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Exhibit yields insight into Van Gogh

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Vincent van Gogh was not only a prolific painter, but a compulsive writer of letters.

As part of the 150th birthday celebrations for the Dutch master, researchers have pieced together his words and his art, traced his inspirations and discovered insights into one of the world's most studied artists.

Despite the theft of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum two months ago, galleries and private collectors lent the museum dozens of paintings and sketches that the 19th-century artist had admired and mentioned in his letters.

They go on display Friday, in an exhibit called ''Vincent's Choice,'' which runs through June 15. It is the first of several events to mark the artist's birth on March 30, 1853.

Museum director John Leigh-ton said several lenders had sent inspectors to view security arrangements at the museum, where thieves broke through a second-story window just after dawn on Dec. 7 and made off with the paintings from the main public gallery, each worth millions of dollars.

''They asked all the right questions,'' and none refused to go ahead with the loan, Leighton told The Associated Press.

If the police have any leads in the burglary, they haven't told the museum, he said, despite a telephoned ransom threat before the new year that proved to be ''a joke.''

The exhibition of some 200 artworks, many of them matching van Gogh's works with those that influenced them, was one of the museum's most ambitious projects, and the first to give a broad sample of the painter's own taste in fine art.

''For the first time, you will be able to see the full range of his passions,'' Leighton said.

From the self portraits of Rembrandt, who lived 250 years earlier, van Gogh learned openness and honesty of emotion. From Jean-Francois Millet, who died five years before van Gogh started painting in 1880, the Dutchman studied portrayals of peasant life. From Eugene Delacroix, he copied the use of contrasting bright colors.

The show ''provides new insight into an artist we thought we knew,'' said Andreas Bluhm, the organizer. ''We have distilled Vincent's taste'' from more than 1,100 references to individual works in his letters.

Also on display are pages from van Gogh's writings, often with sketches of works he had seen or images that would later appear in his own work.

For several years, researchers went through museum archives and hunted down obscure art books and reproductions to find the references van Gogh made in his letters.

''He wrote beautiful letters. Tracing his intellectual sources, we found things we didn't know before,'' researcher Leo Jansen said. ''We can see the complete scope of his visual input.''

In one case, the researchers deciphered a note from van Gogh to Paul Gauguin that had been scribbled and then erased on the back of a sketch that the Dutch-man sent to a friend, Eugene Boch.

The note told Gauguin that, like a diamond from deep in the earth, art comes from deep within the artist, and urged Gauguin, ''not to lower our prices,'' said Jansen.

Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime and lived in poverty. He was supported by his brother, Theo, an art dealer in Paris.

But he suffered repeated bouts of depression, and sliced off an earlobe in 1889 after an argument with Gauguin. The following year, he shot himself and died two days later. His career spanned only 10 years.



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