What Vincent saw: the journey of a photographer

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He also never really knew his father, the art dealer Theo van Gogh, who died six days before his first birthday. In 1925, however, Vincent Willem inherited a collection of over 600 paintings and drawings from his uncle from his mother, Jo van Gogh Bonger, whose tireless efforts to manage the collection greatly advanced Vincent’s reputation and recognition in as a brilliant artist. Continuing his mother’s work, Vincent Willem looked after the collection until ownership passed to the Dutch government in 1962.

Vincent Willem, his wife Josina Wibaut and a cat (name unknown) in their living room with Van Gogh’s work prominently displayed.

Vincent Willem occasionally loaned works by Van Gogh for exhibition purposes, and it was in this context that officials at the Art Institute of Chicago entered into correspondence with him in the 1940s in preparation for a retrospective exhibition of works by the artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago scheduled for the spring of 1950.

The Art Institute’s public relations adviser at the time was Peter Pollack, a trained photographer. He and Daniel Catton Rich, the director of the museum, negotiated at length with Vincent Willem to borrow works for the next exhibition. Through this exchange, Peter Pollack and Vincent Willem quickly became friends, and the artist’s nephew took Pollack to various sites in France and the Netherlands where his uncle had painted 60 years ago.

The remarkable images of Peter Pollack, featured below, offer a unique photographic insight into the artist’s life.

The beginning may be more difficult than anything else, but rest assured, it will go well.

-Vincent Van Gogh

Nuenen

Their photographic mission began in the small Dutch town of Nuenen, where Vincent van Gogh began painting. During his two years in Nuenen, Van Gogh lived in his parents’ rectory, where a small annex to the house served as the artist’s studio. Particularly noteworthy are the photographs of the “Bird’s Nest Boys”, men who, in their youth, retrieved bird’s nests from the tops of Nuenen trees for Van Gogh to comb in exchange for 25 Dutch cents.

One of the men thoughtfully recalled being offered one of Van Gogh’s paintings on one occasion in lieu of small change, an offer he declined, opting instead for the immediate gratification of the monetary reward.

Van Gogh’s first major pictorial composition, the potato eaterswas completed during his stay in Nuenen and well represents his early style, heavily influenced by peasant genre painters like Jean-François Millet and by Dutch artists who traditionally tended towards a dark color palette.

Pollack photographed the house where the Potato Eaters lived, as well as other important local buildings like the town church, but, more importantly, he also captured images of local people. “It was not a documentary record I was looking for”, Pollack later explained, but “rather a study of the Dutch landscape and its people, from which Vincent drew inspiration for his art”.

Paris

Tired of Nuenen, especially after the death of his father and an awkward love affair, Vincent moved to Amsterdam for two months in 1885 before joining his brother Theo in Paris in 1886. His arrival in Paris surprised Theo unsuspectingly, an art gallery owner living and working in Montmartre, who nevertheless hosted him in his small apartment on rue Lepic.

At the time, Montmartre was just a mere suburb of Paris, but 60 years of urbanization and growth have completely transformed the neighborhood almost unrecognizable by the time Pollack arrived. Picturesque farmhouses and windmills from the late 19th century have been replaced by apartment buildings and cobbled streets. The famous Moulin de la Galette has stood the test of time, still standing near where Theo and Vincent once shared an apartment.

During his two years in Paris, Van Gogh rubbed shoulders with the social circle of the Impressionists and other renowned artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. They had a huge impact on his style. Van Gogh began to experiment with a lighter palette and more vivid color combinations which made his later work so memorable.

Arles

In 1888, after two years in Paris with Théo, Vincent moved south to Arles in search of a quieter environment where he hoped to better deal with his mental and physical instabilities. Van Gogh made himself a home in a small yellow building in Place Lamartine, made famous by his paintings Bedroom and The yellow house. Unfortunately, the yellow house was destroyed during WWII and replaced with a temporary structure that served as a tobacconist at the time of Pollack’s visit.

In his paintings, Van Gogh focused not on the Roman ruins for which Arles is famous, but on the built and natural surroundings of the city, such as the vast rocky plain of Le Crau. Pollack photographed these elements as well as the neighboring abbey of Montmajour and the fishing village of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer, sites frequented by Vincent.

Perhaps a reflection of the general unease of Van Gogh’s contemporaries with the eccentric artist, most locals remained surprisingly unaware of Van Gogh’s fame during Pollack’s time. A small street named after Van Gogh (unknown even to taxi drivers in Arles) is less than a block long and unceremoniously ends in a junkyard. The only man who expressed his appreciation for the artist was a hotel manager. Even so, it was only because Van Gogh’s story in Arles accounted for almost two million French francs in revenue a year from admiring tourists.

Hospital

Although Van Gogh found some solace in Arles, his mental health issues eventually reigned supreme, culminating in his notorious act of self-harm. In a violent crisis following a heated argument with his roommate and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, the artist cut off part of his earlobe. Vincent was immediately admitted to the local hospital, Hôtel Dieu, where he was placed in solitary confinement.

Unsurprisingly, Gauguin had left the yellow house they shared by the time Vincent was released less than two weeks after the initial altercation. Tragically, Van Gogh was readmitted to hospital a month later after another psychotic episode. Upon his return from his second stay, concerned locals filed a petition with the local government to have Vincent institutionalized again, claiming he was a danger to society. In this context, Van Gogh returns a third time to the Hôtel Dieu.

In May 1889, only five months after the fight with Gauguin, the artist voluntarily entered another asylum.

Saint-Remy-de-Provence

Van Gogh was transferred to the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence at the end of the spring of 1889. Most of his paintings from this period represent the buildings and grounds of the institution, a reflection of his restricted movements. The artist was not allowed to venture beyond the confines of the asylum for the first two months of his stay. Pollack was fascinated by how Van Gogh transformed the mundane asylum into vibrant, dynamic works of art.

During his bouts of delirium, Vincent could not compose original paintings, resorting instead to copying paintings by the Old Masters he admired. Eventually, it was deemed stable enough to explore areas some distance away.

Vincent’s room in the asylum, 1949

Dr. Edgar Leroy, director of the asylum in the 1940s and an admirer of Van Gogh’s art, transformed the room Van Gogh had occupied into a miniature art gallery with reproductions of his works. Little had changed at this site in the 60 years between Van Gogh’s stay and Peter Pollack’s visit.

Auvers sur Oise

Wanting to be closer to his brother and his family, including newborn Vincent Willem, Van Gogh returned north to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise. The artist had spent more than two years in the south of France before settling in this small town about thirty kilometers from Paris.

Although he only lived in Auvers for about 70 days, he was extremely productive during this brief period, producing paintings at the astonishing rate of about one canvas per day.

In Auvers, the artist moved to the Auberge Ravoux and was placed under the supervision of Dr. Gachet, whom Theo had met in Paris and who claimed to be able to cure Vincent’s illness. It soon became apparent that Dr. Gachet himself suffered from mental issues (some say even more than Vincent) and proved useless in improving Vincent’s condition.

On July 27, 1890, Vincent went to paint in the wheat fields.

This banal activity took a terrible turn when he shot himself, only to return calmly to the Auberge Ravoux without saying a word to anyone about what he had done. The owner of the inn eventually discovered Vincent’s injury and immediately summoned Dr. Gachet and Theo. Unfortunately, nothing could be done to cure the artist and Vincent died two days later.

Peter Pollack ended his photographic journey at the same sites where Van Gogh spent his last days 60 years earlier, including the wheat fields where the artist was mortally wounded.

If I’m worth something later, I’m worth something now. Because wheat is wheat, even though people think it’s grass in the beginning.

-Vincent Van Gogh

—Bart Ryckbosch, Glasser and Rosenthal Family Archivist, Art Institute of Chicago Archives, with Paul Jones, Associate Director, Communications

This article was adapted from the Ryerson & Burnham Library exhibition What Vincent saw (2013), curated by Bart Ryckbosch. Photographs by Peter Pollack. Papers of Peter Pollack, Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Topics

  • Collection
  • History of the museum
  • Artists
  • Perspectives

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