The white buds of an almond tree bloom against a blue sky. A rough yellow bed fills a simple room hung with portraits and painting smocks. A bouquet of sunflowers fills a sturdy vase in shades of yellow.
Vincent van Gogh's colourful masterpieces are as famous as the Dutch artist's story: Largely self-taught, in a decade-long career he created 1,100 drawings and almost 900 paintings. But plagued by a form of epilepsy and a lack of commercial success, he shot himself in the chest in a field and died at the age of 37. A new exhibit in Amsterdam, however, strives to reveal a lesser-known side of the one-time art dealer, teacher and preacher - that of a master draftsman.
Van Gogh Draughtsman: The Masterpieces opened in Amsterdam earlier this month and will run until Sept. 18. Jointly compiled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it will move to New York on Oct. 11 for a three-month run.
"With this exhibition, we propose that not only are van Gogh's drawings worthy of appreciation as great works of art in their own right, but that van Gogh should be counted, alongside the likes of Jean-François Millet or Georges Seurat, as one of the very finest draftsmen of the 19th century," John Leighton, the Van Gogh Museum's director, said before the official opening.
Van Gogh's drawings, which account "for many of his finest and most dramatic creations," have been overshadowed by the growing fame of his paintings after his death, Leighton added.
The exhibit, culled from public and private collections around the world, aims to right that. The Draughtsman presents letters, surviving sketchbooks and more than 100 drawings, many of which have not been displayed in decades owing to their sensitivity to light. The exhibit establishes van Gogh's drive to master pencil, pen and ink, and reveals his continual creativity and rapid evolution. It also returns visitors to the start of this fork in the road for van Gogh, when at age 27, struggling to find a métier, his younger brother Theo suggested: Why not try art?Travel has long been a way to journey down career paths not taken, to try one's hand at making sauvignon blanc, to count warblers on their spring migration, to scale Mount Kilimanjaro.
I have always loved art, seeded perhaps by hours playing the board game Masterpiece with my sisters, bidding on Monets, da Vincis and Renoirs. It still thrills me, living in Toronto today, to know that a moment with Emily Carr's Indian Church or George Tatanniq's Shaman is only a subway ride away.
For me, van Gogh is familiar, as are all revolutionary artists whose works have become 21st-century wallpaper, their innovative creations popping up everywhere from dorm-room posters and mouse pads to kids' board games.
Still, I was never a Sunflowers girl, preferring the home-grown talents who evoke the Canadian landscape. But when an opportunity arose to travel to Amsterdam for the first time to see a side of van Gogh few people have seen, I was game.
For a city of around 700,000, Amsterdam has more than its share of cultural sites and famous sons, thanks in large part to its ascendancy as a 17th-century colonial powerhouse. Among them: the Rijksmuseum with masterpieces from Jan Steen, Frans Hals Vermeer and Rembrandt (and with a branch even at the Schiphol airport); the Rembrandt House and its collection of etchings that makes one peer in for a closer look; the Hermitage Amsterdam, which will host a rotating round of masterpieces from St. Petersburg; and the Stedelijk Museum CS, featuring work by modern masters such as Mondrian.
The Van Gogh Museum, in the city's Museumplein, the museum quarter, houses the world's largest collection of the artist's works. It's the most-visited museum in the Netherlands, with 1.3 million travellers stopping by last year. (The museum's triangular poster-holders, which one sees under tourists' arms throughout the city, are in fact the most common item that turns up at the lost and found at Schiphol.) The Van Gogh Museum is housed in two modern buildings beside a grassy field and giant wading pool where people cooled their feet on a recent hot June day.
Centred around one man, the collection feels manageable for the museum-goer used to overwhelming destinations such as the Uffizi or the Louvre. In the main building, four floors contain work by van Gogh's influences (such as Jules Breton and Gustave Courbet), his peers (including Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) and a retrospective of his work from The potato eaters to Wheatfield with crows. Beside the main building, in a modern circular wing designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, the museum hosts temporary exhibits, including Draughtsman.
Organized chronologically - as van Gogh moved between country and city in Holland, Belgium and France - some of his earlier works show stiffness and trouble with perspective. But there are masterpieces here, Sjraar van Heugten, the museum's head of collections, said before the opening.
Van Heugten, a soft-spoken van Gogh expert, singled out The Harvest. Created in Arles in June, 1888, it features a distant view of the fields and farmers of southern France in reed pen and brown ink, with touches of watercolour. "It's one of the best works he ever made in my view," van Heugten said. The museum also presents an earlier sketch of a similar scene, as well as his more famous oil on canvas of the same name.
Even the early work here hints at van Gogh's talent, van Heugten pointed out, describing a pencil and black-ink work, A Marsh (borrowed from Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada). The drawing was created in June, 1881, after van Gogh moved to Etten to live with his parents and find subjects in the rustic surroundings. Van Heugten described the drawing, a dark landscape dominated by furrowed clouds, as an example of van Gogh's skill with his pen and ability to find simple but convincing subjects.
Van Gogh spent the first three years of his artistic career attempting to master - through trial and error, starting with a book on the ABCs of drawing - the fundamentals before tackling colour. His wanderings took him across the Netherlands and Belgium from Borinage to the Hague and from Nuenen to Antwerp. He found inspiration among sowers and weavers in the country, balanced by stints with other artists in urban settings.
It wasn't until he moved to Paris to live with Theo, an art dealer, in 1886 that van Gogh found himself in an environment that would push him to become one of the era's most avant-garde artists. Surrounded by impressionists and neo-impressionists, drawing was shelved as he shed his old-fashioned palette to experiment in vivid colour.
In 1888, after moving to Arles to escape the rigours of Paris, van Gogh returned to drawing. Van Heugten pointed to some spectacular drawings from van Gogh's time in southern France: "Six large pen drawings made near Arles, which are undisputedly masterpieces." Here, in the second Montmajour series, van Gogh took inspiration from the landscape surrounding Arles, including the plain of La Crau and Montmajour, a hill and ruin of a medieval Benedictine abbey. The works in reed pen feature olive trees, fields and the abbey ruins, and demonstrate the artist's range of style and maturity.
From this group, I was drawn to The Rock of Montmajour with pine trees, created in July, 1888. Van Heugten pointed out its power and spontaneity, as well as the variety of pen strokes: dots, lines, curlicues. Its simplicity and drama are appealing. For an art fan like me, the later drawings seemed to possess more of van Gogh's well-known style and brush stroke. There's even more colour, as in the Entrance hall of the clinic. The drawing, created with black crayon and the ends of oil paints, offers a view through an open door at the psychiatric clinic in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh checked himself into the clinic not long after a row with fellow artist Gauguin and the infamous episode where he cut off his left ear lobe.
One of van Gogh's last drawings also attracted me. Old vineyard with peasant woman features grape vines and homes drawn in shades of blue. It was created in May, 1890, at his last stop: Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France. He wasn't drawing much at the time, but true to his prolific nature he painted more than 70 works in the last 2½ months before his death.
After checking out Draughtsman, I wanted to see the museum's permanent collection - van Gogh's other masterpieces - before leaving Amsterdam. Here hang his celebrated works: The bedroom, Almond blossom and Sunflowers. There's something electric about seeing the real thing, however familiar the image: the thick dabs of blue paint, his name, Vincent, written on the curve of the vase, the restful composition of a bedroom.
It's also one of the joys of travel: Standing before a masterpiece - one familiar or new - and leaning in closer to see what makes it so.