Review: “Van Gogh Up Close”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibition focuses on the artist's "scientific examination of nature and life."

The first painting you encounter upon entering Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Van Gogh Up Close”—the museum’s first major exhibition on the artist in over a decade—should be familiar. Not just because it is part of PMA’s permanent collection, but because of its iconic subject matter: sunflowers. Shown in an earthenware vase, it is beautiful but unsurprising. However, when you look at the two canvases to the left and to the right—A Pair of Shoes and an extreme close up of two Sunflowers, respectively—the exhibition’s purpose (and name) becomes obvious. This is not simply a presentation of Van Gogh’s most popular or most recognizable words; there are no self-portraits or starry nights. Instead, it is a culmination of the painter’s almost scientific examination of nature and life. With more than 45 works (representing museum and private collections from at least 12 different countries), we follow Van Gogh’s gaze downward: at blades of grass, at ears of wheat, and at open fields. It is truly a remarkable and—dare I say—scholarly exhibit.


What immediately becomes apparent is Van Gogh’s brilliance not only in color and technique, but also in subject and perspective. In the artist’s glorious Undergrowth, neither the skyline nor the treetops are significant. It is the image of tree trunk, earth, and unlit vegetation that creates tremendous tension and atmosphere. Look at the dazzling Undergrowth with Two Figures: With only ghostly images, otherworldly colored trees, and muted foliage he creates immense anticipation and dread.

Undergrowth with Two Figures

Likewise, those exhibited in “Blades of Grass,” are works that viewers would surpass in other galleries for the painter’s grander works. But together, they are commanding. Ears of Wheat—later to be recreated as backgrounds to other works—is a captivating marvel. Nothing more than broad swaths of browns, greens, and blacks, together the brushstrokes coalesce into stunning detail. Similarly, Grasses and Butterflies places the viewer beside the artist as he looks down on the sunlit grass.

Almond Blossoms

Curators also include a section of 19th-century Japanese prints of plants and landscapes—similar to those owned by Van Gogh—and 19th-century still life and landscape photography. Rather than distract from the exhibit’s central tenet, they further explain Van Gogh’s influence. (Simply look at the perspective and colors of the Japanese prints, and you will see clear inspirations.) Nowhere is this more evident than in the exhibition’s perfect finale, Almond Blossoms. It is Van Gogh looking up through the stunning, white blooming branches of the almond tree to the crystal, blue sky, catching a radiant moment of magnificence.

Van Gogh Up Close” runs through May 6th.


On Monday, February 6th at 7 p.m., stars from Walnut Street Theatre will join students from Chester A. Arthur’s Drama Club in a night of cabaret to raise money for drama and arts education at the school. For only $8 for adults and $5 for school-aged children (suggested), performers from Walnut Street Theater will perform songs from Frank Sinatra to Wicked and the Drama Club will provide a sneak peak at their upcoming production of Aladdin. For more information or to donate online, please visit