Detroit’s history of innovation is well documented. After all, the city is the birthplace of the automobile, the assembly line, the home of Motown, the nation’s first freeway (the Davison), and so many other pioneering ideas that have taken the world by storm.
What many people don’t know is that Detroit is also very important from an art historical perspective. 100 years ago, the DIA became the first American museum to acquire a painting by Vincent van Gogh. It is for this reason that the current Van Gogh in America exhibition—on view only at the DIA through January 22—is so important to everyone at the museum and can serve as a point of pride for our city.
This exhibition is a tremendous opportunity for Detroiters to experience a once-in-a-lifetime presentation of one of the world’s most well-known and beloved artists. Detroit is the only venue for this show that spotlights 74 Van Gogh works — paintings, watercolors, and drawings, along with a lithograph and an etching.
The star of the show, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait (1887; Detroit Institute of Arts), is the history-making piece. It was purchased by the DIA in 1922 and is currently on display with iconic paintings including Starry Night (1888; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Van Gogh’s Chair (1888; The National Gallery, London). This presentation of the artist’s work is the largest to take place in the United States in decades, and it features Van Gogh’s original works from museums and private collections around the world.
The exhibition not only tells the story of how Americans and American museums collected Van Gogh’s art; it also focuses on how the image of the artist was shaped in the minds of Americans in the early part of the 20th century until now.
When the DIA acquired Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait in 1922, the artist was far from being a cultural icon in America.
We have to credit the then President of the Detroit Arts Commission, Ralph H. Booth, for having the foresight to purchase this now-iconic piece for the DIA. Booth purchased the piece with a $4,200 bid during an art auction held in New York back in 1922.
At that time, Van Gogh had critical acclaim in Europe but did not have the same celebrity in America. The acquisition of the piece was seen as bold, but it turned out to be one of the most important purchases in American art museum history.
I hope Detroiters and everyone in our region can experience the history lesson that is Van Gogh in America.
The Van Gogh in America exhibition is only open through January 22, 2023. So reserve your tickets before it closes! Tickets are $14-$29 for adults; discounted prices for residents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Megan Hawthorne is the Regional Public Relations Manager for the Detroit Institute of Arts.