The evolution of an artist

Thomas Peipert/Associated Press

Denver Art Museum associate registrar Laura Paulick Moody inspects the condition of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Edge of a Wheat Field with Poppies” before it is hung on the museum wall Oct. 10 in Denver. “Becoming Van Gogh” will run through Jan. 20.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

A Learn-How-To-Draw book is the last thing you’d expect to see at a Vincent Van Gogh exhibition. But there it is in the Denver Art Museum with sample pages, exercises and some early attempts by the young man himself.

The Bargue Drawing Course was a three-volume, do-it-yourself workbook published in 1878. After failing as a theology student, preacher, teacher and art dealer, the young Van Gogh applied himself to the lessons Bargue proscribed. Within six months, Van Gogh completed all 197 exercises at least once and three times for many of the figure studies.

Unfortunately, his mother threw most of them out and only a few remain. One, titled “Sorrow,” is in the remarkable exhibition “Becoming Van Gogh” at the DAM. A seated nude folds in on herself in sadness. She’s thin and awkward, not an idealized beauty, not at all like Van Gogh’s “Venus,” a Paris school drawing of a plaster cast – round, pretty and dull.

What’s unusual about the Denver-only exhibition is that it focuses exclusively on the slow process of developing a mature style. Van Gogh’s authentic voice didn’t emerge until the last few years of his life.

Born in the Netherlands in 1853, Van Gogh finally decided to be an artist in 1880. His short, 10-year career ended in 1890; according to legend of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Many books about Van Gogh focus on his biography – a life marked by misery, epilepsy and loneliness. Most exhibitions concentrate on his profound gift for self-expression. The Denver show is different. It explores the development of Van Gogh as a largely self-taught artist. That’s where the how-to-draw lessons come in, not to mention his reliance on a device called The Perspective Frame and later color-wheel studies. That he also cut his own quill pens comes through as he figured out how to create the illusion of fields disappearing into the distance. He admired, appropriated and discarded Impressionist dots and dabs as he created his own style of thick, repeated strokes and blinding color contrasts.

That’s the thrust of this exhibition, and it delivers on its title. You see the slow process of acquiring skills, persistent experimentation and a brief back-to-school period where he resented academic teaching. In Paris, he and Toulouse-Lautrec were assigned seats at the back for the weaker students. Both of their 1881 student drawings are in the exhibition. It’s one of the many coups for Denver, including works by other artists who influenced or worked beside Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s 1886 “Still Life with Zinnias” is paired with Adolphe Monticelli’s “Bouquet.” What an odd pair, the student and the then popular artist whom no one knows today. Both works are heavy handed, overpainted and thoroughly pedestrian.

But it was in Paris that Van Gogh discovered color and doggedly pursued its mysteries.

His color experiments merged with his drawing techniques resulting in the famous canvases that virtually sing in their intensity.

In the mid-1880s, Van Gogh, like many other French artists, fell under the spell of Japanese art, particularly the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Several are on display alongside one key Van Gogh painting, “The Courtesan,” showing a preference for flat color, bold outlines and Japanese motifs.

When Van Gogh left for Southern France, all these strands came together in what turned out to be his final works. You won’t see “The Starry Night” or any of the famous sunflower paintings or “Wheatfield with Crows.”

“Forget it,” said Denver Curator Timothy Standring in a special opening lecture last weekend. “It took us seven years, 500 letters and more than 100,000 travel miles to make this exhibition happen.”

Standring worked closely with Louis van Tilborgh, senior researcher at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum to create “Becoming Van Gogh.” More than 70 paintings and drawings are included as well as works by other artists of the era.

“This is the only venue,” Standring said. “No one has done this kind of intelligent, slow-looking Van Gogh show. We focused on materials and techniques, not biography.”

At the end of the lecture, a question about Van Gogh’s suicide came up. To everyone’s surprise, there is new research suggesting it was an accidental shooting, and the conventional story may have to be revised.

Until that thorny issue is settled, “Becoming Van Gogh” offers a look at what made his a life worth remembering.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at

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