Small installation at Detroit Institute of Arts explores van Gogh's influences

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Peasants in fields. Rural landscapes. Painting from life, not manuals.

Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh may be known for all three but it was several other artists, many of whom were part of Holland's Hague school of art, a group of artists working in that part of his native country in the late 19th century, who shaped him as a painter.

Now, a focused installation at the Detroit Institute of the Arts explores some of those artists, their work and impact on van Gogh before the museum's blockbuster "Van Gogh in America" exhibit opens later this year.

"Van Gogh’s Artistic Roots: The Hague School and French Realism," inside the DIA's Dr. George and Vivian Dean Gallery until Jan. 29, features 12 pieces — seven paintings and five works on paper, including pastels, watercolor and prints — by eight artists, most from the Netherlands but a few from France. All of them influenced van Gogh's work in some way for a period, either through their subjects, technique or rural landscapes.

Dorota Chudzicka, the Detroit Institute of Arts' assistant curator of modern European art, stands next Anton Mauve's "Going to Pasture." The painting is one of several in a small installation now up at the DIA that explores some of van Gogh's influences.

It's about putting van Gogh in context, said Dorota Chudzicka, the DIA's assistant curator of modern European art.

"We feature artists that van Gogh admired, wrote about in his letters and wanted to emulate," said Chudzicka. "Several of them impacted his work, especially in the early years of his career."

The small installation — and it is, indeed, small; five of the works on paper, however, will be changed out this summer because they can only be exposed to light for so long — comes as the DIA prepares to open its highly anticipated exhibition this fall, "Van Gogh in America." It will feature 70 van Gogh paintings and "tell the story of America’s introduction to the iconic artist," according to a press release.

The exhibit is timed with the 100th anniversary of the DIA's purchase of van Gogh's 1887 "Self-Portrait" at an auction in New York in 1922. It was the first American museum to purchase a van Gogh painting for its collection. The DIA now has five.

"Self-Portrait" (1887) by Vincent van Gogh was purchased by the DIA in 1922. It was the first American museum to purchase one of van Gogh's paintings.

After multiple career changes, van Gogh decided in 1880 that he wanted to be an artist. He lived in several places, including roughly two years in the early 1880s in Hague on the Netherlands' west coast. He lived there once before in the 1860s.

"He wanted desperately to be part of an artist community, to interact with artists in order to learn and to improve himself," said Chudzicka. "He had, from the start, this all consuming ambition to not only be an artist but to be a successful artist."

But of the eight artists featured in "Van Gogh's Artistic Roots," van Gogh knew very few personally. One, Anton Mauve, was his cousin through marriage. He also possibly knew Jozef Israëls, said Chudzicka. 

Israëls, who has three featured pieces in the installation, was the informal leader of the Hague school of art. The Hague school, which emerged in the 1860s and 1870s, was considered the center of Dutch modern art at the time.

"They worked in the tradition of realism dating back to the 17th century, the so-called Dutch golden age of painting — Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael," said Chudzicka. "These were the masters they revered. They thought from the 17th century until their moment there was only corruption."

Their work reflects a simpler style based on observations of nature — mothers with their children, fishermen and peasants. Holland was going through a period of transformation at the time and they thought their work would "sustain" the country, Chudzicka said.

Anton Mauve's oil on canvas, "Going to Pasture," depicts a moment of rural life with a herd of sheep. It has muted tones. Mauve was van Gogh's cousin and urged him to paint from life.

Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters," a portrait of a peasant family around a table, is a good example of how Israëls' work influenced him. Israëls' style evolved later in his career, featuring more free-moving brush strokes. 

And while the influence of the featured painters' eventually faded for van Gogh, who died by suicide in 1890 — Chudzicka refers to it as his Dutch period — it's still significant. 

Mauve, for example, van Gogh's cousin, urged him to paint from life.

"When van Gogh arrived in the Hague, Mauve provided instructions to him — he gave him lessons in common problems, how to draw hands and faces," said Chudzicka, standing near Mauve's late 19th century oil on canvas, "Going to Pasture," which is featured in the installation. "He instructed him in the watercolor technique and importantly advised him to paint from life. Until then, van Gogh had primarily drawn from manuals and reproductions. That was a shift and became a tenet of his art throughout the rest of his life."

'Van Gogh’s Artistic Roots'

Inside the Detroit Institute of Arts' Dr. George and Vivian Dean Gallery.

Up through Jan. 29.

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