The Columbus Museum of Art exhibits works of art that inspired Van Gogh

If ever a great artist was in a class of his own, it was Vincent van Gogh.

The Dutch painter, born in 1853 and died in 1890, captured the imagination of the world with his sunflowers, siestas and starry nights, all executed with fierce brushwork and dazzling colors that shocked his contemporaries.

Yet a new exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art demonstrates that Van Gogh owed something to his time and place, too.Through the eyes of Vincent: Van Gogh and his sources, which opens November 12 and runs through February 6, complements 17 original Van Gogh paintings, drawings and prints with numerous works by artists to whom he owed an artistic debt, including Degas, Manet and Pissarro.

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“It is gratifying for the viewer to see the whole panorama of works produced in the 19th century and to which an artist like Van Gogh was exposed,” says chief curator emeritus David Stark, co-curator of the exhibition. “Van Gogh’s art was not produced in a vacuum.”

Portrait of Steven Naifeh (left) and Greg White Smith

Many of these works come from the collection of Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh of Aiken, South Carolina, and her late husband, Greg White Smith. In 2011, Naifeh and Smith co-wrote “Van Gogh: The Life”, a rigorously researched and widely admired biography. They also amassed a significant art collection, which did not include pieces by Van Gogh himself – the prices for his works were out of sight – but included works by others who might inform an exhibition of Van Gogh. Gogh.

For example, Van Gogh was fascinated by the work of the French impressionist Armand Guillaumin, whose paintings he entrusted to his art dealer brother, Theo. A still life in their collection, Naifeh says, is directly related to a work by Van Gogh in the “luxuriance of color” they share and even in the scene they depict.

Naifeh chose the Columbus Museum of Art as the exhibit’s host in part as a tribute to her life and writing partner, Smith, who was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1981 but spent most of his childhood in Columbus. Smith died in 2014. “I knew how deeply meaningful it would have been for Greg to see our collection in Columbus,” says Naifeh, who co-curated the exhibit with Stark and whose new book, “Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved,” just came out of Random House. “I knew what people across America don’t necessarily know…and that’s what a great museum in Columbus is.”

"Van Gogh and the artists he loved" by Steven Naifeh

However, the museum does not have Van Gogh. Since Van Gogh’s works are difficult to borrow in large numbers, few museums could undertake a Van Gogh-only exhibition.

“We realized that [our collection] would allow regional museums – other than the Met, the National Gallery or the Art Institute of Chicago – to mount a Van Gogh exhibition of significance,” says Naifeh. After its Columbus tour, the exhibit will go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

One of three children born to William R. Smith, who built hotels and restaurants in Columbus, and Kathryn White Smith, Greg White Smith was a prodigy. At 8, he composed novels with his father’s dictaphone; her mother dutifully typed.

Smith attended Columbus Academy and took drawing lessons that informed his own amateur architectural drawings of imaginary houses based on those he encountered in Bexley, where his family lived. “He never really considered himself a visual arts lover, but he was,” Naifeh says. “He went to as many museums as he could.”

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Although Naifeh and Smith met while students at Harvard Law School, neither felt destined for a career in law. Naifeh had a long interest in art and graduated with a degree in fine arts. At the same time, when the two set out to write their first art book, “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga” in 1989, he viewed Smith’s relative lack of academic study of art as an asset.

“When he approached the material, he approached it without any pre-determined idea,” says Naifeh.

After Pollock’s book, which took a decade to research and write, Smith and Naifeh took on Van Gogh’s even more arduous book. Since neither spoke Dutch, they employed 11 translators; they paid the bills and helped fund their art collection by publishing a line of annual books that touted the country’s top doctors and lawyers.

But Smith had health problems; a brain tumour, first discovered when he was 22, plagued him all day, requiring 13 surgeries, and eventually took his life.

Two circles close with the arrival of this exhibition in Columbus: it brings Van Gogh back to his own cultural context, and it brings Greg White Smith home.

“He loved the city,” says Naifeh.

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Monthly Columbus.

Mildred D. Field