Museumgoers view “The Seine Bridges at Asnieres” by Van Gogh in the gallery. (Jonah Weber)
Museumgoers view “The Seine Bridges at Asnieres” by Van Gogh in the gallery.

Jonah Weber

Not the Van Gogh you know: How Vincent van Gogh and artists of the next generation redefined art in the northwestern suburbs of Paris

May 21, 2023

Few names are known better than Vincent van Gogh. In the century and a half since the Dutch painter took his life in 1890, his work has migrated across the globe, settling in over 30 museums across five continents. However, with multiple Van Gogh exhibitions inviting the public to view the late painter’s work, the question of whether or not another gallery can genuinely present something new and distinct arises.

For the Art Institute of Chicago, the answer remains an unequivocal yes. 

While the Dutch painter may be the star of the gallery’s latest exhibit, “Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape,” his work is displayed alongside his avant-garde colleagues Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Emile Bernard and Charles Angrand. 

In fact, it was the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam’s acquisition of Signac’s “Ponton de la Félicité,” the Art Institute’s collaborator in organizing the exhibit that prompted the two museums to initiate the exhibition.

“You may think it’s rather unusual that Signac painting would prompt a Van Gogh and co-exhibition, but we know Van Gogh saw the painting by Signac in 1887, and in just a matter of days, perhaps weeks later Van Gogh goes out to the northwestern suburbs and begins to paint,” said Jacquelyn N. Coutré, associate curator of painting and sculpture of Europe at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The “Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: The Modern Landscape,” an exhibition centered on the works of Vincent van Gogh, premiered Sunday May 14. (Jonah Weber)

Rooted in the picturesque suburbs of Asnières, France and the Seine River, “The Modern Landscape” unites the five artists who separately memorialized the countryside’s lush greenery and quiet life. Despite only spanning from 1882-1890, the gallery holds over 75 paintings and catalogs the birth of movements such as neo-impressionism — the technique of applying dots and brushstrokes of complementary colors to the canvas — and pointillism  — a method in which patterns of small, definite dots of color form larger images. 

“The Avant-Garde is a group of artists who are looking to push the boundaries and challenge them,” Coutré said. “These artists were looking to position themselves as distinct from Impressionists. … They decided to stay very close to the city in the suburbs which had a very different topography culturally and physically than what the impressionists were doing.”

While renowned impressionists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir preferred Argenteuil and other remote corners of France, Van Gogh and his fellow post-impressionists, who prioritized the expression of emotion and symbolism, directed their efforts toward depicting the swiftly industrializing landscape of Asnières. Their artistic endeavors centered around highlighting the transformation of Asnières rather than the naturalistic representation of light’s influence on objects as favored by impressionists.

The exhibit is the first to showcase the northwestern suburb’s role in redefining the post-impressionism genre, and it challenges viewers to rethink what they know about Van Gogh and his artistic development.

“This period in Van Gogh’s development is one of rapid assimilation of influences, and it’s maybe not the Van Gogh that people would necessarily think of when they think of ‘Starry Night,'” Coutré said. “I hope viewers will understand a bit more about the artistic process and growth specifically as applied to Van Gogh.”

“Qau de Saint-Quen,” painted by Paul Signac in 1883, depicts a boat on the Seine River. (Jonah Weber)

Out of Van Gogh’s 24 paintings, his three triptychs — artworks made up of three parts — garnered much excitement from museumgoers.

“The colors and scenery in the ‘Clichy Triptych’ were marvelous,” said attendee Maeve Davis. “He was always pushing the boundaries with his work, but these three paintings really show that.” 

Embodying serenity and the ornate plant life that defined Asnières from the restless metropolitan of Paris, Van Gogh’s “Clichy Triptych” characterized the collection’s intense creativity and energy. His other triptychs, “The Grande Jatte Triptych” and “Asnières Triptych,” capture the vivid vitality of nature and day-trip destinations like “The Restaurant de la Sirène, Asnières.” 

However, the inclusion of Angrand’s work adds a needed layer of complexity to the exhibit. An outlier amongst his post-impressionist colleagues, Angrand spent much of his life in Normandy as a math teacher, creating just over 100 paintings throughout his career. 

However, it was the lesser-known painter whose work defined the exhibit for attendees like Clare Schwartz. 

“His [Angrand’s] piece ‘The Seine at Dawn’ gave me chills,” Schwartz said. “It was so beautiful. I’d never heard of him before, so I was surprised at how moved I was by his painting.”

Beyond its bright natural colors and experimental brushstrokes, “The Modern Landscape” seeks to showcase how a single setting can reshape the trajectory of art.

“I hope that viewers will learn a bit more about these northwestern suburbs and what they meant not only for these artists, but also for Paris as a whole,” Coutré said. “It’s all about this place and this desire to push the boundaries of painting.”

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