Remembering Vincent van Gogh at the Hirshhorn and Cooper-Hewitt

His thick, impasto brush strokes—the likes of which got him kicked out of art class—and brilliant colors are part of Vincent van Gogh's signature style. Perhaps equally famous to his groundbreaking artworks is the artist's lifelong struggle with inner demons that led to erratic displays of self-destructive behavior such as cutting off his left earlobe and shooting himself in the chest. The latter incident ended up costing him his life and on this day in 1890, the artist died from his wounds.

Though under-appreciated by his contemporaries—the man only sold one painting in his lifetime—critics and lay art lovers alike have since gone gaga for van Gogh. The images of daisies, irises, night scenes illuminated by stars and street lamps have been subject to both serious study and mass marketing to the point where, 120 years after his death, van Gogh is a mainstay in our collective consciousness. Doubt me? Search and see how many 2011 calendars are exclusively sporting his artworks.


You can also experience van Gogh by way of the Smithsonian. The Cooper Hewitt's collections sport a pen and ink drawing done by the artist while he was living in Arles, France. (Unfortunately, due to rights restrictions, we can't use the image here on the blog, but you can see it online at the Cooper Hewitt's site here.) And though the Hirshhorn doesn't have any canvases by the master himself, it does have a series of paintings by Irish painter Francis Bacon, who strove to emulate van Gogh's style. (As evidenced in the painting study above.) Smithsonian magazine has also run several features that cover different aspects of the artist's life and work,  from taking a close look at his nighttime paintings (here), to his correspondence with a young, up-and coming artist (here), to recounting his tumultuous final days (here).

I'd feel a mite remiss if I didn't point you in a few non-SI directions to get to know van Gogh a bit better. In 2008, Columbia University professor and art historian Simon Schama produced a riveting documentary miniseries that focused on the lives of six spectacular artists, one of whom was van Gogh. He's played here by Lord of the Rings alumnus Andy Serkis (the actor responsible for Gollum for those not in the know.) If you're looking for a more dramatic treatment, check out the 1956 biopic Lust for Life. Directed by Vincente Minelli and starring a pre-Spartacus Kirk Douglass in the lead, it should give you a good impression of van Gogh's life and work.