Detroit Institute of Arts: 100 years of the first Van Gogh in the U.S.

Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit institute of Arts (Carmichael Cruz, WDIV)

DETROIT – The Detroit Institute of Arts holds the distinction of being the first public museum in the United States to purchase a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It all started in 1922 when the museum purchased Self-Portrait. That painting is still part of the DIA’s permanent collection, delighting visitors for a century.

100 years later, a new exhibition at the DIA is now open showcasing 74 authentic Van Gogh works collected from museums and collections around the world.

Van Gogh in America is a retrospective of Van Gogh’s slow rise to fame in the United States and the incredible efforts by, first, the DIA, and then several other museums that would bring him to superstardom.

We chat with Van Gogh in America’s curator, Jill Shaw, and the DIA’s Director, Salvador Salort-Pons, all about the significance of the historic purchase a century ago and what it means for Detroit today.

The Detroit Institute of Arts played a huge role in bringing Van Gogh to America, can you talk a bit about that history?

Shaw: It’s pretty remarkable that the DIA is the first museum in the United States to have purchased a work by him. It’s an incredible feather in our cap. It’s the reason why we are the ones to tell the story. I think we have every right to tell the story. We have a significant history after 1922 when we first purchased that work. It’s really the core thesis of the show.

How long have you been working on this project?

Shaw: Six years. I started here in 2016 and on the third day, Salvador [Salort-Pons], my director, started talking to me about organizing a Van Gogh show. We had originally planned to open the show in June 2020 but come March 2020 the whole world changed. I was just happy he didn’t say we have to cancel the show, we just have to reschedule it. But that meant we basically had to reorganize the whole exhibition again from the start. We had to reapply for all the loans. We had to pull a catalog that was ready to be printed but we pulled it from the press so that we could have a publication that is current with the installation that we have now.

So you had to reapply for each individual piece that was borrowed?

Shaw: Yes, exactly. So the DIA has five Van Gogh’s, they’re all in the exhibition. Then we have two additional works that are from our collection by other artists. Everything else is a loan. So Salvador and I took a lot of time visiting museums, writing letter after letter, meeting with people to get these the first time and then we had to turn around and do that again.

Were they understanding of the situation?

Shaw: Absolutely. There were some works that we couldn’t secure for the second venue because they had already been promised to other shows that weren’t cancelled or postponed. Salvador let me go back through our list of works and he let me request additional works. We weren’t able to secure about eight works, but we gained 14. We’re sad that some of the ones that were originally committed couldn’t be here, but at the end of the day we were able to make lemonade out of lemons.

How does it feel now that the exhibition is open to the public?

Shaw: It’s totally amazing. You walk in and ask anybody, “What do you think?” And they’re just smiles. As a curator, that’s what we do it for. Of course, I have personal gratification out of this. I was able to pursue research and my intellectual pursuits. But at the end of the day it’s not my project, it’s the museum’s. The fact that we’re getting so many positive responses to this. That’s what it’s for and that’s why we do it.

Salort-Pons: I think it’s a beautiful exhibition and I think we tell a beautiful story. We have installed the exhibition in a way that is inspiring. And the works are magnificent. When the visitor goes into the show, there is a rhythm in the visit. You’re surrounded by beautiful design, beautiful stories, beautiful art.

Visitors of the Detroit Institute of Arts check out Van Gogh's "Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles." (WDIV)

Why do you think Van Gogh is such an important part of our culture right now?

Salort-Pons: Van Goh has become an icon in the world’s culture that goes beyond our history. I think everybody knows the name. Everybody’s familiar with the art. These works are inspiring, his life story is inspiring. His works were much connected with his spirituality and his love of Earth. He really loved Earth and the power and spirituality of nature, and those things resonate with us today.

Shaw: It’s not that it’s a new thing. But I do think that the pandemic was a moment of introspection for many people. It was a resetting moment about what we think we value and prioritize. Somebody like Van Gogh, his subjects are so everyday. They’re so humble. In the exhibition, you see him painting his own pair of shoes that he walks through dirt, through the fields, and making commonplace subjects heroic in a way. I think there’s something about it that’s appealing to people even before the pandemic.

Is there a flow in the way the exhibit is organized to tell Van Gogh’s story?

Shaw: It’s a thematic show. This exhibition doesn’t aim to explore Van Gogh’s process from his earlier moments to his last days. It’s really about talking about the reception of his works in the United States. We really document major tipping points, and you don’t see everything in chronological order. There is one particular suite of three galleries that are dedicated to his first museum retrospective which was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1935. We were able to bring in a lot of works in that exhibition.

Salvador Salort-Pons and Jill Shaw of the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Was there anything in your research that you found really fascinating?

Shaw: It took me a while to truly believe we were the first museum in the United States to buy a Van Gogh. It wasn’t hard to trace these first acquisitions by museums in the United States, but the first handful of museums were all Midwestern institutions. They weren’t East Coast. It wouldn’t be until 1941 that a New York museum acquires a work by Van Gogh. Before that there was us, there was the Art Institute of Chicago, Nelson-Atkins, St. Louis and Toledo. For us to be able to not only highlight Detroit’s accomplishment, but also our region is pretty cool.

What are you hoping visitor gets out of this exhibition, especially for Detroiters?

Salort-Pons: For me, it’s important that they remember that the museum had the vision to buy his art when nobody else did. But I also hope that they get inspired by Van Gogh, by his work, by his life, by his struggle. I think that also connects with the world today, especially after we came out of this pandemic. We suffered so much.

Shaw: I want people to feel pride in this museum. I want them to be able to come back to the museum years to come and look at our Self-Portrait and all of our Van Goghs in a different way than they usually do when they’re just installed in our permanent collection galleries. People don’t correlate some of his earlier works with his practice. Most people really think of his latest work: the swirls, the big brush strokes, and that vibrant color, as the epitome of his work. But he had a career too that developed. It’s hard to conceive an exhibition about the reception of his work in America without talking about Hollywood and the ways that his work has been mediated through a variety of channels. I want people to come away from this knowing that Van Gogh did have challenges, he had moments of mental crisis, there’s no doubt about it. But those moments weren’t what defined him and his art. He practiced. He worked really hard. It was a short career, only 10 years.

Van Gogh in America is open now and runs at the Detroit Institute of Arts through January 22, 2023. For more information, schedules and tickets, visit

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