The monarch’s birthday is a national holiday in The Netherlands. A peculiarity of the occasion is that the date changes from reign to reign, as may the name of the holiday. It was Queen’s Day when the current king’s mother was on the throne. When King Willem Alexander was crowned, it became King’s Day (Konigsdag). King’s Day is 27 April, and we knew in advance that it would fall towards the end of our time in Amsterdam. Schools and most businesses are closed. In honor of the ruling dynasty, the House of Orange, people dress in orange. They decorate public places with flags, balloons and streamers of the same bright hue. It is a celebration of Dutch identity and history, and an excuse to start drinking early in the day. Amsterdam bills its King's Day revels as The World’s Largest Street Party.
King’s Day festivities did not diminish attendance at the museum. We had bought our tickets while still in The States, assuming that Van Gogh’s popularity would make the museum an obligatory tourist destination. At the entrance, signs informed us that all of the day’s tickets had sold out, and it seemed that as many local denizens as foreigners were there.
The Van Gogh Museum is fifty years old, though it is housed in a contemporary glass-walled structure near the Rijksmuseum. Van Gogh’s nephew and namesake, Vincent, was instrumental in organizing the core collection.
I had to admire the curators’ acumen in choosing to focus on the person in addition to the paintings. Usually I resist that sort of orientation, but I liked the chronological display of self-portraits in Van Gogh’s case because they illustrated his development as an artist. The series forced an intimacy with the painter as a complex man, not the stereotypical sad genius with an iconic style and poor impulse control.
There were paintings from every phase of Van Gogh’s abbreviated life. Many were so familiar that being near them in the galleries felt unreal. Others were less well known, and a few were completely new to me. There were also paintings by other artists who had influenced Van Gogh, some of them his friends. I have always appreciated the beauty and vitality of Van Gogh’s art. So do millions around the world. I was not prepared, however, for the intensity of emotion that I experienced as I saw Van Gogh’s inner turbulence expressed on canvas all around me.
We emerged from the museum into sunshine. The museum plaza and streets were filling with merrymakers sporting orange clothing and accessories. The holiday mood assuaged the lingering melancholy of Van Gogh’s fate.
Our trip ends tomorrow, and I thank you for joining me in the Low Countries. May I invite you to join me on my next adventure? Hopefully, it will be soon...
Self-Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1887
The Vicarage at Nuenen, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885
The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888
Irises, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890