Coup in Detroit! Rare Van Gogh Exhibit Upstages America’s Coasts

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.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait
Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, purchased by the DIA in 1922

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.”

My Grandfather's Sketch
This unfinished sketch, drawn by my grandfather while studying architecture at OSU, now hangs in my house.

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.

Olive Trees, 1889
Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, painted in 1889 and purchase by the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City in 1932.
Van Gogh's Stairway at Auvers
Van Gogh’s Stairway at Auvers, purchased by the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1934.
Wheat Stacks with Reaper
Van Gogh’s Wheat Stacks with Reaper, purchased by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1935.

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!”

Detroit Institute of Arts
The Detroit Institute of Arts

Well-Earned Chops

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.

Ditch along the Schenkweg
Ditch along the Schenkweg, 1882, on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum, The Netherlands
The Potato Eaters Lithograph
The Potato Eaters Lithograph, on loan from the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

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.

Moulin de la Galette, 1886
Moulin de la Galette, 1886, on loan from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany

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.

Harvest in Provence, 1888
Harvest in Provence, 1888, from the Private Collection, courtesy of Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert

I love the Provençal scene above that shows off Van Gogh’s versatility as an artist, created from watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and quill pen.

Poppy Field, 1890
Poppy Field, 1890, on loan from Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Netherlands

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.

Starry Night Over the Rhône, 1888
Starry Night Over the Rhône, 1888, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Kudos to the Midwest. Alas, travelling doesn’t seem to open the minds of everyone, so sad. Plus, that was plain rudeness

    • I didn’t really see the comment as being rude, just clueless. But, perhaps you’re right. I did feel their total dismissal of French, speaking to the waiter as if they were sitting in an American restaurant, was rude.

    • FYI: The Art Institute of Chicago received 4 Van Gogh’s from a private donor quite early on. If I recall, two of them turned out to be fakes. Van Gogh was already a big hit in Europe and counterfeiters were taking advantage of the artist’s increasing popularity and diminishing available stock.

  2. Haha! Michigan? She probably doesn’t know where Detroit is… Sadly one can find very interesting and very dumb people traveling… So, were you born in Detroit? I only went once, to present a European market research to GM management. I was very excited as you can imagine to present my work in DETROIT! (client also gave a few good tips on writing but that’s another story)
    I envy you going to that expo. van Gogh is quite unique. Did you go to Amsterdam? He has a museum there. Mostly early works, but worth it…
    Merci pour le post et bon week-end.

    • I live quite close to Detroit but became so busy raising kids, I didn’t take advantage of it much as they were growing up. Now, with them out of the house, I’m trying to change that.

      I haven’t been to Amsterdam but may be going in the spring. I’d love to visit the Van Gogh Museum there.

      • Spring in Amsterdam? Tulips?
        The Rijksmuseum is of course much bigger. And a must. The Van Gogh museum is smaller and only dedicated to Vincent. And if my memory is correct it practically only houses Van Gogh’ early work, in Holland, it is a dark work. Holland light explains it. LOL. The contrast with his later work, once he discovered of light of France, particularly in Arles, is striking.
        (One does get busy raising kids… )

  3. Oh, and it’s also very nice to have some of your grandfather’s work in your house… That’s roots…

    • Ah, Carol! As always, I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. A friend and I are viewing the exhibit next weekend and we can hardly wait. I must admit I’m envious of your attendance at the panel discussion. What a fabulous opportunity! Thanks for sharing your observations and insights.

      • I know you’ll love the show Theresa. We are very lucky to have this museum (and Toledo’s Art Museum as well) so close.

      • Hi. You might have hit the wrong reply button. But I think Carol can read it.
        “Heurtebise”? Not a common name. My eldest daughter was in Africa with Médecins sans frontières. She did work a young “Heurtebise”. Cécile? Took wonderful photographs in Tchad.

    • Yes, it is wonderful having pieces of my grandfather’s work hanging about my (and my sister’s) home. Growing up, we never knew these drawings existed. My father found them in my grandfather’s basement after he died. I was lucky enough to have all four grandparents living close by until I was 19! Rupert, was particularly supportive. But as you say, that’s another story.

  4. I can’t claim to know much about art, but Van Gogh’s work is arresting. I wonder if that New York art critic ever knew how clueless his review would eventually sound.

    The attitude you encountered from the Californians seems bizarre, but even people from cosmopolitan places can be quite provincial in their own way. (I wonder if they even realized that Detroit is right on an international border!) The fact that they apparently had made no effort to learn or use the language shows a certain oblivious mind-set. They may travel a lot, but they aren’t getting the most out of the experience. Whenever I travel, I always try to pick up at least some of the language of the place I’m going to before the trip, and it always pays dividends, if only by making a positive impression on people.

    I’ve actually been to Detroit, but it was a long time ago and under circumstances that didn’t facilitate seeing much. I congratulate the DIA in organizing such a splendid exhibition.

    • That’s a good question about the NY critic. He was hardly alone however. I’m guessing like most people, even if he lived to see Van Gogh’s wild popularity, he never changed his mind.

      Regarding the Californians, you’re right that they would get a lot more out of their travels if they tried to understand a bit more about the place they were visiting. The woman seemed particularly clueless. The man not as much.

      Detroit has had its ups and downs. After a long slump, I feel like its now on a solid upswing. Thank goodness the DIA has survived through some pretty tough times.

  5. I love your phrase about Van Gogh’s “globular” strokes. It’s wonderful that Detroit was able to launch this exhibit, and I enjoyed your selection of Van Gogh’s work from the disparate sites as well. Having been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam years ago, I can attest to the value of seeing these works “up close and personal.” Not incidentally, I found your grandfather’s unfinished sketch astonishing. Its multidimensional appearance made me look closely, back up, and look again.

    • Thanks Annie. We hosted an exchange student from Turkey during the 2019/2020 school year. She is now studying in the Netherlands. I hope to meet her in Amsterdam in the spring. If that comes to pass, I’ll definitely go visit the Van Gogh Museum there.

      The panelists also talked about a new biography that sounds interesting. It covers the life of Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Jo Bonger. The reason we know Van Gogh’s work today is due to Bonger’s tireless efforts to promote him, a promise she made to her husband, Theo, who died about one month after Vincent.

  6. I almost went to a Van Gogh exhibit but couldn’t go last minute and I still regret it.

    The interaction you had in France was interesting. It’s a bit odd that they assumed people from the mid-west don’t travel. And I think if you’re going to visit a country you should immerse yourself in their culture and try to learn a little of their language but I guess some people don’t feel that way.

  7. Thanks for the tip Carol. I’m now determined to see that exhibit.

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