Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) is the very epitome of an artist overlooked in life who achieved unimaginable posthumous fame. Even when Van Gogh began to gain renown, thanks to the tireless advocacy of his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, his reception around the globe was rather uneven—celebrated in some places, shrugged off in others.
Among the Johnny-come-latelys? The United States. Van Gogh’s work wasn’t exhibited here until 1913, at the famed Armory Show in New York City, Chicago, and Boston. But none of his works sold—likely because their prices were similar to those of works by more internationally known masters like Monet and Cézanne. Van Gogh-Bonger refused to budge on the pricing, and she had good reason for her obstinance: Europe was beginning to buy. She didn’t realize, however, that America was a notoriously conservative art market.
“We weren’t quite ready for him yet. It’s mind-boggling to me that there was a moment when America didn’t embrace this artist, considering how ever-present he is today,” says exhibition curator Jill Shaw, head of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ modern and contemporary department and its curator of European art from 1850 to 1970.
Interestingly, when Van Gogh was finally embraced Stateside, elite East Coast collectors and institutions weren’t the ones leading the charge. Instead, for decades, Van Gogh’s greatest U.S. stronghold was the Midwest. In 1922 the Detroit Institute of Arts became the first public museum to acquire and display a Van Gogh—a Self-Portrait With Straw Hat (1887)—as part of its permanent collection. (Albert Barnes was the first American individual to acquire a work for his private collection, but it was rarely exhibited.) The Art Institute of Chicago followed in 1926 (The Bedroom, 1889), as did Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1932 (a painting in the “Olive Trees” series, 1889) and the St. Louis Art Museum in 1935 (Stairway at Auvers, 1890).
Currently, American-held Van Goghs are on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts for its “Van Gogh in America” exhibition, timed to the centennial of the institute’s acquisition of its Self-Portrait. According to Shaw, authorities at the Van Gogh Museum believe the exhibition is the first to focus on the artist’s reception in the United States.
Shaw says “Van Gogh in America” will expose audiences to a fuller view of Van Gogh than his “greatest hits.” “It’s incredible what we latch on to as his signature works,” she says. “There’s much more to Van Gogh than his swirly, thick brushstrokes.”
Below, Shaw gives us a rundown of some of the premier Van Gogh works in the United States, nearly all of which are on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts through January 22, 2023.