by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (W&M Contributor)
Many of us have had the experience of visiting a museum and seeing one of the iconic paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, and thinking that we had seen it before in another museum. This is because Van Gogh did in fact make multiple versions of some of his paintings that have become the best known – such as the portraits of the postman Roulin and his family, his painting of his bedroom at Arles, and the portrait of a woman known as ‘L’Arlesienne’. The Phillips Collection in Washington recently organized a wonderful exhibition called Van Gogh: Repetitions, featuring some of these.
The practice of making a “repetition” of his own painting was, for Van Gogh as for many other painters since the Renaissance, a way of continuing to explore the possibilities of the original, as opposed to simply copying it. Repetitions always involve changes, and occasionally, as Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, he would come to like the repetition better than the original. An interesting point about the French word ‘répétition’ is that it also translates as ‘rehearsal’, a fact that was not mentioned in the exhibition material on view at the Phillips Gallery. In their letter correspondence, Vincent and his brother Theo certainly seem to have had this meaning of the word in mind. Returning to certain paintings over and over again, Van Gogh seemed to understand them as performances subject to repeated reworking.
In one letter to Theo written on September 5, 1889, when Vincent was suffering a particularly violent bout of the chronic illness that had led him to a sanitorium, he suggests that his practice of ‘repetitions’ was a form of therapy, a kind of rehearsal for what he hoped would lead to his cure. Describing a man whose portrait he was working on, he writes: “He’s a man of the people, and simpler. Anyway, you’ll see it if I succeed in it and if I do a repetition of it. I’m struggling with all my energy to master my work, telling myself that if I win this it will be the best lightning conductor for the illness.”
Another indication that Vincent and Theo both were thinking of this meaning of the word ‘répétition’ may be found in some letters from 1888. Theo Van Gogh was an art dealer, and in his letters to his brother he would report on his purchases. In January he wrote to Vincent that he had just purchased a painting by Degas, whose practice of returning repeatedly to the same subject in his paintings was one that both brothers found fascinating. The title of the painting, which showed a group of dancers preparing for a performance, was “La Répétition” – The Rehearsal.