CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Vincent van Gogh: the drawings

Exhibition: 18 October - 31 December 2005

Special Exhibition Galleries, 2nd floor


The exhibition was jointly organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.


The exhibition is organized by Colta Ives, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, and Susan Alyson Stein, Curator, Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, both of the Metropolitan Museum; and their colleagues at the Van Gogh Museum, Sjraar van Heugten, Head of Collections, and Marije Vellekoop, Curator of Drawings. Conservation on some of the works on paper in the exhibition was carried out by Marjorie Shelley, the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of the Museum’s Department of Paper Conservation.

Museum press release, 13 July 2005

The first major exhibition in the United States ever to focus on Vincent van Gogh’s extraordinary drawings will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 18. Vincent van Gogh: the drawings – comprising 113 works selected from public and private collections worldwide, including an exceptional number of loans from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – will reveal the range and brilliance of the artist’s draftsmanship as it evolved over the course of his decade-long career. Generally over-shadowed by the fame and familiarity of his paintings, Van Gogh’s more than 1,100 drawings remain comparatively unknown although they are among his most ingenious and striking creations. Van Gogh engaged drawing and painting in a rich dialogue, which enabled him to fully realize the creative potential of both means of expression. A group of paintings will be exhibited alongside the related drawings.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan, noted: “When people think about Van Gogh, they tend to focus on his paintings and his vivid, often unconventional use of color. This exhibition — about line, above all — demonstrates that, masterfully used, black and white can be as expressive as color. The works on view will be a revelation to those who believe they understand completely Van Gogh’s artistic vision.” Mr. de Montebello continued: “Rarely are these light-sensitive works placed on display, and even more rarely are they seen ensemble. Some series are reunited here for the first time since they left Van Gogh’s studio; these and others are unlikely to be shown together again in our generation. This exhibition truly provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contemplate the graphic work of Van Gogh in the broad context of his oeuvre.”

The exhibition

Retrospective in scope, Vincent van Gogh: the drawings traces the artist’s successive triumphs as a draftsman, first in the Netherlands and later in France, highlighting the originality of his invention and the striking continuity of his vision. Among the works exhibited will be an early series of large-scale views of the garden at his father’s vicarage drawn by Van Gogh in March 1884. Distinctive for their melancholy grandeur and regarded as the high point of his early work as a draftsman, drawings from this ambitious suite, including two versions of the Winter garden in contrasting horizontal and vertical formats, will be reunited in the present show.

Van Gogh produced most of his greatest drawings and watercolors during the little more than two years he spent working in Provence. Compositions created in Arles (February 1888–May 1889) form the central portion of the exhibition, bracketed by earlier and later works.

Largely self-taught, Van Gogh believed that drawing was “the root of everything.” His reasons for drawing were numerous. At the outset of his career, he felt it necessary to master black and white before attempting to work in color. Thus, drawings formed an inextricable part of his development as a painter. There were periods when he wished to do nothing but draw. Sometimes, it was a question of economics: the materials he needed to create his drawings – paper and ink purchased at nearby shops and pens he himself cut with a penknife from locally grown reeds – were cheap, whereas costly paints and canvases had to be ordered and shipped from Paris. When the fierce mistral winds made it impossible for him to set up an easel, he found he could draw on sheets of paper tacked securely to board.

Van Gogh used drawing to practice interesting subjects or to capture an on-the-spot impression, to tackle a motif before venturing it on canvas, and to prepare a composition. Yet, more often than not, he reversed the process by making drawings after his paintings to give his brother and his friends an idea of his latest work. Over a three-week period, between mid-July and early August in 1888, he reproduced some 30 of his paintings in pen-and-ink drawings, which he sent to two artist friends, Émile Bernard and John Russell, and to his brother Theo. A number of these highly stylized presentation drawings are on view. The New York venue of the exhibition uniquely features multiple renditions of key motifs: Boats at sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Arles: view from the wheat fields. Each of Van Gogh’s paintings of these subjects is shown with three pen-and-ink répétitions. Never before seen together, these dossiers offer a fascinating glimpse of Van Gogh’s successive re-interpretations – through line – of vibrant color compositions.

Several important series of drawings, including the sweeping landscapes he composed atop Montmajour, will be featured. The artist regarded the Montmajour suite of six drawings, which range from elaborate panoramic vistas of the countryside to spirited views of the rocky mountain slopes with their windblown trees, as his greatest achievement as a draftsman. These landscapes are exceptionally reunited for this exhibition. In addition, a number of portraits and figure studies will be on view, including a rare self-portrait, one of only two such drawings known.

Van Gogh’s dialogue between drawing and painting was most fully realized while he was working in Arles and in nearby Saint-Rémy. Several paintings from this period will be exhibited alongside related drawings. In a splendid grouping, the oil Harvest in Provence of ca. June 12, 1888 — very seldom lent by the Van Gogh Museum — will be shown with a brilliant preparatory watercolor and a dazzling pen-and-ink drawing Van Gogh made after his painting.


The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue entitled Vincent van Gogh: the drawings with contributions by Sjraar van Heugten, Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein and Marije Vellekoop. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the publication will be available in hard- and softcover editions in the Museum’s book shops (400 pages, 300 illustrations, published in English only).

This catalogue represents the first fully illustrated and documented study of Van Gogh’s drawings. The four curators explore the enduring questions that surround Van Gogh’s works as a draftsman: their manufacture; their artistic precedents; the significance of the artist’s drawings to his development as a painter; and their contribution to Modernism. The catalogue presents a wealth of information essential to present and future Van Gogh scholarship.

Other venue

Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (2 July-18 September 2005)


The exhibition in New York is made possible by United Technologies Corporation. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The exhibition catalogue is made possible in part by the Janice H. Levin Fund.

Related exhibitions at the Metropolitan

A corresponding installation, curated by Ms. Stein and Ms. Ives, will feature some 70 works selected from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum. In line with Van Gogh will include prints and drawings by Rembrandt, Daumier, Millet, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other artists whose work influenced Van Gogh, as well as works by his contemporaries and followers such as Signac, Seurat, Matisse, and Picasso.

Concurrently on view at the Metropolitan Museum will be From Clouet to Seurat: French drawings from The British Museum, which will also include drawings by artists Van Gogh admired, such as Delacroix, Daumier, Millet, and Cézanne, and even by several artists whom he knew personally – Pissarro, Degas, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec – during the two years he was in Paris, from 1886 to 1888.

Associated events

Five Dutch Days in the five boroughs of New York, 16-20 November 2005.