WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. >> Vincent Van Gogh's sister wrote late in her life that as a boy Vincent always knew the names of butterflies, birds and flowers. They lived in the country, in a village in the southern Netherlands, and he was often outdoors.
He found solace there, said Clark Art Institute curator at large Richard Kendall, in marshes and waterlilies.
"He was at ease in nature," Kendall said, "as a city dweller might not be."
And he is known for images like sunflowers, no show has ever made nature a focus, Kendall said, or claimed to take a new and close look at Van Gogh's love of the outdoor world.
This summer in the Clark will do both in "Van Gogh and Nature," a broad and detailed show Kendall has curated in Williamstown, Mass, with Chris Stolwijk, director of RKD/Netherlands Institute for Art History and a former curator at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, and Sjraar van Heughten, an independent curator and former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum.
The show will follow Van Gogh from his boyhood to his last years in France. Kendall and his colleagues have borrowed widely, from Dutch collections to the National Gallery of Scotland. Van Gogh is much in demand, Kendall said, and he takes pleasure in the works they have gathered together.
"[Van Gogh] is so direct, so engaged and enthusiastic," Kendall said.
When he reaches his mature style, in Provence painting wheat fields, the lines and color and composition fill the scenes with energy. Nature thrilled him, Kendall said.
"He painted the rhythms of a scene — he painted the landscape as a living thing, more than any artist before him."
He painted rhythms in mountainsides, clouds in air currents, wheat trembling and alive, swaying in the breeze, Kendall said. He connected their movement.
Van Gogh spent much of his live in motion. He worked as a bookseller and as a preacher, lived one winter in a hovel while getting to know a community of miners — and when he chose art, it took him away from home. He left the Nethrlands for Paris and later Provence.
"He was teaching himself to be an artist by pure hard work," Kendall said. "His parents thought he was nuts, and he was bearish around them."
During his lifetime people thought his drawings crude and clumsy. He painted with big brushes and "colors off the charts," Kendall said.
"The people who got him first were other artists," he said, "Gaughin, Emile Benard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat."
When he first came to Paris, exhilarated by the Impressionists and their vivid colors, he painted flowers, Kendall said. In one of the most modern cities in the world, he painted tangled parks and village-like neighborhoods. In Monmartre, he found windmills.
And then, tired of Paris, he headed to the south of France, to Arles, to paint blossoming trees, cedars and farm houses and a field of yellow flowers at his feet.
He lived apart from most of his family, and in Provence he began suffering from fits, probably a form of epilepsy, Kendall said. He checked himself into a hospital in St. Remy where, eventually, a doctor gave him room to paint and let him walk in the grounds — and he painted a picture every day: olive trees and rocky hills, fields after a storm This show will bring together a spring, summer and fall view from his window, Kendall said, like a tryptich in a Renaissance altar-piece.
"He wasn't an easy person to get on with," he said. "His brother supported him and also supported his work. The two brothers dide within a year of each other. The tide was turning, people began to write about Van Gogh's work and exhibit it. It all happened too late."
But he lived with passion and curiosity. Kendall finds a record in Van Gogh's letters — vivid, spontaneous and colorful glimpses into his mind.
His father had almost certainly given him a background in science — in this age middle class families often went for improving walks to look at the trees and the birds' nests, Kendall said.
As an adult, Van Gogh read widely in science and wrote in his letters on topics from astronomy to Isaac Newton to the second law of thermodynamics (that entropy, chaos, constantly increases). He knew not only birds and animals but how and where they lived — he once wrote to his brother that he had just found a golden oriole's nest. He spoke of butterflies and birds by their Latin names, thinking his readers would know them just as well.
"He's not showing off," Kendall said. "In England well-known scientists gave public lectures. It was thought to be good for people to know about science and nature."
Kendall has written a chapter in the show's catalog on these writings. His Dutch colleagues, he said, have enthusiastically helped him in his search.
Van Gogh lived in a time of scientific advances, he said, and people in Europe were learning about the wider world, from the steppes to the alpamayo in South America. Van Gogh had books of Japanese prints and read and explored in these areas too.
"He said he wanted to go to Africa," Kendall said. "Imagine a giraffe painted by Van Gogh."
He came instead to a small town near Paris, near the end of his life, to paint a landscape in the rain. Kendall finds it elemental — a stripped-down image of green growth, wind, earth and water. It was the last work he painted, Kendall said, before he took his own life.
"It's sad," Kendall said. "He was such a great artist, and he felt the world couldn't absorb him."