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Van Gogh’s Head, Gauguin Girls, Cezanne’s Onions Shine in S.F.

"Portrait of the Artist" by Vincent Van Gogh. Source: de Young Museum via Bloomberg

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- In Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Artist” (1887), his orange-red hair and beard glow so brightly against the dark-green background that it seems his head is on fire.

The picture hangs among 117 Post-Impressionist paintings loaned by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay to San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Museum. It’s a tremendous show.

Van Gogh’s career is summarized in six other paintings, including the iconic “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888) and “Bedroom at Arles” (1889), with its lemon-yellow highlights and strangely cramped perspective. They show how his surfaces take on thicker layers of paint and become more heavily worked and chromatically complex.

“Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond” is the second of two traveling shows from the d’Orsay, and it picks up where the first left off, in about 1880. Visitors are greeted by works from the established masters of the time, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s charming “A Dance in the Country” (1883) and John Singer Sargent’s bravura full-length portrait of a Spanish dancer, “La Carmencita” (1890).

Next is a room full of Pointillism, with 11 luminous works by Georges Seurat (mostly small studies for his monumental canvases such as “La Grande Jatte”) and several large paintings by less-well-known artists, including Paul Signac.

Tahitian Dog

After the Van Goghs, Paul Gauguin is represented by 10 works, notably his 1890-91 self-portrait with a yellow crucifixion scene in the background and the enigmatic “Arearea” (1892), featuring two young Tahitian women sitting under a tree while an orange-brown dog sniffs the ground in front of them.

Paul Cezanne gets eight paintings in the show, including the luscious tubers of “Still Life With Onions” (1896-98) and the muscular male nudes of “Bathers” (1890). The room demonstrates how Cezanne’s paintings become increasingly abstract while still depicting tangible objects.

The final galleries deliver the “and Beyond” of the title, with cheerful landscapes from the Pont-Aven school; quiet domestic scenes by the Nabis group, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Felix Vallotton; and large decorative panels with hints of art nouveau and Japanese influences.

Japanese-Style Screen

Edouard Vuillard’s 1894 five-panel scene of a public garden, with well-dressed children, mothers and nannies in a gold-and-green landscape that recalls Japanese painted screens, provides a dramatic conclusion to the show.

The first exhibition in this series, “Birth of Impressionism,” attracted 432,000 visitors in less than four months. The sequel, also made possible by the multiyear renovation of the Musee d’Orsay, is certain to be another hit.

“Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond” runs through Jan. 18 at the M.H. de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Information: +1-415-750-3600.

(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Stephen West in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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