It's been happening for more than two decades, the tearing up when seeing a favorite painting in person, a painting I have admired in art books or college course slide shows. But Van Gogh seduced me at a young age, in my first art history class where we blazed through the Renaissance to mid-20th century modern all in one semester.
It was a combination of things that made him one of my favorites, but it started with a few specific paintings, before I knew anything about him. It started with color. And maybe at some level, because of his style and subjects, I intuited his humanity, his compassion and respect for the poor, the hard working peasants. But as I remember it, it was first the colors. Night Cafe in Arles, The Bedroom, Stary Night, Sunflowers. It's an aesthetic that I now recognize, all those bright colors, the impressionistic style, sometimes cartooned a bit but always complex in some inexplicable way. It is a thread that runs through some of my favorites - Conrad Felixmüller's The Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner; Matisse's Red Room; David Hockney's Laurel Canyon. They've all moved me in a way that feels related.
It was at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, that I saw my first Van Gogh, the first time I was moved to tears. It was almost 30 years ago and I remember it vividly, Portrait of a Peasant, with paint so thick and textured it reminded me of peanut brittle, like you could break off a piece and take a bite. I remember standing there a long while, feeling awed, happy, sad, lucky, appreciative. And then there was Starry Night at the NY Met. It was 1989, my first trip to NYC, my first trip anywhere urbane outside of the LA art scene. And I was on a mission to see Starry Night. Again I found myself transfixed, humbled, appreciative standing squarely in front of the canvas, thinking of little, feeling it instead.
And a few days ago it happened again, Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London. I stood there grinning, holding the tears back, feeling lucky and alive.
And today, after almost 30 years since that first art history class, that first exposure to Van Gogh, I spent the afternoon in his homeland Museum, a whole building dedicated to his art, his influences, his story and lagacy. And again I teared up, Portrait of the Artist (1887-88, Paris) was the first. The painting stopped me in my tracks. And then The Bedroom, one of my all time favorites - the honest simplicity of the subject, a few mundane possessions all neatly in their place, the simple comforts of a bed, a chair, a coat, art on the walls - there is no excess, but the bright colors make it all cheery and comforting. At least to me.