Getting Into

Guide

Getting Into… Vincent Van Gogh

As the Dutch master celebrates his 169th birthday, we look at the exhibitions, experiences, books, films and country-folk classics that take you beyond the brushstrokes


Da Vinci… Picasso… Monet… Rembrandt… There aren’t many other artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same company as Vincent Van Gogh – and fewer still that inspire the same passionate devotion among art critics and casual admirers after almost 170 years. Whether you see his work hung in a Frecnh gallery or badly printed on a T-shirt in the giftshop, there’s something magical about Van Gogh that speaks to the heart and soul of us all – a communion with an artist whose tragic life helped future generations find beauty in pain like no one before or since. 

Shaping the entire course of Western art with his work, Van Gogh is one of the most intimidating figures in cultural history – with entire libraries and degree courses dedicated to his psychology, sketches and personal letters before anyone even starts thinking about his paintings.

But what if you want to get closer to the artist without sitting through a lecture series? Where to start if you only know The Sunflowers (and something about a missing ear)? Here, then, is our guide to getting into Van Gogh. 

First off, his last name rhymes with “loch”, not “low”… 

The paintings

If you want to see Van Gogh’s most famous paintings in person, you’ll need to travel. The Paris and Arles Sunflowers are split between New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art and London’s National Gallery; Bedroom In Arles is in The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; Café Terrace At Night is in Otterlo’s Kröller-Müller collection; Starry Night is MOMA in New York; while Starry Night Over The Rhône and Self Portrait are in The Musée D’Orsay. 

Clearly, getting all the masterworks in the same place is probably never going to happen, although it’s always worth checking gallery calendars for touring exhibitions. In 2022, The Courtauld in London is hosting a major collection of Van Gogh’s self-portraits between February 3 and May 8 – bringing in a range of other autobiographic canvases to support the gallery’s resident Van Gogh, Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear.

If you’re in the market for an original Van Gogh, you can usually pick up one of the lesser-known paintings for around $25-50 million at auction. If you want one of his best works, you’ll have to pay a lot more (Portrait Du Docteur Gachet went for $82.5 million in 1990). Unfortantely for Vincent, he only sold one named painting during his lifetime – selling The Red Vineyard for 400 Francs. 

The experiences 

Van Gogh Alive in Edinburgh
Van Gogh Alive in Edinburgh

If you don’t want to travel the world hunting down Van Gogh paintings, there’s an easier – and a much more interactive – way of getting closer to the artwork. Van Gogh Alive is currently running in Edinburgh, offering the chance to step right inside the artist’s most spectacular paintings. Walk into a life-size recreation of Van Gogh’s Bedroom, stroll through an indoor mirror field of sunflowers, and walk through a vast digital projection gallery that lets you feel each individual brushstroke up close. 

And if you want to get even closer still to the paintings, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is currently touring York, London, Bristol and Dublin (from May), with VR headsets letting you move through the canvases step-by-step, taking you back to a digi-Saint-Rémy in the 19th century. 

The films

Loving Vincent Official Theatrical Trailer

1999’s Starry Night sees Van Gogh (Abbott Alexander) brought back to life with a magic potion, landing him in the middle of modern-day LA on a quest to hunt down all his missing paintings. Apart from that, most of the other movies made about Van Gogh are brilliant. 

Martin Scorsese played the artist in a segment of Akira Kurosawa’s painterly Dreams (1990), and Willem Dafoe picked up a deserved Oscar nomination for his powerful performance as a late-life Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate (2018) – rivalling Kurt Douglas’ classic portrayal in Vincente Minnelli’s sumptuous Lust For Life(1956). 

The best, though, has to be Loving Vincent (2017) a ground-breaking animated film that tells the story of Van Gogh’s life in 65,000 individual frames that were all hand-painted in oils by a team of artists from around the world. Real actors (including Saoirse Ronan and Douglas Booth) were filmed in a studio before each shot was painstakingly recreated on canvas, creating one of the most intricate and innovative mixed media projects ever made.  

The books 

Type “Van Gogh” into Amazon and you’ll find a hundred different ways to put a tortured artist on your coffee table – from adult colouring books, the “true story” of the missing ear, a great looking primer on post-impressionism for kids and dozens of hardback collections full of everything Van Gogh ever painted. 

Taschen’s Complete Paintings is the definitive volume of artwork, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s massive biography, Van Gogh: The Life, is the first and last book you’ll ever need to read on Vincent’s life story, and On The Verge Of Insanity by Nienke Bakker, Louis Van Tilborgh and Laura Prins is a more focused study of the darker psychology that plagued his later life. If you want to start small though, The Letters Of Vincent Van Gogh are almost as indispensable as his paintings – offering portraits of love, madness, doubt, and emotional connection that are just as worthy of being framed in a gallery. 

The music

Jonathan Richman ~ Vincent Van Gogh ~ live circa 1987

Van Gogh inspired generations of artists with his work – including Don McLean. Releasing ‘Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)’ in 1971 on the same album as ‘American Pie’, McLean sang about Van Gogh’s work (“paint you palette blue and gray…”) as well as his personal struggles (“Now, I understand what you tried to say to me, and how you suffered for your sanity…”). 

Later trying again with ‘Empty Chair’, McLean never topped his early ode to Van Gogh (or NOFX’s great pop-punk cover) – joining a list of musicians including Bob Dylan, Vigilantes Of Love, Henri Dutilleux and Manic Street Preachers who have all written his life and work into music.

If you want the best VVG track though, look to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, who summed him up perfectly in ‘Vincent Van Gogh’: “The baddest painter since God’s Jon Vermeer, he loved he loved he loved life so bad… his paintings had twice the colour other paintings had”.