Those Brushstrokes, Though: Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, House at Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 24 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1952

Re-opening the original Phillips house galleries this June allowed the curatorial team to create new dialogues between artists. One of the more surprising, on the surface, is the side-by-side installation of Vincent van Gogh’s House at Auvers, 1890, and Francis Bacon’s Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Painted more than 60 years apart, these paintings would never be hung together in a traditional, chronological museum installation. Luckily for everyone, the Phillips was founded with the belief that works be hung in conversations with one another regardless of art movement, time period, etc.

Francis Bacon, Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Oil on canvas, 78 x 54 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1955 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015

Bacon and van Gogh shared similar mental struggles that manifested themselves in their work. Their respective feelings of anxiety and alienation find parallels not only in subject matter but style. In fact, Bacon admired van Gogh, and it’s safe to assume van Gogh’s brushwork influenced this work in particular.

The high horizon lines that draw your eye back into the pictures along with the staccato brushstrokes of the fields create an almost foreboding sense of dread. In van Gogh’s painting, it seems as though we will never reach the home across the turbulent field. The hope for safety (and, perhaps, sanity) lies in the walled-off home that is almost being pushed out of the painting’s frame, out of view.

In Bacon’s, however, we are being pushed to confrontation with a crouching figure who appears to have just materialized like a hallucination. The open brushwork and the exposed, unprimed canvas leave us nowhere to hide. We are face to face with an embodiment of the artist’s anxiety and psychosis. Is the subject a predator, or someone seeking solitude?

Both paintings seem to be paused in time, a snapshot of each artist’s travails, with no beginning and no end.

Volunteer Spotlight: Natalie Hall

In this series, Manager of Visitor and Family Engagement Emily Bray profiles volunteers within the museum. Phillips volunteers are an integral part of the museum and help in many ways: greeting and guiding guests through the museum, helping with Sunday Concerts, assisting patrons in the library, helping out with Phillips after 5 and special events, and so much more. Our volunteers offer a wealth of expertise and experience to the museum, and we are delighted to highlight several them.

Natalie Hall, Art Information Volunteer

Natalie Hall (left)

What year did you start volunteering at The Phillips Collection?
I began volunteering in 2008 after I retired from my position as an administrator at an independent school in Alexandria. We were members of the Phillips so volunteering was an easy extension of that interest.

What do you see as the most valuable aspect of your volunteering?
I love to interact with guests who have a range of questions from the mundane but important “Where’s the restroom?” to discussion of Duncan Phillips’s life and ideas as a collector.  The exhibit Moving Forward, Looking Back in the first gallery has really sparked curiosity about the Phillips family and the collection.

What do you do when you are not volunteering at The Phillips Collection?
We travel a lot to visit family in the US and Jordan and visit colleagues in Indonesia and Thailand.  I am also very involved with Arlington politics and lobby for the National Peace Corps Association.

What is your favorite room or painting here?
Like Duncan Phillips, I love the color of the Pierre Bonnard paintings and Vincent van Gogh’s “The Garden at Arles.” Georgia O’Keeffe is another favorite.

If you had to choose one word to describe the Phillips, what would it be?

Share a fun fact about you!
I study Indonesian at the Embassy close to the Phillips. We taught in Java and Bali.  The wealth of art in all forms was fascinating, especially in Bali.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
Emily Bray has been so supportive of volunteers.  The flexibility of self-scheduling is most welcome. People should consider volunteering.


A Longing to be Stylish


Vincent van Gogh, Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 35 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1930

The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is counted among the greatest artists of all time. His most famous and beloved masterpieces like The Starry Night and Sunflowers plaster the walls of dormitories, classrooms, and office spaces. Here at The Phillips Collection, we are lucky enough to own Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles and The Road Menders, among others. Both works are currently on view at the Phillips.

Though van Gogh’s widespread fame today may not suggest it, he was only successful in selling a single painting during his lifetime, The Red Vineyards at Arles. His brother and pen pal, Theo, worked as an art collector, frequently expending his resources to attempt to sell Vincent’s paintings. As an intern here at the Phillips, and as an aspiring art professional, I feel a deep and humble connection to van Gogh and his particular struggle to be recognized as an artist. Van Gogh was perpetually fighting an uphill battle, and was rarely taken seriously by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he produced more than almost any other known artist, as nearly 900 paintings and over 1,000 drawings survive him.

Striving to find one’s place in the art world is daunting. Van Gogh was constantly reminded that his technique was not in style, that he had started too late, and that he was an amateur. Undergraduate art students are often faced with the challenge of explaining our passion to those who see it as a hobby, as idealistic, or as necessarily non-lucrative. Though I am certain that any young artist would prefer to sell a few more paintings than our friend van Gogh, it is inspiring to read the stories and letters of a man with such great hope, in the face of very few tangible successes. Perhaps this was best for Vincent, as he stated in a March 1882 letter to Theo: “Occasionally, in times of worry, I’ve longed to be stylish, but on second thought I say no—just let me be myself—and express rough, yet true things with rough workmanship.”

Elizabeth Federici, Marketing & Communications Intern