“Journey to the fount of knowledge” Erika Schneider’s search for Vincent van Gogh

[Darian O'Donnell]

On a quest to understand artist Vincent van Gogh, Erika Schneider, professor of art history, embarked on a “secularized” pilgrimage to the Netherlands and France.

Schneider focused on what she saw and what she learned in museums, landscapes and art to better her role in research and teaching.

On April 13, Schneider spoke about her research to the FSU community in the annual Spring Lycuem Lecture, sponsored by The Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship, and Service (CELTSS).

Assistant Director of CELTSS Jon Huibregtse said, “Erika’s scholarship has been supported by her numerous grants and awards through the years. Her engagement with both the scholarly community and the larger community in Framingham exemplifies the teacher-scholar model.”

In the fall of 2015, Schneider received a Fulbright-Terra Foundation Award for History in American Art. Through her scholarship, she was able to teach at Radboud University in the Netherlands and explore obscure locations associated with Vincent van Gogh.

“For an art historian, traveling to see famous artistic sites is a journey to the fount of knowledge,” Schneider said.

From his birthplace in the Netherlands to his final resting place in France, Schneider made it a personal goal of hers to retrace Van Gogh’s life by visiting the places that inspired most of his work.

She first observed museum practices.

Her first stop was the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo, Netherlands – the second-largest collection of Van Gogh’s art work. She compared the labels in Dutch museums as “more accessible and more friendly” than the labels in the MFA in Boston.

In the Vincentre museum, in Van Gogh’s hometown of Nuenen, all labels were in Dutch.

“In general, I find the larger European museums, particularly Paris and Amsterdam, very approachable as an English speaker. Some of the smaller museums, particularly in the Netherlands, had only Dutch labeling,” she said.

Her second goal was to see “van Gogh’s paintings in person, particularly those not available locally.”

The van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has the largest collection of the artist’s work on display, including “The Potato Eaters,” a work van Gogh considered his “masterwork.”

The painting is of a family cramped around a small table in a dark room, eating potatoes.

Schneider said van Gogh wanted to depict hard labor. Ambitious, he studied peasants, drawing over 100 portraits of farm workers to emphasize the people in “The Potato Eaters.”

Looking at the original painting, Schneider started seeing details she never saw before.

“There are details that I suppose if I lightened it enough, I could see. But, seeing it in person, now it made more sense what he was trying to communicate. It wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. So, I’m always sort of amazed by that – when you go to see works, how different they look,” she said.

In 1886, van Gogh left the Netherlands for France.

“The journey to France from the Netherlands made me aware of those sort of sharp contrasts of the land. … Also, how van Gogh continued to look to his birthplace in new settings. So, for example, he settled in Monmouth, France, where all the artists settled. But what does he paint? He paints windmills that he has seen in Nuenen,” she said.

While in France, van Gogh started experimenting, inspired by the color theory movement and the scenes in Arles, France, such as the café.

Thinking about where the artist painted, Schneider traveled to Langlois bridge where Van Gogh painted “Langlois Bridge at Arles.”

“Able to go there, I could see how far that route was. … We drove, but it was a very rough road. Lots of potholes. Lots of complaining. It’s not that close and that’s helpful as a teacher to sort of talk about that experience of where he’s painting,” she said.

Schneider also traveled to Arles Café, where Van Gogh painted “Café Terrace at Night.” She noticed the remains of a classical building from Roman times and wondered why van Gogh didn’t include the building in his painting, since people in van Gogh’s time went to Arles to see the ruins.

“He’s more interested in the light. He’s interested in what the sky looks like in his imagination, combined with his reality,” she said.

Schneider next went to Saint-Paul Monastery in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where van Gogh spent the last years of his life. He would paint 143 paintings in his 57-week stay at this location, including “The Starry Night,” and “Irises.” While there, she observed the landscape.

In van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” Schneider said, “You start to see the hills. You start to see what is there and what is not there, even though it’s been several decades and things have changed.”

The hills may be similar, but the town and the church in “The Starry Night” aren’t there. She said the town and church are in the Netherlands and again, van Gogh is looking at his birthplace in a new setting.

“That, for me, made more sense to see it. … I want students to also have that moment where they can say, ‘Oh, I didn’t notice that before. Now, I can see that,’” Schneider said.

Her final stop was Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where Van Gogh and his brother were buried.

“I usually know better then to touch monuments and works of art, but I wanted the physicality of contact,” she said.

Schneider thanked van Gogh for all the work “he had given the world,” emotionally taking a step back to idolize van Gogh and his brother.

“Next to Vincent lies Theo, who died six months after his brother and was reunited with his widow in 1914. So, the bodies were brought together. My own brother had died just four months before my trip, so my thoughts collided on brothers, art and the brevity of life,” she said.

Schneider said people would undertake pilgrimages to obtain a reward or blessing from a shrine, such as everlasting life, facing bandits and uncharted roads along the way.

She said, “For some, a pilgrimage can be a catharsis and a respite from daily life, if only for the length of that journey. For me, seeing art in person has always been one of the highlights of my experience as an art historian. I enjoy it so much that I forget it’s my job. Although I don’t fear for my soul, like the medieval pilgrims did, I do think my secular pilgrimage makes me a better professor.”

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