Don’t Miss: ‘Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde’ at the Art Institute of Chicago

There's still time to catch the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer van Gogh show, which tracks the period that helped set the stage for the artist's unique Post-Impressionist style. 

Van Gogh fans who can’t make it to New York City for the final few days of the Met’s exhibition of the artist’s signature cypresses still have time to catch the Art Institute of Chicago’s Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape.

Vincent van Gogh. Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asnières), 1887. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Charles Deering McCormick, Brooks McCormick, and the Estate of Roger McCormick.

Organized in tandem with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the exhibition pairs twenty-four works by the artist with fifty by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Emile Bernard and Charles Angrand—all painted in the northwestern suburbs around Asnières.

“It was here, in this location and in conjunction with these artists,” according to Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Eleanor Wood Prince Associate Curator, Painting and Sculpture of Europe, “that [van Gogh] learned to energize his brushstroke and to ‘see color,’ both important contributions to his rapid development as an artist.”

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It’s worth noting that Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde seems to focus squarely on the impact of place on artistic evolution versus the movement from which the exhibition takes its name. While van Gogh did encounter many notable avant-garde artists in Paris in 1886, it was when he began painting in Asnières in the spring and summer of 1887, alone and with Bernard and Signac, that he seems to have experimented with colors, genres and perspectives in earnest.

Vincent van Gogh. The Restaurant Rispal at Asnières, 1887. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Henry W. and Marion H. Bloch, 2015.13.10. Photo courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services, Jamison Miller.

The short period marked a distinct transition away from his darker Montmartre paintings, during which he borrowed from the impressionists and the pointillists and helped set the stage for Post-Impressionism to gel as a movement.

Vincent van Gogh. Exterior of a Restaurant in Asnières, May–June 1887. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

He brought his trademark zeal to works that depict a dichotomous landscape: industry and leisure, urban and rural, The Factory at Asnières and River Bank in Springtime.

The area was changing, with coal, gas and manufacturing plants cropping up along stretches of the Seine once popular for recreation. Van Gogh and his contemporaries seemed to find the rapid development both energizing and inspiring. “How the bringing together of extremes—the countryside as a whole and the bustle here [in the city]—gives me new ideas,” van Gogh wrote in a letter early in 1886.

Vincent van Gogh. Factories at Clichy, 1887. Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by Mrs. Mark C. Steinberg by exchange 579:1958.

Finding the ethereal in the real is the purview of artists, after all—something Coutré and her co-curator, Bregje Gerritse, capture beautifully in not only van Gogh’s works but also in paintings like Paul Signac’s Gasometers at Clichy, with its looming gas tanks rendered so dreamily or Emile Bernard’s Iron Bridges at Asnières and its magical colors and blockily rendered train cars.

In a letter to his sister Wil, van Gogh wrote, “While painting at Asnières, I saw more colors than I have ever seen before.” A visit to Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde, which closes on September 4, is a pleasant reminder that beauty can still exist even in things not classically considered beautiful, provided you’re willing to look with an artist’s eye.

Don’t Miss: ‘Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde’ at the Art Institute of Chicago