Van Gogh Up Close is an in-depth exploration of the way in which the artist engaged with subject matter from the natural world during the intense period of activity from 1887 until his death in July 1890.
Some of Van Gogh's still life paintings, such as his Sunflowers (which provides the block-buster opening to the exhibition), are so familiar that their skill and beauty are easily taken for granted.
One of the strengths of this exhibition is that it explores at length the influence of Japanese prints on Van Gogh's works. Van Gogh emulates Japanese close observation technique in many of his still life works, for example in Almond Blossom, which he painted to mark the birth of his nephew (31st Jan 1890). The landscapes that he painted around Arles (1888-89) also show Japanese influence in their deep views of the countryside through subject matter in the fore-ground and their high horizon lines.
The exhibition is arranged thematically with similar subject matter from different years juxtaposed. The section on Undergrowth (sous bois) painting was innovative and stimulating, tackling a rarely explored aspect of Van Gogh's work. However, the differences in Van Gogh's treatment of the subject matter from say 1887 and 1889 cries out of greater explanation and exploration.
Whilst there are very few "household name" works of Van Gogh in this exhibition, the curators, Joseph J. Rishel and Jennifer A. Thompson of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, should be congratulated on assembling such a diverse range of lesser known but yet stunning still life and countryside paintings from galleries and private collections around the world. Furthermore, unlike exhibitions in London, it was refreshing that the gallery allowed the viewer to be able to get within inches of these great works to be able to see the very different styles of brushstrokes "Up Close" - a real treat.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 1–May 6, 2012
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 25–September 3, 2012