In May of 2015, Sotheby’s auctioned Vincent van Gogh’s L’Allée des Alyscamps to a private collector for just north of $66 million.
The oil-on-canvas painting, completed in 1888, depicts passersby strolling through the blazing autumn foliage of an ancient Roman cemetery near the southern French city of Arles. Roughly a month after he finished it, a quarrel with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin reportedly drove van Gogh to sever his left ear with a straight razor. He was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen not two years later.
He was only 37.
Van Gogh died practically unknown, but his reputation soared in the early 20th century thanks to the careful stewardship of his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger and nephew Vincent Willem van Gogh. Today the few van Goghs that do come on the open market fetch such astronomical sums because the Dutch-born painter embodies the image of the mentally tortured soul who suffers for his art, often in dire circumstances.
“I think that it’s the tragedy of his life that intrigues people,” says David Bomford, Audrey Jones Beck Curator of the Department of European Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
“Despite these tremendous difficulties, his tremendous mental troubles, and [the fact] that he really struggled with his art at the beginning, he produced some of the most radiant images we’ve ever seen,” he adds.
This month the MFAH will display more than 50 such images—landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, the works—along with replicas of letters he wrote to his older brother/patron Theo, in “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art,” coordinated with help from the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and another Dutch museum, the Kröller-Müller in Otterlo. The exhibition pays special attention to the lesser-known early part of van Gogh’s career, the entirety of which was over less than a decade after it began.
“I think most painters we look at in the history of art had so much longer careers than that,” explains Bomford. “There are a few exceptions, but I think the sheer brevity of his career and the sheer brilliance of his output is still surprising to people.”
What’s less surprising is that Bomford expects “His Life in Art” to be MFAH’s second straight wildly popular exhibition, following the “Tudors to Windsors” collection of British royal portraits that wrapped in late January.
“We’re expecting it to be very popular indeed,” he says of the van Gogh retrospective. “My advice to people is to come at the beginning of the exhibition, and then make return visits rather than to leave it till the end.”