IN 1879, HIS career as a Christian evangelist having gone up in smoke, Vincent Van Gogh decided to become a painter.
The Dutchman had been serving as a lay preacher among desperately poor coal miners in the Borinage region of Belgium. Not surprisingly, he preached the gospel with the same zeal with which he would later paint the colors of the South of France. He slept on straw, lived in a hovel and gave away what few possessions he had. And not surprisingly, just as he later would alienate fellow artists and even occasionally his devoted brother Theo, Van Gogh the ascetic preacher unnerved his religious superiors. Appalled by his fanaticism, they fired him.
The terminated evangelist decided on a new mission. He would portray in art the downtrodden workers to whom he had preached, and restore to them the dignity that their employers failed to find in them.
"Diggers, sowers, plowers, male and female, they are what I must draw continually," the new artist wrote to Theo in 1881. Their salt-of-the-earth faces are the opening act in a splendid six-part exhibition of Van Gogh portraits now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits covers all 11 years in Van Gogh's short artistic career, moving chronologically and geographically with the artist himself, from Holland to Belgium to France. With the exception of a few landscapes on display, the show focuses like a laser beam on the painter's portraits, which he once declared the subject that "excites me the most, much, much more than the other things in my work."
His early portraits, delightfully unfamiliar, are the exhibition's most surprising component. Weather-beaten peasants, a rescued prostitute, lonely old men are rendered in dark charcoals, crayon and watercolors, and sometimes in oils, when the impoverished Van Gogh could get them. Dark, serious and quasi-religious, these pictures demonstrate the curators' contention that Van Gogh's work, though tempered by the French avant-garde, comes out of a long tradition in Dutch art. Both the spiritual portraitist Rembrandt and the lively colorist Frans Hals were his art forebears.
"The Wounded Veteran," an 1882 drawing in graphite, brown and black ink, wash and opaque watercolor, was drawn while the artist was still in Holland. It has all the compassion of a Rembrandt, whose works Van Gogh carefully studied in museums. In describing this sketch, Van Gogh himself wrote, "There are some ruins of physiognomies which are full of expression as, for instance, 'Malle Babbe' by Frans Hals or some heads by Rembrandt." The elderly man in the picture was one of six Van Gogh regularly used as models; residents of a poorhouse, Van Gogh touchingly called them "orphan men." The artist has tenderly recorded every facial crevice this forgotten man earned in his long life, exaggerating and relishing his physical imperfections.
Van Gogh drew and painted for several years in the Dutch countryside, lovingly chronicling the life of rural weavers and peasants he saw as one with the land. These works are dark and moody, reflecting not only the wintry northern landscape but the sepia tones of Rembrandt. Working alone in Holland, Van Gogh nevertheless made some experiments that paralleled the innovations of Paris's cutting-edge painters. In a series of heads of peasants, and in the famous group work "The Potato Eaters" of 1885, Van Gogh tried out bold brushwork modeled on Hals. And his imaginative colors must have been startling to his peasant sitters--one man's face is shadowed in dark greens and browns, his nose and brow slashed with eerily bright yellow.
In 1886, Van Gogh moved at last to Paris, characteristically showing up at brother Theo's unannounced. An art dealer trading in the avant-garde, Theo introduced him to the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Seurat. Stunned by the bright colorations in his new friends' works, Van Gogh almost immediately lightened his palette. Brilliant blues and oranges and greens supplanted his peasant browns. A landscape of a Paris mill drowns in sunlight; an unnamed Parisienne's face is a torrent of pinks and peaches. Her green dress shouts against the background's red.
Trying on Seurat's pointillism, Van Gogh broke down his brushstrokes even more, ultimately settling on his familiar style of sinewy, independent strokes. The Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid is a study in careful "divisionism," while a woman in green is spontaneously limned in quick swathes. And following the lead of Rembrandt, Van Gogh embarked on his series of famous self-portraits, painting 22 in 1887 alone. He tried out assorted self-images. He's dapper in a city hat in "Self-Portrait with a Felt Hat," 1887, and countrified in a yellow straw hat in "Self-Portrait," 1887. But in this one he's every inch the artist, wearing a painter's blue smock and gazing out with a fierce intensity.
After two years, Van Gogh wearied of the capital's frantic pace; the final half of the show shows off his masterly mature works painted in far-flung French towns in the last three years of his life. Working with manic intensity in Arles, Van Gogh turned out dozens of incomparable landscapes of golden fields and blue skies. But he busied himself indoors, too, painting portraits when he could pay a model or persuade a new friend to pose for him.
In Arles, he most famously painted individual portraits of the entire Roulin family, an ambitious project possibly inspired by Dutch group portraits of old. Father Joseph, an "ardent republican and socialist," proudly sports a postman's blue uniform; the teenage son, Armand, is full of swagger. "La Berceuse, Augustine Roulin" is a serene picture of maternity; the mother holds the rope she uses to rock her unseen baby girl's cradle. The French title means both "rocker" and "lullaby," and its rocking serenity is picked up in the curving flowers and stems of the background, doubtlessly modeled on Japanese prints. The palette's saturated reds and greens are soothing instead of startling.
As the painter's health deteriorated, his subjects narrowed mostly to views from his hospital rooms and portraits of his caretakers. "The Gardener," a young man who worked at the St.-Rémy, an asylum where Van Gogh committed himself in 1889, is one of his celebrations of workers--a fellow at one with the landscape he cares for, all bright greens and yellows. Even the vertical brushstrokes on the man's shirt link him to the wavy plants in his garden. The gardener, immortalized, gazes with infinite kindness on the painter, and his portrait fulfills an ambition Van Gogh wrote of shortly before his death by suicide.
Not long before he shot himself, in July 1890, the artist prophetically wrote to his sister:
"I would like to make portraits that, a century later, might appear to people of the time like apparitions. Accordingly, I don't try to do that by the way of photographic resemblance, but by way of our impassioned expressions. Using as means of expression and exaltation of character our science and modern taste for color ..."
Van Gogh: Face to Face continues through Sunday, January 14, 2001, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tickets cost $20.75 and must be purchased for a particular date and time. A color catalog is available for $29.95. For tickets and information call 215-763-8100 or visit the website at www.philamuseum.org.