Curator Connections: Examining Van Gogh's Repetitions

Since March, the Cleveland Museum of Art and The Phillips Collection have presented a ground-breaking exhibition that presents new insights into the art of Vincent van Gogh through a study of his “repetitions,” a term the artist used to describe a distinctive genre of works in his oeuvre. Van Gogh Repetitions is the first exhibition to focus specifically on pairs or groups of works by Van Gogh that feature nearly identical compositions; a project that seeks to make a valuable contribution to Van Gogh scholarship and to give broad audiences a new understanding of a fascinating aspect of the artist’s work. Due to its popular demand, the exhibition has been extended through this Sunday, June 1. William Robinson, Curator of Modern European Art (Paintings and Sculpture 1800-1960), shares an inside look at van Gogh and his compelling career.

Van Gogh Repetitions  is first exhibition to focus exclusively on van Gogh’s practice of painting closely related versions of his own compositions. To balance the excessive emphasis on psychobiography that permeates the literature, not to mention how films and popular media typically portray the artist, the exhibition combines technical analysis of his paintings with a close reading of his letters to offer a deeper understanding of how and why he produced répétitions. Research for the exhibition was conducted by two teams, each combining curatorial with conservation expertise. Researchers quickly arrived at two conclusions: (1) van Gogh’s practice of painting repetitions was far more extensive and vital to his creative process than many people realize; (2) contrary to the deeply ingrained perception of van Gogh as an artist who always painted before nature in a flash of emotional excess, his approach to the creative process was often more deliberate, controlled, and conceptual than the popular stereotype suggests.

Van Gogh painted at least twenty-five series containing répétitions, some series featuring five or more variations on the same composition. Although these works have been intensely studied, considerable disagreement exists over the question of how van Gogh produced them. Nor is there clarity on the issue of which works belong to this genre. Researchers also discovered the répétitions are deeply entwined with attribution issues, a problem that has plagued van Gogh scholarship for nearly a century. Experts speculate that there may be as many as forty-five forgeries in the artist’s catalogue raisonné.  What often goes unnoticed is how many of the questioned works belong to a répétition series. When differences in technique or quality exist among closely works in répétition sequence, or when a work lacks a secure provenance, doubts can arise about its authorship. A lack of understanding about how van Gogh conceived and painted répétitions has contributed to these disputes. While the exhibition’s focus is not on attribution questions, the issue will be addressed when appropriate.

Although casual observation may suggest that the répétitions are mere duplicates of the original, closer inspection reveals that a more complex relationship often exists among works in a given sequence. Van Gogh once wrote of being afraid of his emotions when painting before nature.  The situation changed once back in the studio, where he could use his études d’après nature, as he typically called a first version, as the source for producing a more restrained, clarified version.  Van Gogh’s letters confirm that he often painted repetitions to refine a composition. “Today I started work on a third Berceuse,” he wrote to Theo in January 1889, “... as I seriously have the desire to be correct.”7 That summer, he offered another rationale for making multiple versions of a composition: “You have to do several of them before you find a whole with character.”

Van Gogh’s practice of painting carefully constructed répétitions confounds the clichéd view of the artist as a madman wildly slashing at his canvases in an explosion of overheated emotion. Despite the evidence to the contrary, even recent biographers seem irresistibly drawn to perpetuating a sensationalized view of van Gogh as an artist who painted with the blind flurry of an idiot-savant.  Where does this perception come from, and how can we reconcile it with the remarkably sensitive and intelligent artist we encounter in his paintings, drawings, and letters?

Perhaps no one was more responsible for sensationalizing the tragedy of van Gogh’s personal life than Paul Gauguin. After declaring in a published article that both van Gogh brothers were “mad,” Gauguin launched into his account of Vincent’s mental collapse on December 23, 1888, how he sliced off an ear  placed it an envelope, and handed the package to a prostitute in a café.  This lurid story has gripped the public imagination ever since.  The publication of van Gogh’s letters only fed the fire. Between 1893 and 1913, excerpts from the artist’s letters appeared in literary reviews, popular magazines, and books, including publications in Dutch, English, French, German, and Russian.  Growing fascination with the artist’s enigmatic illness sparked an explosion of newspaper stories, biographies, psychiatric studies, and plays.

But what have we really learned about van Gogh’s art from this brouhaha? One of the most persistent messages is that van Gogh always worked frenetically and impulsively, as if barely able to control himself.  Yet, passages in van Gogh’s letters offer glimpses into the more thoughtful, conceptual side to his creative process. In April 1885 he wrote of painting the final version of The Potato Eaters largely from memory and imagination: “I let my own head, in the sense of idea or imagination, work, which isn’t so much the case with studies, where no creative process may take place.”  

From his earliest years as an artist, van Gogh assiduously worked at improving his technical skills, not only by recording endless studies from life, but also by making careful copies from exercise manuals and after works by other artists. He transferred the same zeal for self-improvement to his own compositions by methodically adjusting, reworking, and refining them through the repetition process.  In the summer of 1888, he offered this explanation for working on multiple canvases at a time: “At the moment I have something like an exhibition at my place, in the sense that I’ve taken all the studies off the stretching frames and have nailed them to the wall to finish drying. You’ll see that when there’s a large number of them, and we make a choice among them, it will come to the same thing as if I’d studied them more and worked on them longer. Because to do a subject over and over again on the same canvas, or on several canvases, amounts, in short, to the same degree of seriousness.”

This is a more accurate image of van Gogh as an artist than the caricature of him standing in a field, slashing wildly at a canvas as the wind knocks him about, just before he loses his mind, swallows his paints, and washes them down with turpentine.  Unfortunately for those who would prefer a more balanced view of the artist, the caricature has served as a goldmine for authors and filmmakers deeply invested in perpetuating the notion that van Gogh was mad. No doubt, he endured a combination of physical and psychological disorders, most commonly attributed to either temporal lobe epilepsy or maniac-depressive illness.  “He suffered from medical crises that were devastating,” Dr. Wilfred Arnold, a noted specialist observes, “but in the intervening periods he was both lucid and creative.”

This exhibition offers insights into the more deliberative side of van Gogh’s art by examining the répétitions he made during these periods of lucidity and creativity. The exhibition features paintings and drawings dating from the artist’s early years in the Netherlands to his final months at Auvers-sur-Oise. An essay in the accompanying catalogue investigates the origins and meaning of the term répétition. The works themselves are examined series of thematic essays, accompanied by technical studies of the materials and techniques used for producing them.  These studies have broad implications for understanding van Gogh’s working methods and conceptual approach to the creative process.  While it was never possible to resolve every outstanding question about the répétitions, bringing key issues to the fore will hopefully open a path toward a more meaningful and accurate assessment of this remarkably complex artist.

Members see it first: This article was first published in the Cleveland Museum of Art's Member Magazine. 

> Purchase the exhibition catalogue:

Vincent van Gogh to Albert Aurier (Saint-Rémy, letter 853), February 9 or 10, 1890.
Vincent to Theo van Gogh (Saint-Rémy, letter 789), June 9, 1889.
Vincent to Theo van Gogh (Nuenen, letter 496), April 28, 1885. The italicized words correspond to words underlined by van Gogh in the original text.
Vincent to Theo van Gogh to Theo (Arles, letter 648), July 24 or 25, 1888. Slight changes have been made in punctuation for clarity.
Wilfred Niels Arnold, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” Journal of the History of Neurosciences 13 (2004), 22./span> 


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