Into the woods with van Gogh, Rousseau, Corot

Take a stroll into the woods with van Gogh, Rousseau, Corot this summer – while visiting the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Its summer exhibition in the museum’s exhibition wing, shows 34 works by these and other painters. The selected paintings are from the museum’s own collection, as well as from the The Hague Mesdag and private collections.

As the exhibition title explains, it focuses on a specific kind of landscape painting. The “sous-bois” is all about woods, trees, trunks, roots, undergrowth. The genre became a hype during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Rousseau, Fontainebleau stream

Vincent’s love for nature, woods and trees, tied in perfectly with this hype. In letters to his brother Theo, Vincent explains how important nature and trees were as sources of inspiration. In one of his letters dating from 1888, he writes how he loves to paint landscapes and thinks trees may well have souls.

While still working for the art dealers Goupil in The Hague, which his brother Theo would also join, Vincent was already busy painting landscapes. At this exhibition, an example is “Landscape with leaning trees” from 1883, which he painted near Loosduinen, a small village near The Hague. As visitors can still see: Vincent accidentally left his fingerprints behind in the then still wet paint. Vincent’s “Pollard Birch” from 1885, hangs nearby.

In an exhibition showcase, visitors can see an album. It contains prints Vincent and Theo collected. These were prints of works by artists the brothers admired. These artists  include Rousseau and Corot. Paintings by them are of course part of this exhibition, but there are also works by other painters, many of whom painted in the Fontainebleau forest while living in the village of Barbizon. They became known as the Barbizon school.

At the start of the exhibition, a painting by Théodore Rousseau shows what Vincent liked: a new, sketchy manner of painting. Painting “en plain air”, like the Barbizon painters did, was also something new. Moreover, these painters did not idealize nature, the landscape, the woods.

They loved painting wild nature, enormous boulders and trees, trunks and roots, a variety in vegetation and foliage, as well as the changing patterns of light and dark. Vincent was especially interested in capturing moods, impressions and painting in such a way “one can breathe and wander about” among the trees and “smell the woods”. This becomes especially clear in his paintings of undergrowth.

Corot, Abandoned Quarry

On show are also works by Monet, Rosa Bonheur, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña and others. Diaz de la Peña made “sous-bois” his niche. From Vincent’s letters, it is clear he admired Diaz’ style, as well as choice and use of colours. He also commented on Diaz successfully painting “sous-bois” works for “the marketplace”.

There are many beautiful and interesting paintings in this exhibition. But three are special. Based on extensive research, “Sunset at Montmajour” from 1888 became the latest rediscovered van Gogh in 2013. “Pollard Birch”, has never been exhibited at the museum before. “Landscape with leaning trees”, also from a private collection, has never been exhibited since 1904.

What especially impressed me, was that the ten van Gogh paintings in this exhibition show the tremendous development he went through as a painter. Where his “Landscape with leaning trees” and “Pollard Birch” are still in a fairly traditional manner, Vincent’s use of colours and styles change rapidly over a short period, while he lives in France.

Vincent van Gogh, Woods and undergrowth

Vincent experimented with colours and styles right to the end of his life. However, one thing never changed: his deep love for nature, woods, trees. Vincent started “Tree Roots” two days before his suicide. Sadly, of course, this painting remained unfinished. Yet it shows his continued interest in woods and trees, his rapid development as a painter, how far he had moved ahead of his contemporaries.

During this exhibition, the Van Gogh Museum offers visitors free thirty-minute-long introductory lectures on and guided tours through the exhibition. The English lectures are available on weekdays, during the morning. The English guided tours are offered on Thursday afternoons. Information about lectures and tours is available at the museum’s information desk and website.

Of course, an audio-tour is available as well. Moreover, till the third of September 2017, the museum is open till later than usual. Nevertheless, due to the number of visitors wanting to go to this museum, it is advisable to obtain E-tickets in advance through the museum’s website.

Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum: “Van Gogh, Rousseau, Corot: in the forest” is on show in the museum’s exhibition wing till the 10th of September 2017.

Van Gogh Museum: “Daubigny, Monet, van Gogh”, exhibition catalogue, ISBN 978 90 79310 58 6; on sale at the museum shop
Cincinnati Art Museum: “van Gogh: into the Undergrowth”, exhibition catalogue, ISBN 9978-0-931537-45; on sale at the museum shop

The Mesdag Collection, The Hague


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