Vincent van Gogh's dramatic and daring paintings deserve - no, demand - to be seen up close and in person. Here is one man's quest to visit the world's three major collections of van Gogh's work. In three days.
When I do it all over again, I will start in London.
I will spend the night at the Connaught, then rise early and walk down Piccadilly to the National Gallery. Maybe I will detour through Green Park and past Buckingham Palace and perhaps stop for a coffee on the fringes of Trafalgar Square before marching up the museum steps to seek out, on that wing off the second floor reserved for artists living between 1700 and 1900, the works of Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh's soulful use of color and his three-dimensional strokes of brush and palette knife speak to me. A mere print is, literally, a pale imitation. Van Gogh's brilliance must be seen in person to be believed.
And so, in the dead of winter, I flew to Europe with the goal of seeing the world's three premier van Gogh collections in three days: Paris's Musée d'Orsay, Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, and London's National Gallery. My aim was a museum and a city per day. No more, no less. Twining the slightest touch of adventure to the artistic, I made no advance reservations for museum tickets, hotel rooms, or transportation.
So it was that on the third day of my journey, in the predawn blackness of a bitter February morning, I was the last passenger on a short yellow train approaching the Hook of Holland, the port from which I would catch the channel ferry to Britain. I had been told that the ship left a little past seven. Upon the train's arrival, I would have 15 minutes to run from the train to the ferry station, purchase a ticket, and then climb aboard. I hoped to find a quiet corner belowdecks where I could read up on van Gogh or perhaps just sip coffee and stare out the window at the heaving seas.
The train stopped. The doors slid open. An arctic gust almost knocked me flat as I stepped onto the empty platform. A freezing rain drenched me. The ferry terminal, thankfully, was just 200 yards away. I walked briskly, trying to convince myself that I was tougher than the cold and rain. When I finally arrived at the terminal, I was shivering uncontrollably. The glass doors were locked. A sign informed prospective travelers that the morning ferry had been discontinued.
As my train disappeared into the distance, taking with it all hopes of immediate warmth and transportation, I began repeating the mantra that would see me through the day: When I do it all over again, I will start in London.
Paris: Musée d'Orsay
My journey, however, had begun in Paris. From a transportation point of view, it made no sense: London is the ideal starting place to seek out the great van Gogh collections. From Waterloo Station, it's simply a matter of taking the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Paris, then catching a train from Gare du Nord to Amsterdam. A truly ambitious traveler could do the whole thing in a day.
Yet from an artistic viewpoint, there can be no other launching point than Paris. Vincent van Gogh lived in the hilly Montmartre section from 1886 to 1888, a time that marked a crucial turning point in his career. He was 33 at the time, an evangelical preacher turned artist just a few years earlier. His work until then was filled with dark shades, earth tones, and drab scenes of peasant life. But in Paris, van Gogh became fascinated by the Impressionist school of painting, with its emphasis on natural light and color. He befriended famous artists such as Paul Gauguin and Camille Pissarro. Van Gogh was an obsessive and prolific man, constantly pushing himself toward creative excellence. Paris was where he ceased to be just a painter and began filling his canvases with the uniquely applied dabs and swirls that would become his trademark style. "I am using another language, that of colors, to translate the impressions of light and dark into black and white," he explained to his brother Theo, an art dealer.