Van Gogh In America – Maniscalco Gallery

Janice K. Johnson

I went to see Van Gogh in America today with my sister Betsy. Vincent’s family encourages everyone to take selfies with his art, so here goes nothing. More about my experience at

Vincent John Doe. It was overwhelming, the amount of great and iconic work we saw in this collection. I was blown away that the fact that the Detroit Institute of Art was the first museum in America to buy a Van Gogh. And that Detroit was a key turning point in all the effort made by Van  Gogh’s Sister in law and her daughter. It was a long, difficult evolution from obscurity to his acceptance as the great artist he was, in America.

I met an art history grad student at Oakland University there; she is doing her dissertation on Van Gogh. She pointed out that in all his drawings and paintings there were no depictions of animals other than the scribble of birds flying in the sky. I told her I was outraged and demanded my money back! No, JK. I didn’t, but isn’t that interesting, not even a sleeping cat!  My friend Erica Chappuis did some research of her own and managed to discover a few examples of animals he painted early in his brief career.

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I enjoy reverse engineering his paintings, trying to figure out which color was the last layer and working backwards into the painting to see what color was on top of what. It helps me feel his process. It was overwhelming the way the colors interact with the surface texture and vibrate in the retina. If you look closely the canvases in person, you can see when he painted over a previously dry area of the canvas, where he allowed himself time to reflect and make deliberate improvements to his work, hours or days after the initial effort. But the juxtaposition of colors to create a specific deliberate combination is so difficult to put into words. It is deeply methodical, yet so purely emotional. And the dazzling way his colors vibrate together takes my breath away. Ironically, there were a couple paintings we had just seen in Amsterdam this past summer, borrowed from the Van Gogh Museum for this exhibition.

Yet I’m so glad the curators of the exhibition made an effort to demystify him as the mad genius depicted in Lust for Life. Vincent’s work is very methodical, not mythodical. There’s as much logic and intentionality as there is raw passion. I note a delicious level of good taste in the way his palette adapts itself to the business at hand. The color combinations he puts together are very harmonious and sensible. Not the work of an insane person. More sane than any of us, I would say, which happens to be one of the themes running through my play, #VincentJohnDoe, BTW. I’m pretty certain, he created his best work in between episodes of insanity. It would be impossible to be as methodical as he clearly was, in an extreme manic or depressive state. His writings and paintings are so thoughtful and deep, I dare would describe him as insane. That this thesis, amplified by Van Gogh in America, upends our notions of him as a mad genius, in no way lessons our appreciation for his accomplishments. What he did in his ten year career could never be repeated.

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