Van Gogh exhibition opens in St. Louis

— Vincent van Gogh called them the artists of the "petit boulevard."

They were defiantly removed from the more mainstream "grand boulevard" of Impressionism walked by Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir and others. They were the side-street, cutting-edge artists of their time, and their rebellious work laid the foundation for modern art.

Much of their work had never reached the United States until now.

The exhibition, "Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard," opened last weekend at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Nearly 70 works by van Gogh and nine contemporaries are included, organized by curators at the St. Louis museum, the show's only American venue. After May 17, "Petit Boulevard" travels for the summer to the Staedel in Frankfurt, Germany, for the show's only other opening.

"Petit Boulevard" surveys a period from the mid-1880s to early 1890s when van Gogh interacted in France with other avant-garde painters, including Paul Gauguin, Emile Barnard and Georges Seurat.

By then, the Impressionists had broken barriers by rejecting academic norms of technique and subject matter. Often, they tried to spontaneously interpret visual reality � things as they are seen � rather than record things as they are.

In established Impressionism, Van Gogh and other post-Impressionists found a new set of ideas that could be challenged. Just as often, they challenged each other. In their thirst for new ideas, the artists influenced each other at least as much as they disagreed.

"They were not all great friends," said Cornelia Homburg, the exhibition's curator. "Some of them hated each other. But van Gogh was the one who ignored, pointedly, their differences."

Developing their styles

The show's importance lies in its challenge of popular notions that van Gogh was an insane, anti-social genius.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said museum director Brent Benjamin. "He was actually very engaged in the avant-garde."

The argument that van Gogh was a thoughtful and social member of an artistic movement is one that Homburg, an internationally recognized van Gogh expert, has been making for years.

"I had for a long time this idea that we needed a new view of van Gogh," Homburg said. "He's actually the turning and starting point of the show. It's him that needed to know these artists."

In 1886, van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his art dealer brother, Theo. The painter had just left an art academy in Antwerp, Belgium, after three months of refusing to follow academic principles. Before that, he had spent much of 1884 and 1885 in rural Netherlands, a period that produced such works as the masterpiece "The Potato Eaters."

While in Paris, van Gogh met and began to circulate among the group that, in a letter, he would dub the "painters of the petit boulevard." Among them:

� Gauguin, the stockbroker-turned-painter who went with van Gogh in 1888 to Arles, France. Though the two men are often depicted as friends, they argued often and their personal and artistic differences were great, Homburg said.

� Barnard, who sketched brothel scenes before he turned 20. His pastel "The Hour of the Flesh," is an example of an impressive work borrowed only for this exhibition from a private collection.

� Camille Pisarro, a central Impressionist figure whose attraction to new ideas and techniques endeared him to the younger generation of avant-garde painters. Works by his son, Lucien Pisarro, also are included in the show.

� Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, probably best known for his posters depicting cafes, prostitutes and the seamy side of Parisian night life.

� Louis Anquetin, who became greatly influenced by Japanese artwork. His "Woman with a Veil" is among the show's pieces that have never been seen on American soil.

Ultimately, through their interactions and experiments, each painter developed a very personal style, Homburg said. Because many of these pieces have never been seen together, the show offers a rare chance to see them in juxtaposition. For example, even those with little knowledge of art can enjoy distinct portraits painted of the same woman � "Madame Roulin" � by van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

Money sources

The exhibition is in St. Louis thanks to more than $1 million contributed by the William T. Kemper Foundation, Commerce Bank and the Arthur and Helen Baer Foundation. The gift is the single largest ever for the St. Louis Art Museum.

Incidentally, the museum in January purchased "Head of a Peasant Woman," an 1885 van Gogh portrait of one of the subjects from "The Potato Eaters." The piece was acquired for $2.9 million from the Galerie Daniel Malingue in Paris. It is not included in the exhibition because it precedes van Gogh's time in Paris.

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