Van Gogh’s world

Exploring the world’s largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

Mystery and intrigue have always surrounded the life and works of Vincent van Gogh, and our fascination with the artist continues to grow the more we know about him. His sad story has been portrayed through countless books, plays, documentaries, films and songs while his paintings appear on every type of merchandise conceivable. Nowadays, everyone has heard of Van Gogh. But it wasn’t always like that.

During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold very few paintings. He needed some kind of income, so in exchange for a monthly allowance, Vincent’s brother Theo, an art dealer, became the owner of all his paintings and drawings. When Vincent died in July 1890, Theo was determined to make his brother’s work known, but he died himself just six months later. It was Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who wrote Vincent’s first biography and it is she who is also largely responsible for keeping his memory alive. Following her death in 1925, her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, assumed responsibility for his uncle’s works. In 1962, he reached an agreement with the Kingdom of the Netherlands to transfer control of the family’s entire collection to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation. In return, the state arranged for the Van Gogh Museum to be built, helping to ensure that the collection always remains accessible to the public.

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, opened its doors in 1973 and houses the largest collection of Van Gogh artefacts in the world. The collection, comprising 205 paintings, 500 drawings and more than 800 letters and other archive material relating to the artist, also features paintings, drawings and statues by Van Gogh’s friends and contemporaries.

More than one million people now visit the Van Gogh Museum annually. Here are just some of the highlights of the collection.

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat. Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Paris. Oil on canvas, 44.5 cm x 37.2 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

To become competent in portraiture, Vincent painted many self-portraits. He wrote to Theo, ‘If I manage to paint the colours of my own face, something which is not without its problems, I can also paint the heads of other men and women.’ This portrait was painted in 1887 when he had been in Paris for almost two years. Inspired by the stylistic innovations of Neo-Impressionism, he adopted elements of the pointillist technique but in a highly individualised way. His energetic but controlled brushstrokes radiate outwards from the eyes, building up to the blue and orange halo-like aura that surrounds the outline of his head.

The Bedroom, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The Bedroom. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Arles, October 1888. Oil on canvas, 72.4 cm x 91.3 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The artist created three paintings of his bedroom in his beloved Yellow House in Arles. The first version, which now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, was painted in 1888 but suffered water damage later that year due to flooding at the house. So he decided to paint a second version in September 1889. Identical in scale but with slight variations from the original, this painting now belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection. Three weeks later, he painted a smaller version as a gift for his mother and his sister Willemien; this version is now at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. While the three paintings are of the same subject, each has distinct and unique details. One of the public’s favourites, The Bedroom is beautiful in its simplicity and that is exactly what Vincent wanted to portray. Leading a simple, frugal life, without luxury, was very important to him.

  • ‘Van Gogh’s world’ is published in Anthology Volume 12. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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