Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a 2014 exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, highlighted excellent examples of cubism, surrealism, futurism, abstract expressionism, and other genres through the work of dozens of well-known artists. Curators not only focused on mid-century work, but also cast back to the waning days of the 1800s to find the earliest traces of a modernist impulse. The exhibit offered Denver art enthusiasts a close-up look at Vincent van Gogh’s La Maison de la Crau, known as The Old Mill in English.
The 1888 oil-on-canvas painting is one of about 200 that Van Gogh created during the little more than a year he spent at Arles in the light-rich south of France. In The Old Mill, he used color to evoke emotion, rather than simply faithfully reproducing the mill’s real color scheme. His portrait of the mill, with the rushing water at its foot, the turquoise sky, and the sun-drenched earth of the surrounding countryside, work together to produce a mood of quiet ease and subdued joy.
A number of critics consider the Arles period to be one of Van Gogh’s most inspired. He worked quickly, and some commentators have accused him of a lack of care. Yet a close examination of The Old Mill shows his focus and thoughtfulness for the effect of each kind of brush stroke. He used short, swift strokes for the delicate greens in the foliage, for example, and long, sweeping ones for vertical lines, such as those used to create fence posts.