When it comes to Van Gogh, the possibilities for cliché are endless. In the special Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) gift shop affiliated with the current Van Gogh Up Close show, you can buy a T-shirt with that familiar starry sky embroidered above the museum — and Starry Night isn't even in the exhibition. What the PMA has collected presents a fresh opportunity to appreciate a hard-working painter thinking about composition, color, light and drawing. It's a contrast to the most overworked van Gogh cliché: the ear-slicing, obsessive visionary driven to madness and suicide.
Of course, his life did end in suicide, but these paintings — 40 pieces from between 1886 to 1890, the last four years of van Gogh's life — are profoundly about life. There are no twisted peasant portraits, and only one painting of footwear (though "pair of shoes" earrings can also be found in the gift shop). Still lifes mainly focus on flowers and fruit, part of an overall emphasis on nature — in particular, the fields, trees and flower beds in the rural Provençal neighborhood of Arles.
Van Gogh was fascinated by the landscapes of Arles when he moved there from Paris in 1888, evident in View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground (1888, above). The titular town is in the far background; to find it, one must scan up a detailed frieze of growing things lining the bottom edge, an angled border of purple flowers, horizontal layers of green and yellow crops and new-leafed fruit trees until, behind the tufts of still more distant trees, there's Arles: tiny village rooftops against a band of sky.
Van Gogh felt a strong connection between the south of France and the landscapes depicted in Japanese woodcuts — when considering depicting the same Arles fields again later in the season, he wrote his brother Theo, "That would really be a Japanese dream, you know." The show incorporates a small group of Japanese prints (identical to ones that belonged to the artist or others that he most likely saw) to draw attention to the deliberately Japanese compositional devices van Gogh employed — a flattened, aerial perspective that tilts the ground up toward a high horizon line; elements cut off by the edges of the picture; foreground images acting as a screen in front of a background scene. (The museum's own Rain from 1889, possibly van Gogh's most underrated masterpiece, is an interesting example of the latter, with a top layer of slashing, silhouetted raindrops.)
Although van Gogh is often presented as a self-taught loner, he rigorously studied and utilized the knowledge of other painters as well as other cultures. Impressionism taught van Gogh to see and use color, abandoning his earlier dreary palette for the vivid hues he's best known for. His trademark dashed, parallel brushstrokes likewise have roots in the uniform dots of orthodox Impressionism. The show tries to make these evolutionary paths as clear as the Japanese influences. In Crown Imperial (Fritillaries) in a Copper Vase (1887), for example, the background is a mass of sparkling Impressionist points, while the cloth beneath the vase is formed by longer, radiating markings that almost echo the strokes defining the petals and leaves of the tassel-like flowers.
Compare two paintings: the traditional landscape sous bois Undergrowth (1887), a full Impressionist painting concerned with the golden light flowing through a canopy of shade, and the similarly titled but more expressive Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890), where a spindly, Munch-esque couple is dwarfed by the heavily outlined trunks of an ominous forest. Both paintings reward getting up close and impersonal with van Gogh, the artist.
"Van Gogh Up Close" | Through May 6, $25, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org.