Van Gogh’s madness & mastery in Amsterdam

Inside the Van Gogh Musuem in Amsterdam. 
Supplied by Kailun Zhung

An afternoon wandering through the Van Gogh Museum was an intimate experience as I came to know the misunderstood genius behind the iconic name — Vincent Van Gogh. 

Where other museums have admittedly lost me to eventual boredom and disinterest, this one had me wound up in its world right until the last exhibit.

Known for both his artworks and his troubled life, the Dutch painter remains one of the most iconic and enigmatic artists to ever live. His museum in Amsterdam is a homage to his life as not only an artist, but a man, brother and friend.

My friends and I began our time with a small detour when we found out we’d visited the museum on a day featuring a free painting workshop. 

Though not part of his most famous works, several Van Gogh paintings feature pairs of shoes. Equipped with aprons, acrylic paints and a handful of brushes, we joined fellow museum goers in painting still lifes of our own footwear. 

The six colours we were given to work with were chosen to imitate the palette Van Gogh used. My friends and I tried to mimic his short, thick brush strokes, the way he used colour to create dimension, and quite honestly, his overall artistic abilities. 

We also had a quiet laugh over one aspiring Van Gogh who insisted on not taking his painting with him despite the supportive urgings of the workshop coordinator. Perhaps he didn’t think his finished product was a masterpiece worth lugging around for the rest of the day, but we carried out our paintings in the provided plastic bags proudly. 

The rest of our time at the museum was spent winding our way through the four floors of art collections that spiralled upwards through a central staircase. It was like being woven into the story of Van Gogh’s life. 

The museum featured pieces dating back to when the master first delved into art in his late twenties, while he was living in rural parts of the Netherlands. These earlier paintings were almost unrecognizable to me as Van Goghs. They were monochromatic pieces depicting peasant life. 

One of the most renowned paintings to come out of this collection of work was called The Potato Eaters — a telling name to the type of subject matter he focused on in this period of his life. 

As Van Gogh moved to France and became influenced by modern and Japanese art, his painting style changed to incorporate the brighter colours and distinctive techniques that he’s now best known for. 

Tucked into the art were glimpses into Van Gogh’s personal life. There was a darkness and bleakness to these details, such as his bold brushwork and emotional colour pallet that expressed his innermost struggles with life — most people can recall that Van Gogh cut one of his ears off under the grip of psychosis and mental illness. 

You may also know that Van Gogh only sold one painting – The Red Vineyard at Arles – while he was alive. This painting of workers among red vines seemed all the more gray against pieces like his multiple self-portraits, his vase of Sunflowers and the Bedroom in Arles sketches – so vibrant, lively and beautiful.

One of the floors, Van Gogh Close Up, was filled with letters exchanged between Van Gogh and his family and friends. 

In his lifetime, Van Gogh sent more than 600 letters to his brother Theo, whose financial support allowed his younger brother to devote his life to painting, and they remain the most touching for many people. 

It was clear to me why I could sense the hopefulness, dread and recounting of daily minutiae that you only confide in those with whom you’re closest. 

Reading some of these letters was one of my favourite parts of the museum. But mostly, I admired how all of it came together to feel like getting to know the man behind the name, even if just in the slightest way. 


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