“How long does it take to go through the exhibit?” I asked the docent at the desk.
“About an hour,” she told me. “Be sure to keep your bag in front of you at all times.”
I had taken the early morning train from Connecticut to Philadelphia to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Art. Four and a half hours I rode before I caught sight of the stately structure resting on a distant hill, bringing to mind the Parthenon on the Acropolis.
It had been a pleasant walk across the Cohn Bridge to 21st Street. I turned north and followed the bustling traffic to the Ben Franklin Parkway and on to the museum. Inside I collected a reserved ticket and waited in the lengthy line to enter the exhibit. One of a pair of young women draped a listening device around my neck like a traditional Hawaiian lei. I punched in the numeric code on the keypad and listened to the introduction.
The first painting that greets the visitor as he steps into the exhibit hall is Van Gogh’s well-known vase of sunflowers. Immediately to the right he glimpses a smaller study of two dried sunflower heads, vibrant with yellows and browns and tinged with red against a cobalt blue background. Beyond, a series of rooms introduce the visitor to Van Gogh’s fresh perspectives in artistic rendition: still lifes of flowers, blades of grass in fields of green, yellow-brown wheat fields; dancing wheat shocks, studies in the undergrowth, radical still lifes.
In each mini-gallery the visitor can hear explanations of Van Gogh’s techniques of composition as well as what was happening over the course of the final most productive four years of his ten-year career as an artist. He learns for example that the landscape entitled “Rain” was inspired by a view from the artist’s bedroom at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée. What Van Gogh did not depict on the canvas was the iron bars in the window through which he looked.
The exhibit culminates with “Almond Blossom,” the artist’s homage to his infant nephew and namesake. White blossoms scattered on gnarled branches against a backdrop of blue sky leaves the viewer with feelings of joy and hope in new life.
Afterwards I ventured forth into the spring sunshine and managed to capture several Van Gogh inspired renditions of my own: sous bois with two figures and spring blossoms against a backdrop of blue sky.