (1890) and Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), reveal an artist at the height of his powers in the studio.
In these paintings, there are leaps taken in technique — from more ever-more subtle arrangements of color to intricate juxtaposition of brush strokes.
The curatorial team of Emmanuel Coquery and Nienke Bakker ensure that the audience grasps the inner world of Van Gogh in his last days while at the same time appreciating these technical achievements in the work.
Diving into Selected Works from the Exhibition
The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise stands out with its distorted forms and bold color contrasts. Because it depicts an architectural work, the lack of straight lines becomes much easier to appreciate. Van Gogh’s landscapes can sometimes make the presence of these distortions less obvious. But here, the swirling lines and electric hues are able to come fully to life. And the church as subject matter can’t help but remind us of the existential themes that Van Gogh was no doubt battling at the time.
Portrait of Doctor Gachet, on the other hand, returns us to one of the more popular genres of Van Gogh’s oeuvre. We can’t help but assume the artist is projecting his melancholy onto the subject as he blends the man’s coat in with the mountains behind him. Here, there is a breathing unity to all things.
Garden in Auvers-sur-Oise is another masterpiece, this one connected to his time in Paris. The pointillist techniques, imported from the likes of Seurat, are brought here to create texture. The palette (bright colors unburdened by shading) and subject matter (a garden) are also highly reminiscent of the Impressionists. These connections make the painting seem like a memoir of his past.
Among these are also 11 of Van Gogh’s famous double-square landscapes — so called because the length is double the height, 50 cm × 100 cm (20 in × 39 in) to be exact. These might make up the highlight of the exhibition, showing the master both experimenting and growing as an artist while also simply reveling in the beauty before him. Those are translated by one of our greatest painters into some of his greatest works — a can’t-miss feature of the show.
Experience Van Gogh in Virtual Reality
The main focus of the Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise exhibition is centered around the paintings and drawings of the artist, just as it should be. But the Orsay is introducing a unique addition to their exhibition — the virtual reality (VR) experience Van Gogh’s Palette.
This digital component allows you to take on a unique perspective, letting you step into a surreal version of the painting-as-toy. To see what it’s like, you can check out the Orsay’s video demonstration.
Thoughts on the Exhibition
Although very crowded, the Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise exhibition provides a beautiful experience and a profound insight into the final chapter of Van Gogh’s life. The organization provides a wonderful journey through the mental and physical landscape of the artist’s final two months on earth.
The exhibition helps to remind us of the gravity that surrounds some of the artist’s most celebrated works.
Visiting the Orsay’s Van Gogh Exhibition
Van Gogh’s tumultuous life was riven by passion and depression, unstoppable drive and unrelenting sadness. These two features can never be untangled, so much so that he reached his creative height at the same moment that his melancholy finally became unbearable. And it all happened amid the idyllic landscape of a village named Auvers-sur-Oise.
The Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise exhibition captures these critical two months, reminding us of the importance that this time had on the artist and the development of painting as a whole. Through this exploration of his works, relationships, and the innovative techniques he employed, visitors are invited to engage the iconic artist in a powerfully humanizing context.
The exhibition is another example of why Paris is the best place to take in arts and culture. Are you visiting Paris city? Would you like a private tour of the fantastic museums and historical landmarks that make up this amazing place?
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