My Head Almost Exploded at the Van Gogh Museum


Vincent Van Gogh created most of his work over a ten-year period—all of those amazing pieces, including his stylistic transitions, within a single decade. Not to mention that a huge hunk of his most famous works were created within his last year, like Starry Night. Let that sink in for a minute. I didn’t remember any of that from my art history classes in college, but I read it on a gallery didactic panel and in a gift shop book. Like millions of other people, I’ve been a fan of his for most of my life. My parents bought me a monograph of his work either for Christmas or my birthday, when I was in junior high school. I don’t remember if they did that because I had mentioned him, or if they wanted to introduce me to his work. Either way, the book inspired me, not because it mentioned the story of his messed-up ear, or because of his emotional struggles, but because he painted wheat and wheat fields, and wrote about wheat fields. I understood a little about wheat fields and I was beginning to understand painting.

Almost forty-five years later just a week before Christmas, Jeenee and I left for the Van Gogh Museum from our rented apartment in Amsterdam. It was a cool, gray, drizzling day and it only took a couple of stops on the metro and a brief walk to get there. We walked next to and over the canals, by dreamy Dutch architecture, thoughtful design in every dimension, bread and cheese bathed in the warm light of deli storefronts, and bicyclists everywhere. I’d imagined visiting Amsterdam and the Van Gogh Museum for a long time, but I didn’t imagine that it would feel this good.

It was off-season and the museum was still busy—not crowded, but busy. Sometimes we’d need to take our turn to stand in front of certain works, like the The Potato Eaters, or Sunflowers, or Wheat Field With Crows. I imagine it’s always bustling—it’s a destination—it’s Vincent Van Gogh. It’s hard to remember the full experience because I was in a bit of a haze, a blissful haze, but still hazy. There’s a lot to absorb, process, and make sense of. You can see the texture of his paint, you can tell which of his brush strokes are underneath and which are on top. You can almost picture him stroking his canvas, or stabbing at it, depending on how his day was going. I tried to imagine what he might have felt.

Seeing his work in person, along with other Impressionists whose paintings, drawings, and stories are also exhibited, placed all of it in a bigger social and historical context, like a giant, afternoon seminar. My art history knowledge is average at best, so being able to view his work in person, with so much information available in what feels like real time, explaining who he was, and what he was responding to in his life, was epic. We wandered through the museum for hours before finally needing to leave, find a place to eat a late lunch, grab our luggage, take a train to the airport, and catch a plane to Italy where we were meeting our daughter. In one of the final galleries, I came across a few of his paintings that felt similar and looked to be part of a series. All of them were landscapes and focused mostly on wheat fields. As I alternated between sitting on a gallery bench looking at them, and standing as close as I could to inspect their surfaces, I slowly realized that my most recent painting sitting on my easel back home, unfinished, is about the view of a wheat field through the moving curtains of a farmhouse window. I got goosebumps, I felt connected and then I saw Jeenee walk past Sunflowers hanging on a deep blue wall in slow motion.

© C. Davidson