Fanfare for the Common Man: The Frick Welcomes van Gogh's peasant

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of a Peasant, 1888, oil on canvas, The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CAThe Comtesse and the Marchesa, the Earl and the haughty Medici-court aristocrat wearing his big codpiece, the Duke and one of Napoleon’s most dashing Conseillers d’Etat have all had to make room for an unlikely new guest in their home at New York’s Frick Collection—a French peasant, named Patience Escalier. Apart from a herdsman resting with his cows, a farmer plowing his fields at daybreak, a woman sewing and a maid attending to the needs of her mistress, the walls of the Frick Collection are mostly adorned depictions of regal, titled figures.

But on October 30, the Oval Room at the Frick became a temporary home for, Monsieur Patience, a man described by his portraitist, Vincent van Gogh, as “a pure-bred peasant,” and “a sort of man with a hoe, an old Camargue oxherd, who’s now a gardener at a farmstead.” The painting remains on view through January 20, 2013.

The work, completed in 1888, and better known simply as Portrait of a Peasant, may, indeed, depict a common man, but the bursts of color in which he is rendered, a palette of hues applied so thickly on the canvas that he takes on a three-dimensional quality, has the effect of an “electrical charge,” remarks Susan Galassi, the Frick’s senior curator, who is responsible for coordinating the loan of this work from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

No one would accuse the Frick of being a colorless institution. There are the (actual) gleaming golds on thirteenth and fourteenth century Italian altarpieces, the reds, pinks and powder blues evoking romance in Fragonard’s The Progress of Love, as well as cerulean-blue French enamels. But the pigments of the van Gogh do appear to take on a Technicolor brilliance in the otherwise muted galleries. In a letter, van Gogh asked his beloved brother, Theo, to order him vibrant colors that included—“Veronese green, chrome yellow, geranium lake, Prussian blue, zinc white.”

Van Gogh wanted to invest the colors he used with a meaning and effect beyond their obvious hue. In another letter to his brother, which is reproduced along with many others in this special exhibition, he wrote how he wanted color that “suggests the scorched air of harvest time at midday in the blistering heat,” adding, “Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness.” He believed ardently that, “…the painter of the future is a colorist such as there hasn’t been before.”

The subject he chose for this portrait is also significant. “Van Gogh started out in life with the idea of being a minister,” Galassi explains, “of devoting a life ministering to the poor. He needed to give dignity to the very common man, to the most anonymous members of society. This was an idea backed up at the time by the novels of Emile Zola and Balzac, which Van Gogh devoured. When Van Gogh gets to Provence, after leaving Paris, he immediately saw the peasant as the quintessential figure of the earth—and for whom he had a deep, personal empathy.”

Monsieur Patience has not left Pasadena in more than forty years. But in 2009, the Norton Simon and the Frick began an institutional exchange program, lending each other notable works for months at a time. Galassi explains, however, that the arrangent is not without stipulations. While acquiring his collection of paintings and sculptures, Henry Clay Frick wrote into his will that no work he acquired ever be loaned out, anywhere. However, any artwork that the Frick acquired after his death in 1919 may be lent (Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man and Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville were among the works that headed west to the Norton Simon). It was while shopping the walls of the Norton Simon for a reciprocal exchange that Galassi focused on the van Gogh.

“It’s such a significant work by van Gogh and because it’s not been seen on the East Coast for so many years, I wanted to bring it here,” says Galassi. “Plus, I was eager to show it in context with our other Dutch masters. And Van Gogh is not represented in our collection.” The Frick has two Vermeers, three Rembrandts and four Frans Hals in the collection.

No makeover was needed for Monsieur Patience for his trip to New York. But prior to getting on the plane, he was treated to a spa-like scrutiny by curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum, where a technical analysis was undertaken to reveal everything from the understudy charcoal rendering Van Gogh had put down to the thread count of the canvas. The diagnosis was good: the painting has not faded much over the years or suffered any significant flaking away of paint. Visitors can see the many studies that were done and learn about the van Gogh’s skill in creating the portrait. For a man once thought mad and impetuous, the careful applications of paint, many of which required long drying sessions before more paint could be applied, reveal an artist with a deliberate methodology that he refused to compromise.

“The time and care he took with his brushstrokes reveal that this isn’t the spontaneous, impatient lunatic people have often thought Van Gogh to be,” says Carol Togneri, chief curator at the Norton Simon. This fact, along with other details of the work—the way he dotted the “I” in his signature, the way he rendered stripes in the subject’s coat, the smearing with his fingers of surfaces on the brim of the man’s hat—“make you slow down and think about van Gogh in a different way,” adds Togneri.




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