The California Literary Review
understands the uniqueness of the Denver Art Museum
’s “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibit, which seeks to enthrall viewers with the artist’s progression.
The exhibition, mounted by the Denver Art Museum itself, and exclusive to this venue, also offers viewers the chance to see numerous small works held by private collections or far-flung museums, placed side by side in a coherent narrative. More than 70 paintings and drawing, including works on loan from more than 60 institutions and collections, are on view; they recapitulate Van Gogh’s dramatic transformation from a self-taught draftsman and painter who hoped to use his art to illuminate the condition of the poor in his native Netherlands, to an artist rapidly assimilating the lessons of the Parisian avant-garde and of the Japanese graphic tradition. He synthesized these elements into a highly personal style just as his personal difficulties threatened to swamp his creative faculties.
In the first room of Becoming Van Gogh
, hangs Sorrow
a large-scale drawing made in 1882, depicting Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute from the Hague whom Van Gogh had become involved with after she was abandoned by the father of her child. She sits naked, transformed into an allegorical figure by her setting and her pose. A quotation from Jules Michelet, the free-thinking Romantic historian much admired by Van Gogh, provides a caption lamenting the fate of an abandoned woman. The title, Sorrow
is given in English – a choice that co-curator Louis van Tilborgh, Senior Researcher of Paintings at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, speculates may reflect an early desire on the part of Van Gogh to publish his work in The Graphic
, a popular and influential English periodical with a strong agenda of social reform, and which employed such artists as Randolph Caldecott, Luke Fildes, and John Millais. The unapologetic rawness and awkwardness of the naked figure seems to place her squarely within the traditions of Netherlandish art; the sitter’s identity and the words from Michelet speak vividly of the concern for the poor and outcast which had, a short time before, driven Van Gogh to seek a place as an evangelical preacher among the impoverished miners of the Borinage, an impoverished rural district of southern Belgium
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