The Detroit exhibition is going to be a revelation

Van Gogh in America, at the Detroit Institute of Arts (October 2-January 22, 2023), is the first exhibition to tell how American art lovers discovered Vincent’s work at the beginning of the 20th century. After a slow start, American collectors eventually flocked to buy his paintings, with many of their acquisitions ending up in museums. The exhibition is based on meticulous research, in a detailed catalog.

by Van Gogh self-portrait (August-September 1887), when he arrived in Detroit in 1922, it was the first work by the artist acquired by an American museum Credit: Detroit Institute of Arts (City of Detroit purchase, 12.22)

With 59 paintings by Van Gogh and 15 drawings, Van Gogh in America is hosted by Jill Shaw of Detroit. Visitors will not only have the chance to see how Van Gogh conquered the United States, but also to enjoy a fully representative sample of his work.

The Detroit exhibit includes some of the artist’s finest paintings: Starry night over the Rhône (September 1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris); Van Gogh’s chair (December 1888-January 1889, National Gallery, London); and a version of Bedroom (September 1889, Art Institute of Chicago).

by Van Gogh Bedroom (September 1889), donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926 Credit: Art Institute of Chicago (Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.417)

Visitors will also have the opportunity to see private works that are only occasionally loaned out: Orphan (1882-83, by Nancy and Sean Cotton); Peasant head (1884-85, from the Abelló collection, Spain); Chief of Gordina de Groot (May 1885); basket with oranges (March 1888); The Plain of the Crau (May 1888, from Texas); Harvest in Provence (June 1888); and The novel reader (November 1888, from Brazil).

The story of Van Gogh’s discovery by the United States begins in 1912, when Pennsylvania pharmaceutical chemist Albert Barnes became the first American to purchase a painting: a portrait of The Postman (Joseph-Etienne Roulin) (spring 1889). He then acquired six more works, all of which are now on display at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (Barnes demanded that they not be loaned, so they will be missing in Detroit).

Later in 1912, two more paintings arrived in the United States: Katherine Dreier purchased Adeline Ravoux (June 1890, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art) and John Quinn purchased a self-portrait (Summer 1887, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut). Both images are in the Detroit show. Dreier, an artist (and suffragette) herself, described her discovery of Van Gogh as “coming out of a stuffy room into a glorious, invigorating tune.”

The American public first saw Van Gogh’s work in 1913, at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show. Starting in New York, it moved to Chicago and Boston. This huge exhibition, with more than 1,300 works, included 21 Van Goghs. None of the Van Goghs were sold.

On the eve of World War I, there were only five works by Van Gogh in American collections. This compares to 156 in Germany, where Van Gogh’s collection really took off in the early 1900s.

Van Gogh’s first modest solo exhibition in America was opened in 1915 by a New York dealer, Marius de Zayas, who ran the Modern Gallery. Although 17 works were presented, again none sold.

In 1920, the Montross Commercial Gallery in New York presented a larger exhibition, with 32 paintings and 35 drawings from the collection of the Van Gogh family, led by Vincent’s sister-in-law, Jo Bonger. This time, three works, including the sower (fall 1888), were sold, all going to Pennsylvania pastor Theodore Pitcairn.

by Van Gogh the sower (autumn 1888), sold at the 1920 Montross Exhibition to clergyman Theodore Pitcairn Credit: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (gift of Dr. Armand Hammer, AH 91.42)

Two years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts becomes the first American museum to buy a Van Gogh: a self-portrait of the artist wearing a straw hat. This makes the city a most suitable location for the current exhibition. The price for the self-portrait was $4,200. In 2013, the painting was valued between $80 million and $150 million, although it is now worth much more.

by Van Gogh L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (November 1888), exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951)

When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York opened in 1929, it held a spectacular loan exhibition, which included 26 works by Van Gogh. At this time, a number of prominent American Van Gogh collectors loaned paintings. These included L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (November 1888), which had been bought in 1926 by New York entrepreneur Adolph Lewisohn. This portrait was then bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The next museum acquisitions were all made by institutions in the Midwest. In 1926, the Art Institute of Chicago received a magnificent gift from Frederic Clay Bartlett, which included three Van Goghs: Lullaby: Madame Roulin rocking a cradle (La Berceuse) (January 1889), Terrace and viewing platform at Moulin de Blute-Fin, Montmartre (early 1887) and Bedroomplus another work which a few years later was considered a fake: Still life: melon, fish, jar.

by Van Gogh Olivier (June 1889), acquired in 1932 by the present Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City Credit: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

In 1932, Olivier became the second Van Gogh to be purchased by an American museum, when it was acquired by what later became the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

Two years later, the Saint Louis Art Museum bought Auvers staircase (June-July 1890). The Toledo Art Museum bought Houses in Auvers and Wheat Fields with Reaper (both in June 1890) in 1935.

by Van Gogh Auvers staircase (June 1890), acquired in 1935 by the current Saint Louis Art Museum Credit: Saint Louis Art Museum (purchase 1.35)

But although these early museum acquisitions were important, in the popular imagination, Van Gogh’s rise to fame came with the publication in 1934 of the fictionalized biography of Irving Stone. thirst for life (who became even more influential after the 1956 film). Even today, many myths surrounding the artist go back to this novel.

Van Gogh’s first solo exhibition in a museum took place a year after the thirst for life book, when MoMA showed 127 works. The show then traveled to nine other North American venues and, in total, was seen by nearly one million visitors. It was not until 1941 that a New York institution bought a Van Gogh, when the MoMA acquired Starry Night (June 1889).

Portraits of Van Gogh by anonymous artists, at the Fogg Museum and the National Gallery of Art Credits: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (bequest of Annie Swan Coburn, 1934.35) and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

What may surprise is the number of forgeries and forgeries that have ended up in American museums, despite being supposedly genuine. These include two self-portraits. One of the artists with his pipe was purchased by Chicago collector Annie Coburn in the late 1920s and bequeathed in 1934 to the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The other, described by the New York Times when it was purchased in 1928 as “the finest thing [Van Gogh] ever done,” was acquired that year by New York banker Chester Dale and bequeathed to National Art Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1963.

Besides the two self-portraits and Bartlett’s still life in Chicago, other fakes and forgeries acquired by American museums include: Landscape near Saint-Rémy (MoMA); Still life with vase of flowers (Philadelphia Museum of Art); Countryside (National Art Gallery); and a drawing of a harvest scene (Art Institute of Chicago). It goes without saying that none of these counterfeits are on display in the Detroit exhibit.

The Van Gogh in America blockbuster will celebrate the centenary of the first acquisition of one of the artist’s works by an American museum, the self-portrait of Detroit. Its catalog reveals the painstaking research behind the project, including an important essay by Susan Stein, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Borrowing Van Goghs today is a real challenge, but with 59 paintings, the Detroit exhibition will have the largest number of works in an American exhibition for more than 20 years.

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