The line stretches around the block--men, women, children of all ages--waiting for a pass to get in. Those who don't get one of the 600 tickets can come back (perhaps a little earlier) and stand in line tomorrow, or if they have more money than time, they can still get in by paying scalpers anywhere from $35. to $125. per ticket. A hit Broadway show, perhaps? Or a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Mark McGuire hit one or two more home runs? No, these avid fans wait in a line that has been forming daily since August for a chance to gaze upon some 72 paintings on loan to Washington's National Gallery of Art from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The museum there is closed, undergoing renovation and expansion. It was built in 1973 to handle 60,000 visitors a year (not exactly a trickle), but last year over a million people showed up to see the work of perhaps the most legendary artist of all time.
It's difficult to account for the popularity of Vincent van Gogh today. There are a lot of theories. His paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars. He's perhaps one of the most tragically romantic figures in the history of art, though the bit about cutting off his ear is grossly exaggerated (it was only his ear lobe). He did live with a prostitute for a short time, threatened Gauguin with a razor, suffered from a (then) incurable mental illness, committed himself to an asylum, and later almost botched his suicide. Even the barest outline of the facts of his life make for great historic fiction, such as Irving Stone's Lust for Life, and great material for a movie by the same title starring Kirk Douglas as the deranged genius. But this alone cannot account for the love people have for this man and his work.
If his fame relied solely upon his brief, tragic, 37 years of existence, we would do him a gross injustice. His paintings "sparkle" as the artist never could. They invite contemplation. They evoke awe. They soar above anything done by any other artist in the nineteenth century with the possible exception of Monet. Camille Pissarro, late in his long life, recognised van Gogh's genius: "I thought he would either go mad or leave all of us far behind. But I didn't know he would do both." The 72 paintings in this show were family heirlooms. They all passed directly from Vincent, to his brother, Theo, then to Theo's wife, and later to his son who founded the Van Gogh Museum in the 1920s. And, while the authenticity of some of van Gogh's work has been questioned recently (including his immortal The Sunflowers), the works in the National Gallery Show were all above reproach.