Getting to Know the Real van Gogh at the MFAH

The already popular van Gogh exhibition avoids the iconic works to paint a more complex picture of the artist.

By Brittanie Shey March 14, 2019

Vincent van Gogh, Impasse des deux frères, 1887, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

On any given day, the line to get into the Vincent van Gogh Museum in central Amsterdam usually stretches three layers deep, extending all the way to the street nearby.

If last week’s media preview of the new van Gogh show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is any indication, the local exhibition will be just as popular. Turnout for the preview was standing room only. Thankfully, a trip to the MFAH won’t require a passport or international plane ticket for most Houstonians.

Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art brings together more than 50 paintings from the Post-Impressionist, the vast majority on loan from the Amsterdam Museum, which was founded by members of van Gogh’s family, and the Kröller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. Those museums hold the largest and second largest collections of van Gogh paintings in the world, respectively. (Eagle-eyed viewers will notice the matching, distinctive wooden frames on all the Kröller-Muller works.)

This exhibit is an important one, according to MFAH Director Gary Tinterow, because many of the artist’s works have aged to the point where they are too fragile to be handled. In January, for instance, the Amsterdam museum announced that its copy of Sunflowers, which was painted in 1889, would no longer be loaned out. There could come a time when the only way to see van Gogh’s works is to travel to Europe.

The MFAH exhibition does include another painting, a self-portrait, in which the background color was once much more vivid. That paint has oxidized over the years, but there is still no shortage of shades in the show—van Gogh is widely known for his experimentations with color theory.

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, May 1890, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The MFAH’s exhibit is organized not chronologically, exactly, but instead according to the many places van Gogh lived and traveled throughout his brief life. Place was a huge inspiration for the artist, and his works were closely tied to his environment. In one gallery, the walls are painted a grayish powder blue, making the deeper blues of the artwork, such as the trousers of The Good Samaritan, radiate off the canvas.

Another highlight of the exhibit is an immersive room that will delight kids and adults alike. Museum-goers are encouraged to draw self-portraits in the style of van Gogh, take selfies in a replica of his famous Arles bedroom, and interact with the paintings in other ways.

Few of van Gogh’s blockbuster works are present in the show, but that’s not necessarily bad. With lesser-seen paintings, the MFAH is giving casual viewers and fans alike a chance to get a deeper understanding of the artist. In a way, that may have been what van Gogh wanted most, according to Tinterow.

Much of van Gogh’s story is tinged with tragedy. He likely suffered from mental illness, and died of a gunshot wound at the age of 37 in what most experts believe was a suicide. At the time of his death, he had only sold one painting. Since then, his paintings have become beloved the world over.

Perhaps as a result of his mania, van Gogh was extremely prolific. He painted more than 2,000 works over a decade, and wrote near-daily letters to his brother Theo and others, as well as diary entries. Tinterow posits that van Gogh's prolificness may have stemmed from a need to be understood.

“Van Gogh had an overwhelming desire to communicate with mankind,” Tinterow said. “He had a sincerity, authenticity, and complete lack of cynicism, something I think the world needs now more than ever.”

Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art, thru June 27. Tickets $25. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main St. 713.639.7300. More info and tickets at

Show Comments