Van Gogh’s Artistic Process

Van Gogh’s Artistic Process

Letter from van Gogh, sketch of perspective frame

In 2005, staff from The Phillips Collection and The Cleveland Museum of Art decided to study Cleveland’s The Large Plane Trees and its repetition at the Phillips, The Road Menders

The staff then decided to expand the study to include other series of repetitions. In so doing, they hoped to shine new light on the creative process of one of the world’s most important artists. 

The staff traveled to 14 other museums to study van Gogh’s paintings. Their methods of research and comparison included tracing the outlines of shapes and figures, x-radiography, and examinations under a microscope. They also carefully studied van Gogh’s letters to connect his work with the events in his life. This process lasted eight years and included 13 series of repetitions.

The research proved the degree to which, beginning as early as 1883, Vincent van Gogh began “recreating” his own paintings. First, he painted a scene or portrait from life, outdoors or in front of a model. He worked rapidly, to capture what he was observing. He called such works études d’après nature, or studies from nature. Then, he carefully recreated the painting, on a separate canvas, in his studio. In 1888, he first used the term “repetitions” to describe these later, refined works.

This practice of making repetitions was extensive and important to van Gogh’s creative process. He created at least 25 series of repetitions over his short career, and some series included five or more paintings. While he suffered from a mental disorder, between his mental collapses, Vincent van Gogh was fully in control of his work. His image as a genius who created masterpieces in a mad frenzy is a misperception. He was, instead, a genius who created masterpieces in a deliberate, controlled process. 

In one letter to his brother Theo, written on September 10, 1889, Vincent van Gogh said that “one orders one’s brushstrokes in the direction of the objects—certainly it is more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it whatever one has of serenity and smiles.”

The exhibition that resulted from this research, Van Gogh Repetitions, includes works from 23 museums from around the world. It will be on view in The Phillips Collection from October 12, 2013, through January 26, 2014, and at The Cleveland Museum of Art from March 2 through May 26, 2014.