FROM DARK TONES TO VIVID VISIONS, a Conversation with VAN GOGH’S Curator Bregje Gerritse
Words AICHA PILMEYER
Concluding its 50th-anniversary celebrations, the Van Gogh Museum presents “Van Gogh along the seine,” exploring a lesser-known period of Vincent van Gogh’s life; 2 years of living in Paris with his brother Theo. The exhibition highlights the influence of the Seine area near Asnières on the development of his unique style. Inspired by the coexistence of growing industry and the nature of this area. Van Gogh, along with contemporaries Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, Emile Bernard, and Charles Angrand, experimented with his style without losing his distinctive strokes. This period led him to break free from the darker tones of Dutch masters, embracing a unique and vibrant palette that remains influential today.
Numéro Netherlands had the opportunity to interview Curator Bregje Gerritse, whose seven years of research paints a picture of Van Gogh, far from the misunderstood loner some people mistake him to be. As depicted in an Imaginative detail from Signac’s letter van Gogh would effortlessly blend into today’s Amsterdam street scene, wearing his blue zinc worker’s smock (à la Bonnesuits) with sleeves adorned by his vibrant hand-painted dots of color. We dive into what makes this exhibition so special and what young creatives today could learn from Vincent his distinctive way of working.
A: First off, what makes Vincent van Gogh stand out as an artist in your opinion?
B: Van Gogh started painting by the age of 27, after trying out various jobs such as working as a teacher, art dealer, and preacher. In that time this was a very late age to make a career switch – but he did it. In just 10 years, he made over 800 paintings—which is a very short time to put down all that work that is so well known now.
Unlike others he didn’t go to an official Academy where he learned for many years, Van Gogh mostly taught himself. He looked at other painters and he had a lot of textbooks to learn how to paint. This is something that translates into his signature. But contrary to what many people think, his way of working was much more thoughtful and carefully executed. He didn’t just paint whatever; he thought hard about it—what to paint, how to set it up, how the whole thing should look. This is something you can really see in his work. You can see this in the almost never-shown-before sketches and watercolor studies he used to create the larger works displayed in the exhibition.
A: How would you describe his character?
B: I think Van Gogh was pretty stubborn, and some would describe him as a little strange. But when you consider that in a very short time in Paris, he managed to build up quite a large artistic network which is very impressive, and yet I think he is too often portrayed as a kind of Einzelgänger, when in fact he is not.
A: Perhaps also because of the tragic end of his life?
B: Probably, yes.
A: What makes this exhibition so special to you?
B: It shows an underexposed period in van Gogh’s work—specifically, the three months when he shifted from city scenes to the calm suburbs along the Seine. He was following in the footsteps of painters like Seurat, Signac, Bernard, and Angrand, who had already set up their easels along the river to the northwest of Paris.
This period has left a great mark on art history and the painters truly revolutionized their signature along the river. On La Grande Jatte, Seurat introduced the groundbreaking technique of pointillism, where tiny dots come together to create a larger image, refining it even more with Signac. Meanwhile, Bernard introduced his distinctive cloisonnism—bold blocks of color with strong outlines—in the suburbs. By the Seine, Van Gogh, too, started experimenting with vibrant portrayals of light, using loose brushwork. Marking a significant step toward the brightly-colored paintings he later created in the South of France.
A: Did the painters ever cross each other’s paths?
B: Absolutely. Normally, our research leans heavily on the trail of letters Van Gogh would send to his brother. However, since he was living with Theo during this period, we had to look for clues elsewhere. We stumbled upon letters by the other artists, revealing that they did indeed cross paths. Signac, in one of his letters, vividly describes meeting van Gogh in a café. And a real bond blossomed with Bernard; they became close friends, and their correspondence continued throughout van Gogh’s life. You can even catch a glimpse of them in a picture at the exhibition. This friendship was very important to him, and while his relationships with others may not have been as deep, he did, in fact, know them.
A: In what ways did the 4 other artists influence van Gogh’s work? And did he influence the others as well?
B: That’s a good question. You see, these other painters were already working at these locations before van Gogh’s arrival. It was van Gogh who, with an observant eye, noticed that there were four avant-garde artists breaking new ground. He thought, “I need to be there too.” It’s a bit like how, as an artist nowadays, you might want your studio at a place like the NDSM wharf because you feel that’s where the action is—the gritty, untamed edge of the city where all the exciting stuff is happening. So, in many ways, van Gogh was following after those other painters, eager to be part of the action. This also reveals that he wasn’t entirely, well, let’s say, “independent.” He was genuinely inspired by others, always observing what was happening around him.
A: How could Van Gogh’s way of working inspire young creatives nowadays to seek new and contemporary motifs in their own work?
B: Well what you see when you look around in these rooms – and you see this a lot with Gogh, by the way – is that if you change the place where you’re working, then you can get inspired again.
So changing your environment or just finding a new spot—a different office, agency, or even a different country—can spark different ideas, which in turn leads to different work, allowing you to experiment and further develop your style.
A: Can you explain how van Gogh went from selling only a few paintings during his lifetime to a significant increase in the value and appreciation of his work after his death?
B: Actually, if you think about it it’s not weird at all. Building a name in just ten years would be quite hard for any artist. Even others who’ve been painting for years don’t become famous overnight. He simply had very little time, and for the first half of those 10 years, he painted almost only in Brabant and The Hague, without getting much attention. He wasn’t really focused on the art market at that time.
Once he began showcasing his work in Paris, things started picking up. Art critics noticed him, and fellow painters began praising his distinctive style. It makes you wonder if he had just lived longer, even just another ten years, instead of passing away at 37, we would have told a very different story. Unfortunately, he left us way too soon, leaving behind a legacy that still manages to grab attention today, and will continue to be inspirational for others for as long as possible.
Experience “Van Gogh Along the Seine” from October 13, 2023, to January 14, 2024, at the Van Gogh Museum. And let the journey of how van Gogh found color in his work inspire you. And most importantly, like Van Gogh did; remember it is never too late to start, and it’s okay to try out different things before finding your true passion. This exhibition is a collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago.
Photo left side of page: jelle draper