Sunday, October 25, 2009

Columbia artist's undertaking to understand a genius

Artist Stephen Chesley was one of thousands who attended “Turner to Cezanne” when it was at the Columbia Museum of Art in the spring. Like many others, he left the show impressed, but one painting in particular – Vincent van Gogh’s “Rain-Auvers” – stuck with him.

The only Van Gogh painting in the exhibition, the artist painted it in mid July 1890. On July 27 the artist shot himself. He died two days later.

Chesley began looking into the paintings Van Gogh did that long-ago July when the artist was living in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. Chesley discovered that during those last 27 days, Van Gogh had completed 23 paintings including “Wheat Field With Crows,” one of his best-known paintings (although not, as it is often stated, his last one.)

“To be so tormented so much at that time, he was still painting with the same strength as always,” said Chesley, a Columbia artist best known for his moody landscape paintings.

Wanting to know more, Chesley researched the paintings Van Gogh did during that month, gathering up the dimensions of all 23. Van Gogh painted eight 20-by-40-inch paintings (the size of “Rain – Auvers,” and an unusual “double square size Van Gogh began using during his final months); eight 36-by-29 inches paintings; and another seven of variable sizes.

Chesley wanted to know what working like that would take.

So in May (which was the month Van Gogh moved to Auvers) Chesley started making stretchers, cutting, gluing and priming canvases of the sizes Van Gogh had done during July 1890.

On July 1 Chesley began painting; on July 27 he stopped.

Those paintings make up “27 Days in July” opening Oct. 29 at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, where the artists has long maintained a studio.

These are Chesley paintings – not Van Gogh imitations.

“That would be trite and ridiculous,” he said.

Still, some of the subject matter is similar – Van Gogh did a lot of paintings of open fields during this time and so did Chesley, but he’s always done that. In one of Chesley’s paintings, a cow grazes under a white hot sky. A boat occupied by a shadowy figure floats in a marshy creek. In another the sinking sun seems to set the world afire. A small piece with the moon in the sky and flickering fireflies is the last piece Chesley completed – darkness coming as it did to the artist who inspired it.

The painting that was in “Turner to Cezanne” is one of two Van Gogh rain paintings, the other being “Wheat Field in Rain” done in 1889, and owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Chesley didn't do a rain painting, but he has painted in the rain.

“There’s that real beauty of immersing ones self in nature – working in a thunderstorm,” Chesley said. “I had an idea of how that felt. If I’m outside and it starts raining, I keep painting.”

Van Gogh worked outside during much of his time in Auvers, although he did portraits and still life paintings as well. Chesley, who has been known as a plein air painter, mostly stayed in the studio although he went on sketching trips - often in the mid-day heat. Unlike Van Gogh, who found peace outdoors, Chesley finds the urban sprawl that has covered the farms around Columbia with apartment complexes, fast food chains and shopping centers upsetting.

“It hurts my feelings to paint around that,” he said.

One thing that Chesley repeatedly pointed out is that those 23 paintings were only a part of Van Gogh's output at Auvers, where he had moved to be close to Dr. Paul Gachet, who had treated him for mental illness and who appreciated his art, and his brother Theo. Between the time he arrived at Auvers in May and his death, he completed 75 paintings as well as many sketches. The stretcher making and canvas prep work Chesley started in May gave him some idea of the work load Van Gogh took on.

‘I still don’t get it – its numbing,” Chesley said.

For Chesley though, the painting by Van Gogh that brought him closest to the artist is a small piece he once saw at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Van Gogh had loaded a brush with paint, stuck it to the canvas and in a twisting movement like making a comma, created a cloud. Chesley does that movement, especially when he’s painting a moon. It’s something the long-dead artist taught him.

“It was like he grabbed your arm – you can feel how he did it,” Chesley said. “I was absolutely there.”

"27 Days in July" by Stephen Chesley. Opening reception 6 - 8 Thursday, Oct. 29. The show remains on display through Nov. 3. Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, 808 Lady St. (803) 252-6134.


  1. i have been looking forward to this show. thanks for reinforcing my anticipation.

  2. Truly fascinating....the entire concept. Your paintings are brilliant. Will be there in spirit. Much love, MZ (VB,Va)

  3. Genius at work.....I am so amazed at this undertaking... one genius trying to understand another! Bravo Chesley!

  4. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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