Painting nature at the Clark Art Institute

As a boy he knows the names of birds and collects beetles in glass jars. As a young man teaching himself to paint he finds perspective in alleys of poplars, texture in birds’ nests and color in petals.

He came to Paris to discover Impressionism, and he left it again for Provence to paint landscapes with vigor — the chalk dust of the path, the vivid sky and steep green terraces of hills with tunnelled limestone.

“He painted the rhythms of a scene — he painted the landscape as a living thing, more than any artist before him,” said Clark Art Institute curator at large Richard Kendall, in an interview this spring.

Kendall has curated ” “Van Gogh and Nature,” the Clark’s broad summer show in Williamstown through Sept. 7, with Chris Stolwijk, director of RKD/Netherlands Institute for Art History and a former curator at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, and Sjraar van Heughten, an independent curator and former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum.

Though Van Gogh spoke of nature in more than a third of his letters, Kendall said last week as the show opened, no exhibit or extended research project before has focused on his connection with the natural world.

In the late 19th century, science had become part of popular culture and daily life, Kendall said. Magazines talked about Darwin’s finches. Naturalists gave talks. Families took walks and looked at the stars.

And in Europe, as in America, wild lands were changing and vanishing.

“Nature had been taken over by men,” Kendall said.

So he defined nature for Van Gogh broadly — the sky and the rain and the grass, flowers from a garden, olives trees in an orchard — pine trees filling the sky outside an asylum.

In his show, Van Gogh emerges as a passionate reader who painted and wrote prolifically, exchanged work with many other artists, began and ended love affairs, entered into debates and warm friendships, wrangled with art dealers . and dealt with what may have been a form of epilepsy. And he continued all his life to know the Latin names of moths.

Kendall has read Van Gogh’s letters and followed his life to trace his need for the outdoor world.

And the show speaks to me, because standing among these paintings would quicken any pulse, and because I can understand a need for mud and frogs and pickerel weed.

Van Gogh painted undergrowth in Paris parks and left the city feeling numbed. I vividly remember walking into the medicinal gardens after four days in Firenze, a beautiful city made of stone, and breathing and feeling the earth and the spring grasses. And I can imagine Van Gogh looking out the window in Tarascon at the jumbled rocks and cold, clear air, as I do when I take the train from New York to Wassaic.

“The sky was a hard blue with a great bright sun that melted just about all the snow — but the wind was so cold and dry it gave you goose-pimples,” he writes to his brother, Theo, from Arles in the south of France. “But even so I’ve seen lots of beautiful things — a ruined abbey on a hill planted with hollies, pines and grey olive trees.”

He saw the land as an artist in shape and color. He also thought with it. The life in his garden made its way into metaphors. Grieving for the loss of a childhood teacher, he writes to his sister Wilhelmein: “We can no more judge our own metamorphoses impartially and sagely than the white salad grubs can theirs.

“For the same reason that a salad grub has to eat salad roots for its higher development — so I believe that a painter has to make paintings — perhaps that there’s something else after that.”

As I read his letters, he sees the world with a clear eye and finds a deep pleasure in observation. The scientist in him values detail, and the artist glories in the sun on the rocks and adds brightness in the way he sees it. And he works with a will and consoles himself.

I recognize the wry, bright man who wrote — “Must I tell the truth and add that the Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlésiennes going off to make their first communion,11 the priest in his surplice who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the absinthe drinkers, also seem to me like creatures from another world? This doesn’t mean I’d feel at home in an artistic world, but it means I prefer to make fun of myself than to feel lonely. And I think I’d feel sad if I didn’t see the funny side of everything.”

I wrote this piece as a column in Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont in my time as editor of the magazine, in June 2015. 

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