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Issue Date: April 2014 Issue

Double Take

Cleveland Museum of Art offers new insights into Vincent Van Gogh's repetitions.
Erick Trickey

Vincent Van Gogh's painting The Large Plane Trees has a twin, but not an identical one. You can see the brotherly paintings' differences at their reunion in the Van Gogh Repetitions exhibit, at the Cleveland Museum of Art through May 26. The Large Plane Trees, from the Cleveland museum's permanent collection, and The Road Menders, from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., inspired the show, which includes 15 sets of Van Gogh multiples and explores the many reasons he seems to have painted in repetitions. The two works form a classic Van Gogh duo, says William Robinson, the Cleveland Museum of Art's curator of modern European art.

"At times, Van Gogh was the rough primitive, the [Paul] Gauguin-like painter, very experimental," says Robinson. "That's our picture, [The Large Plane Trees]." The Road Menders is calmer, more carefully crafted. "You'll see subtle refinements everywhere," he adds.

Robinson tells us what makes this pair of paintings a vibrant example of Van Gogh's repetitions.


Inspired, but without a canvas, Van Gogh painted on a dressmaker's cloth. Its pattern of tiny red diamonds adds to the painting's red-orange hue. "There's incredible fire to this picture," Robinson says.


"The explosion of orange at the top is phenomenal. Vincent talked about yellow as the color of life," he says. "The trees here are losing their leaves. They're dying."


Except for some small figures, the paintings have a nearly identical composition. Yet "there's no squaring pattern, no evidence of tracing," he says. Both works were mostly painted freehand.


In the second painting, Van Gogh leaves more room for the lamppost, makes a window smaller and opens another window, to improve their spatial relationship. "He was correcting himself," says Robinson.


Painting in the studio, Van Gogh chose a lighter color scheme with more blues and greens. He also varied the contours of the trees, with thicker lines on one side "to give the tree more three-dimensionality."


Three road menders appear instead of two. Outlined in red, they're more distinct. The blocks behind them, amorphous in the first picture, look "like they're receding according to the laws of perspective."

Why is Vincent Van Gogh so popular?

We asked Timothy Standring, curator of painting and sculpture at the Denver Art Museum, who curated its 2012 exhibition, Becoming Van Gogh.

The hair on your arms rises up when you're in front of a Van Gogh. It communicates strongly the emotional outpouring that went into it. There's something universal about the communication, very much like Bach, like Mozart, like Shakespeare's sonnets — a universal component he was able to achieve throughout his short artist's voyage of 10 years. It wasn't from madness. He really worked hours and hours to achieve what he did.

We're fortunate to have his entire correspondence almost, in which we can plot out his feelings and thoughts.

In his haunting late works, he was expressing the internal notions that all of us share. You can look at these images and read them as letters. You hear his voice, very much the way you sense an inflection visually.   — as told to Erick Trickey

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