“Self portrait with grey felt hat” (1887)
In the spring of last year my friend, Sarah, and I embarked upon an impromptu trip to Amsterdam in search of culture, coffee and crêpes. We took the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam overnight; battled seasickness and an hour long coach commute before reaching civilization. We found the nearest crêperie and revelled in both sweet and savoury delights before grabbing a coffee to go and exploring the city. Amsterdam is a beautiful place, full of quaint boutiques, iconic Dutch architecture and a labyrinth of streets and tranquil canals. We could have wandered those streets for hours, had it not been for the impending coach trip back to the ship, and I had a date with an artist…
Before long we were entering the gleaming glass entrance of The Van Gogh Museum. My excitement grew with every millisecond as we inched closer and closer on the escalator until, finally, I came face to face with the man himself, Vincent Van Gogh. We were standing in the first level of the museum, the collection of Van Gogh’s self portraits. The bold strokes of colour in “Self portrait with grey felt hat” (1887) stimulated my mind with its pointillist-like halo radiating from the artist. The bright, unblended colours of the artist’s face in “Self portrait as a painter” (1888) appeared to intensify the prominent wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes; intimating towards the mental and physical exhaustion Paris had caused Van Gogh during the two years he was living in the city.
“Self portrait as a painter” (1888)
We were then taken on a journey through the life of Vincent Van Gogh as we explored each room of the museum. From his dark days in Nuenen painting scenes of peasant life; and the two years spent in Paris where he found inspiration in Monet and Japanese prints; to Arles and ‘the yellow house’ painting workers in the wheat fields; before his hospitalization in Saint-Rémy following the ‘ear incident’ and Van Gogh’s eventual suicide. With child-like zeal I dashed from canvas to canvas, pausing momentarily to drink each piece in.
During his time at the yellow house Van Gogh produced some of his most iconic works; 5 large canvases depicting sunflowers in a vase. Using just three shades of yellow in “Sunflowers” (1889), Van Gogh was able to create an elegant, expressive image full of verve and variation. Time was slipping by, so I couldn’t afford to politely stand back and allow others space to ponder. I greedily investigated each painting, my nose hovering just centimetres away, aching to touch every line and ripple. The work Van Gogh produced during this time of great mental instability is, in my opinion, his greatest work. It was after he admitted himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy that Van Gogh discovered how colour could be used to express intense feelings.
When he learnt that his brother’s new born son was to be named Vincent after himself the artist painted “Almond Blossom” (1890) as a gift for the child. A branch of white blossoms, symbolising new life, boldly outlined against a bright blue sky. In the accompanying letter to his brother Van Gogh wrote “I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and courageous as you.” Standing before this painting it is impossible not to feel the love and promise of joy emanating from the canvas.
“Almond Blossom” (1890)
It is through Van Gogh’s letters that we are able to understand more about the artist himself and his inspiration for these great works. Visitors are able to hear translations of a number of these letters in the museum’s dedicated section ‘A life in letters’. There is also a section in the museum for other artists Vincent Van Gogh subsequently inspired, as well as a separate wing to the opposite side of the glass entrance building which hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
The most exciting new experience the museum now offers is ‘Feeling Van Gogh’. It’s an interactive tour and workshop created for the blind and visually impaired but can also be enjoyed by friends and carers in groups of up to 10 people. The workshops aim to focus on the other senses of touch as well as sound and even smell. Specially trained guides talk about the collection and participants are able to physically feel his brushstrokes using high quality 3D reproductions or relievos. Amazing!
Sarah enjoying the sights of Amsterdam (2015)
The next time I visit the wonderful city of Amsterdam I will be sure to plan for a longer trip, and take a bigger suitcase for all the books I am bound to buy in the gift shop. The Van Gogh Museum is also open from 7pm to 10pm every Friday evening for cocktails, music and free guided tours. Sounds like a winning combination, you can count me in!