Another way to see Vincent van Gogh: Springfield exhibits offer interactive and reflective approach to beloved artist

  • “Almond Blossom,” 1890 painting by Vincent van Gogh that was inspired by Japanese prints. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • The interactive stations at the van Gogh exhibit include this recreation of the bedroom the artist had in Provence, in southern France, and paintings that can be manipulated. Image courtesy of Springfield Museums

  • Among the interactive stations at the van Gogh exhibit is a recreation of the bedroom the artist had in Provence, in southern France, which became the subject of one of his paintings. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • Visitors to the van Gogh exhibit can manipulate one the the artist’s most iconic paintings, “The Starry Night.” Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Flowering Plum Garden,” 1887 painting by van Gogh that was inspired by a print by 19th-century Japanese artist Andō Hiroshige.  Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • You can put your mug inside recreations of some of Vincent van Gogh’s most celebrated portraits at the “Van Gogh for All” exhibit at Springfield Museums. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

For the Gazette
Published: 9/18/2019 5:00:03 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 4:59:53 PM

More than Henri Matisse, more than Claude Monet, we all know Vincent van Gogh — the man, the myth, and the paintings pulsating with color. And more than the poignant “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,” more than the perennial “Sunflowers” still life, we all love his nocturnal landscape, “The Starry Night,” the New York Museum of Modern Art’s biggest crowd-magnet.

If you are tall enough to tower over the crush of bodies usually gathered around “The Starry Night” or sturdy enough to press into its midst, your view is still obscured by a field of cell phone screens held high. You can see multiple mini-versions of the iconic cypress tree and swirling night sky in those flashing phone screens.

But if you want to inspect the painting up close, if you long for a quiet moment to contemplate colors and composition, good luck.

Instead, consider visiting two exhibits at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, which offer different ways to enter the world of van Gogh. “Van Gogh for All” employs modern technology and participatory learning to engage audiences of all ages in looking at van Gogh — his personal struggles, his creative process, and the imagery of selected paintings.

And “Van Gogh and Japanese Prints” focuses on the influence of Japanese art on van Gogh’s work, juxtaposing reproductions of his paintings with authentic Japanese woodblock prints from the D’Amour Museum own collection.

“Van Gogh for All” is a traveling exhibit that originated in Texas, with Springfield serving as its first venue on tour. Designed to draw audiences immediately into van Gogh’s work, the installation not only invites you to step right up, it also urges you to step right in, entering versions of the artist’s visual world, with interactive stations based on different periods of his life.

In one absolutely seductive screen-based interactive, visitors can insert themselves into a projection of van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” via green screen technology, or animate the painting using a touchscreen. On a tablet, you manipulate the image by moving your finger and creating new patterns of swirls among the sky and the stars — then watch as those swirls are projected on a gallery wall.

You can also wander through the deconstructed/reconstructed landscape painting “The Siesta (After Millet).” The composition, based on a work by French painter Jean-François Millet, shows two field workers resting in the shade of hay bales, but the color palette of yellow-orange played against blue-violet and the vigorous brushstrokes are very much van Gogh’s own signature style.

Interpreted for the exhibition, the painting is divided into physically separate layers of background, middle ground, and foreground — each defined by bands of color.

In another station, you walk inside a space based on the interior of van Gogh’s bedroom in the Yellow House he rented in Provence, where he hoped (in vain) to create a small artist’s colony. In this painting, van Gogh deliberately flattened the space to make it look like a Japanese print. Maggie North, acting curator of art at the Springfield Museums, notes that the bedroom is artfully reproduced, creating the effect of making it seem like visitors are inside the painting.

North also notes that the exhibit combines low-tech, hand-on activities with its high-tech interactive displays; two drawing stations encourage a DIY approach. One is set up for portraiture, relating to van Gogh’s many portraits and self-portraits, while sunflowers dominate the other station.

Van Gogh painted seven versions of “Sunflowers” during his time in Arles. Two of those paintings have vanished: one burned in Japan during World War II and another disappeared into a private collection. Five other variations are scattered between London, Amsterdam, Munich, Tokyo and Philadelphia. This drawing station encourages you to join van Gogh and compose your own still life of (fake) sunflowers.

To augment playful interactions, Springfield museum staff created a gallery guide handout, so the exhibit also offers an opportunity to learn more. And, as North explains, “We are also always looking for a way to tie in to our own collection.”

Although the museum has no van Gogh works of its own, North says it does house a “fabulous collection of Japanese prints that tell yet another story, set yet another angle and provide yet another entry point into the world of van Gogh.”

Those works, in “Van Gogh and Japanese Prints,” cast light on what the artist may have meant when he wrote in 1888, “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.”

Van Gogh’s enthusiasm did not exist in a vacuum, but in the context of Japanism (aka Japonisme), a craze for all things Japanese that swept through France and England in the mid-19th century, just after Japanese trade opened to the West. European collectors — including many Impressionist painters — were particularly avid for the woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e.

Van Gogh bought 600 prints, hoping to re-sell them for profit. “But as we all know,” North says with a laugh, “he was a much better artist than businessman.”

But van Gogh found artistic inspiration from those prints, making painterly copies of two prints by Ando Hiroshige that closely observed and interpreted them, just as he did with European old masters’ art.

He also adapted visual conventions of Japanese prints in many other paintings. This exhibit joins reproductions of his paintings with woodblock prints that may have provided influence or inspiration, and the display invites viewers to compare and contrast, to detect and discover artistic connections.

While “Van Gogh for All” draws on the immersive element of another Springfield Museums exhibit — “The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss” — “Van Gogh and Japanese Prints” reaches across cultures and embraces art history. The exhibitions together suggest new and welcome angles on Vincent van Gogh

“Van Gogh for All” and “Van Gogh and Japanese Prints” will be on display at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts through October 14. For more information, visit

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