Visiting the Hermitage, with famous paintings dominating its 3 million works of art, has been a dream for decades. The founding of this art museum is usually dated to 1764, when Catherine the Great began acquiring art collections and deploying art agents throughout Europe to purchase on her behalf.
And purchase they did: I've seen in one morning
a famous painting by Michelangelo, Crouching Boy;
twelve Titian paintings;
over three dozen famous paintings by Peter Paul Rubens;
two dozen by van Dyck;
two Leonardo da Vinci paintings;
The Lute Player by Caravaggio;
Danae by Rembrandt;
the most exalted Matisse paintings Dance and Music); and
countless van Gogh paintings.
Ahh, the van Gogh paintings!
Born in Holland to an evangelical preacher, van Gogh struggled to secure a career; after being fired from his uncle's art gallery, he opted to enter the Church but displeased its superiors with his overzealous care of the poor. Desperately, he turned to painting.
In merely ten years, van Gogh generated an oeuvre that impressed famous painters like Claude Monet, who claimed van Gogh paintings trumped all in the 1890 Salon des Independants, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who reportedly threatened to duel a man critical of van Gogh paintings.
In 1889, van Gogh was institutionalized in an asylum in Saint-Remy for recurrent mental illness. His somber palette of earlier works like The Potato Eaters had been
Vincent van Gogh. Portrait of Madame Trabuc, September, 1889. Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
supplanted by a more diverse palette of brighter hues. From St. Remy, he wrote his brother,Theo:
Life passes by, and you cannot undo it, but precisely for that reason I am working without sparing any effort: the opportunity to work may not present itself again. This is so much more the case with me: after all, an unusually strong attack could destroy me as an artist forever (LT 605).
One of the best known van Gogh paintings from his Saint Remy stay is Portrait of Madame Trabuc, or Jeanne Lafuye Trabuc (1834-1903). Little is known of her other than she was married to the head warden at St. Remy, and was 55 when she posed for van Gogh. Vincent describes her to Theo:
She [Madame Trabuc] is an unhappy, faded, and quiescent woman, so inconsequential and unnoticeable that I felt an acute wish to paint on canvas this dusty blade of grass (LT 605).
Yikes. This sentiment is captured in van Gogh's controlled brushstokes that define Madame Trabuc's dress; these vertical, evenly spaced marks are remote from the impasto, or thick, circular strokes more typical of van Gogh paintings. Van Gogh made a copy of this Trabuc portrait for Theo, making it impossible to know if the Hermitage painting is the version from the live model or the copy. And who cares? It's stunning, brilliantly capturing her quiet, unassuming demeanor.
A painting of the same year acknowleges the esteem van Gogh held for Jean-Francois Millet, recorded in a letter he wrote after seeing some of Millet's drawings on sale:
When I went into the room in the Hotel Drouot where they [Millet's drawings] were exhibited, I was seized by a feeling something like this: Take off your shoes; you are standing on holy ground.(LT 29).
Vincent van Gogh. Morning: Going Out (After Millet), January, 1890. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4" x 36 1/4". Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Here van Gogh's brushstrokes are energetically applied as he employed color to create moods rather than to replicate reality. As he told Theo, "Instead of trying to reproduce what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully." His reliance on the expressive values of color made him a darling of later Fauvists and Expressionists... and of visitors to art museums everywhere!
Explore more famous paintings by van Gogh at the Hermitage! They're a rare treat because they seldom leave St. Petersburg.
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