At the end of September, I drove to Detroit to attend a panel discussion featuring two descendants of Vincent van Gogh. Josien van Gogh, Vincent’s great-grandniece, and her daughter, Janne Heling, had come to the Motor City to help kick off a new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, titled Van Gogh in America. Brilliantly orchestrated by curator Jill Shaw, the exhibit is the first to chronicle the introduction and sluggish acceptance of Van Gogh’s work in North America.
As the Dutch guests of honor explained, Van Gogh exhibitions are rare—not the immersive kind where animated projections light up a vast convention hall, but the traditional kind where visitors treat their eyes to the very same globular strokes of paint that Vincent van Gogh swept across canvas roughly 150 years ago. Indeed, the DIA show, featuring over 70 paintings, drawings, and prints, is the largest Van Gogh exhibit staged in the United States in over 20 years.
So why Detroit? For starters, the Detroit Institute of Arts has one of the largest and most significant art collections in the United States. Founded in 1883, the museum moved to its glorious Beaux-Arts styled building, containing 100 galleries of art from around the world, in 1927. However, an event that took place 5 years earlier lies behind the DIA’s favored status. In 1922, the Michigan museum was the first in the United States to purchase a Van Gogh for its permanent collection.
Art Enriched by Personal History
As I roamed the nostalgic halls and galleries where my parents regularly led me in my youth, I couldn’t help but think about my family history and how it might be linked to the exhibit. Surely, my grandfather Rupert had read about the fortuitous acquisition and probably gazed upon Van Gogh’s portrait long before the artist became a household name. Had he been an early fan or was he unimpressed? Since he was a persistant challenger of the status quo, I’d like to believe that he embraced the painting. “The man is a jackass!” he might have said of a New York art critic who wrote at the time that Van Gogh was “a moderately competent Impressionist, who was heavy-handed, had little if any sense of beauty and spoiled a lot of canvas with crude, quite unimportant pictures.”
Midwest First to Embrace Van Gogh
By the late 1920s, attitudes about Van Gogh were starting to change. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened in 1929, its inaugural exhibition featured works by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh. The only U.S. museums that owned Van Goghs and could lend paintings to the show, however, were the DIA and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Surprisingly, even after the MoMA’s clear endorsement, the midwest remained the only area of the country willing to invest in the neo-impressionist’s work. The next four Van Goghs purchased by public museums found homes in Kansas City, Saint Louis, and Toledo.
A Little Fly-Over State
Learning of the Midwest’s early foresight, evoked memories of a conversation that I’d had last summer in Paris. It took place during the last dinner of a month-long trip. My husband Andy and I were seated at a table for two next to an American couple that was chatting away. I realized that this was the only American English I’d heard spoken since landing in France and was disappointed but not surprised when the two made no attempt to speak French with the waiter—not even a simple merci when food was delivered to their table.
Seated in close proximity, I decided to be friendly and admired their plates, asking what they’d ordered. This sparked a conversation, or should I say a sort of interview. The woman wanted to know how long we’d been in France, where we had traveled, where we were staying, how we’d chosen the restaurant, where else we had been in Europe, where we were from, and so on. Our dinner for two was now a dinner for four and there was no escape.
Near the end of the meal, our garrulous inquisitor commented, “You must be quite unusual.” The puzzled expressions on our faces may have prompted her to add, “I mean, do people from Michigan travel? It’s very common where we live in Southern California, but you must be quite rare where you’re from.” I’m keenly aware of my many privileges and try not to take them for granted but I was rather dumbstruck by this seemingly educated person, who has traveled extensively, equating the simple fact of living in Michigan to never traveling beyond a few days’ drive from home.
So, as I strolled through the illustrious exhibit at the DIA, my chin occasionally rose a little higher than usual, my chest swelled, and I directed an imaginary nod toward the south and west, mentally transmitting a culturally superior (if somewhat petty) retort of “take that!”
In 1935, the MoMA staged the first major Van Gogh exhibition in the United States—a collection of 127 works gathered from around the world. A year earlier, Irving Stone’s bestselling novel Lust for Life, based on Van Gogh’s life, had piqued public interest in the Dutch artist who tragically committed suicide at the age of 37. MoMA’s show was a huge success and over 50 museums jockeyed for a position in its nationwide tour. Only five cities were chosen and one of them was Detroit.
Last September, the panelists discussed the logistics of organizing Van Gogh in America. The exhibit, which runs through January 22, 2023, would not have been possible without Detroit’s extensive collection to bolster it. DIA curator, Jill Shaw, spent 5 years tracking down those works that first graced U.S. galleries or the homes of American collectors. She met and negociated with institutions around the world, offering exchanges from the DIA’s collection in return for loans of precious Van Goghs—paintings, drawings, and prints that today are among the most valuable pieces of art in the world.
Even with a masterful plan in place, however, the DIA would not have been able to mount the exhibition without approval from the Van Gogh Foundation, located in Amsterdam. As Vincent’s great-grandniece, Josien van Gogh, explained, the Van Gogh Foundation receives dozens of such requests every year. Few are granted. Yet, it seems that Shaw’s petition on behalf of the DIA was approved with broad enthusiasm.
Van Gogh only produced 10 lithographs during his short career. This print may seem familiar to you. Van Gogh’s famous oil painting by the same name is strikingly similar. The Detroit exhibit gives visitors insight into Van Gogh’s studious habits and methods. He often produced numerous depictions of the same and often simple subjects.
Van Gogh’s work regulary features windmills. Le Moulin de la Galette is one of three windmills that still stand in the Montmartre quarter of Paris. To give you an idea of this painting’s worth, Van Gogh’s Street Scene in Montmartre, which also features a windmill, sold at auction last year for 15.4 million dollars.
I love the Provençal scene above that shows off Van Gogh’s versatility as an artist, created from watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and quill pen.
Plan to Visit
If you live in the Detroit area, I hope this post has inspired you to visit Van Gogh in America if you haven’t already. There is much to appreciate about Van Gogh’s revolutionary style that can’t be captured by online images or reproductions transferred onto T-shirts and coffee mugs.
If you have visited, let me know your impressions in the comments. Or, perhaps there is an art exhibit that came to your home town that you felt particularly grateful to have experienced firsthand.
Finally, if you’ve never been to Detroit—consider adding it to your bucket list. Like all big cities, Detroit has a character all its own. The people are welcoming, the history is rich, and the culture is world class.