Opening at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC this week is a retrospective of some of Vincent van Gogh’s greatest works…and their répétitions, the replicas he worked tirelessly on to perfect. The exhibit showcases 13 of his paintings, copies and rough drafts and all, and even includes “new technical evidence, such as X-rays and high-resolution digital imagery, [to] firmly to resolve questions about the sequence of these works that have confounded scholars” for years. Some scholars even dismissed the répétitions as fakes, as the process of duplicating artworks, once the only way artists learned to paint, became a taboo bordering on forgery.
The exhibit was inspired by two specific paintings, “The Large Plane Trees” (Road Menders in Saint-Rémy)” in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and “The Road Menders” in the Phillips Collection. They are so nearly identical it is believed van Gogh might have even traced one. But which one came first? The curators believe that due to the density of brush strokes, “The Large Plane Trees” was likely painted outdoors, on the scene, where he would have been struggling to get the details just right, and is therefore likely the original. Fascinating! Who knew Vincent was such a perfectionist?
There are also six (SIX!) versions of his famous postman, and you’re encouraged to spend a lot of time examining the differences in each iteration. “When you compare van Gogh’s different versions of a design stroke by stroke, you start to relive his creative decisions. It’s a strangely mystical experience. It’s as if you’re absorbed into the intensity of his genius,” said conservator William Robinson. I can’t imagine a better thing to be absorbed by.