Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night
Museum of Modern Art
New York
Through Jan. 5, 2009

Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night is among the most famous paintings in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. You’d think any exhibition that included the work would be a crass play “for big box office.” Instead the museum’s gathering of nighttime scenes by the Dutch artist turns out to be “an anti-blockbuster,” consisting of just 23 outstanding paintings. This compelling selection helps to counteract the typical image of van Gogh as a tortured genius. What we see instead is a man diligently dedicated to his art, “an artist with no time to lose,” painting at all hours of day and night. Counterintuitively, the theme of night sheds new light on works you thought you knew well. “Unable to see clearly, he painted what he saw, ultimately pitting his colors against one another as if they were antagonists in a visual drama.” In van Gogh’s paintings, the night sky isn’t just black but purple, green, even yellow.

Still, MoMA pushes the theme a bit too hard, said James Gardner in The New York Sun. “For a show consecrated to the night, a surprising number of sun-filled landscapes are on view,” and occasionally you suspect the museum simply was looking for an excuse to show off its most famous picture. But “Vincent van Gogh was such a good painter that it is worth putting on a show of his work even when there is no particular reason to do so.” The exhibition includes a surprising number of early works, painted by van Gogh before he left Holland for France. “Night scenes had been a preoccupation of the Dutch masters for centuries before van Gogh’s birth.” Rembrandt in particular turned night scenes into spiritual metaphors, and van Gogh continued that tradition.

“Most exhibits treat the somber-toned paintings of van Gogh’s Dutch period as an almost irrelevant prelude to the impressionist-inspired” later works, said John Zeaman in the Bergen County, N.J., Record. This show underscores how the two fit together. The influence of his Dutch predecessors can be seen in “paintings of romantic twilight landscapes, cottages with glowing windows, and especially the Rembrandtesque dimly lit interior of The Potato Eaters.” As for the “swirls and halos” of Starry Night? That was when van Gogh stepped beyond his influences to create a lasting—and entirely original—image of spiritual ecstasy.