A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Last semester I was enthralled by the Dutch Painting course (Dutch Painting 1400-1950: introduction to the Art History of the Netherlands) that I took as part of my Erasmus exchange. This country is shrouded in rich history, and Dutch art is central to its culture and legacy. From the Flemish Primitives, to the Golden Age, to De Stijl, the course covered many masters and masterpieces. One artist in particular caught my attention though, and having known little about him before, learning of his tragic story gives much greater meaning to his renowned paintings that you would recognise anywhere. Vincent Van Gogh painted roughly 900 pictures within a decade whilst battling with depression and mental illness, crumbling friendships and failed relationships. Misunderstood, Van Gogh tried to express himself through words as well as art, and through extensive records of the letters exchanged between him and his brother Theo, we have a broad insight into the fiery and sensitive emotions and desires of this complicated figure.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam explains Van Gogh’s unhappy journey and is home to the largest collection of artworks by the artist. Dedicated only to Van Gogh, the museum is eye-opening and moving, explaining the development of his style and movement from the Netherlands to the South of France where he committed suicide in 1890. Understanding Van Gogh’s personal life illuminates the anguish and sensitivity within his pictures with their broad, expressive brushwork and thick paint, particularly towards the end of his life where his mental breakdowns had spiralled. Cornfield with Crows, 1890, is thought to be his last painting and completely demonstrates his angst and extreme sadness in the menacing, stormy sky and the dead end path. Filled with intense emotion and striking power, his paintings say so much more than merely capturing an impression or depicting a beautiful landscape. The museum goes far beyond the famous portraits and flowers that one might associate with Van Gogh, and instead presents the extraordinary journey of a man and his struggles with life.
Other brilliant masterpieces here include The Potato Eaters, 1885, and a version of the vibrant Sunflowers, 1889 – the Van Gogh Museum is a cultural must-see of the Netherlands, and the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon (although book ahead as queues can be long)!
Van Gogh longed for his paintings to be appreciated and recognised which he never came to realise in his lifetime. Only after his death did people begin to value his work, and now his paintings are some of the most widely known in the world. Perhaps the tragedy lies in the fact that Van Gogh never knew that he would achieve the acknowledgment he so desired.
If you are also taken by Van Gogh’s story and his art, visit The Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo. It is the second largest collection of Van Gogh works, as well as other works by Monet, Picasso, and more. This is number one on my list of explorations whilst I am still in the Netherlands, it is only a train ride away and gives you the chance to see a different area of the country too.
Buy yourself a Museum Card which for €60 allows you to visit most museums in the country for free, a solid investment if you intend to visit all these exciting places the country has to offer!
See more Van Gogh and tons more modern art at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. For Dutch Masters and many, many more visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Mauritshuis in The Hague.