Skip to content

Van Gogh and Nature

by Kathryn Boughton

Summer is the season of starry nights, of brilliant flowers, of grain rippling in gentle breezes. Even Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), his world darkened by his own demons, was seduced by the brilliance of the season.

Van Gogh wrote to his beloved brother, Theo, in 1874, “Keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better & better. Painters understand nature & love her & teach us to see.”

Van Gogh’s interest in the natural world is explored in a new exhibit, “Van Gogh and Nature” that opens this Sunday at The Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA. Richard Kendall, curator at large for the Clark and a self-professed “Van Gogh nut,” first arranged an exhibit of the artist’s works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1998. This time he has collaborated with Van Gogh scholars Chris Stolwijk and Sjraar van Heugten, to gather 53 paintings and drawings on loan from museums and private collections around the world.

Each curator has brought his own expertise to the creation of the exhibit: Kendall a specialist in late 19th-century European art; Stolwijk leader of the Van Gogh Museum’s scientific research into the artist’s studio practices and Van Heugten a contributor to three volumes of the four-volume catalogue of his drawings at the Van Gogh Museum. The scholars studied the theme of nature in Van Gogh’s writing, letters and art for this exhibition, the first to focus on his interest in trees, writing and art.

It took them four years to assemble a group of works that chronologically and thematically map out Van Gogh’s developing interest in and knowledge of the natural world. Among the studies of trees, flowers, insects and sheaves of wheat, will be many of his swirling vistas. Among the latter is the marvelous “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Painted in 1890 it has long been considered one of his most important landscapes.

The first section of the exhibit focuses on Van Gogh’s youth in the flat landscape of rural Holland, followed by the second section, which explores his time in Paris, where his Montmartre apartment looked out on the hills of Meudon and Saint-Cloud. The last section focuses on his time in Provence, where he discovered a new terrain, flora and fauna.

The exhibit is a natural for the Clark, which has long explored relationships between great art and unspoiled nature. Indeed, the new Clark center embraces the natural world with reflecting pools and woodland trails. Its new Lunder Center at Stone Hill, a contemplative retreat, fulfills architect Tadao Ando’s goal of creating an “intense yet quiet building where the voice of (the) creator can be heard, and to realize spaces ... where one can feel light, air, and rain.”

The exhibit runs from 14 June to 13 September. The Clark galleries at 20 South Street in Williamstown are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is charged.