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Gift Brings Van Gogh's 'Ox-Cart' to Oregon Museum

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Gift Brings Van Gogh's 'Ox-Cart' to Oregon Museum

Art & Design

Gift Brings Van Gogh's 'Ox-Cart' to Oregon Museum

Gift Brings Van Gogh's 'Ox-Cart' to Oregon Museum

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16792247/16828030" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Vincent Van Gogh's 'The Ox-Cart' i

Vincent Van Gogh's "The Ox-Cart" (1884) was recently donated to the Portland Art Museum. Portland Art Museum, Gift of Fred and Frances Sohn hide caption

toggle caption Portland Art Museum, Gift of Fred and Frances Sohn
Vincent Van Gogh's 'The Ox-Cart'

Vincent Van Gogh's "The Ox-Cart" (1884) was recently donated to the Portland Art Museum.

Portland Art Museum, Gift of Fred and Frances Sohn
Fred and Frances Sohn i

Fred and Frances Sohn recently donated the Van Gogh painting to the Portland Art Museum. "The Ox-Cart" had been in their family for more than 50 years. Courtesy Portland Art Museum hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Portland Art Museum
Fred and Frances Sohn

Fred and Frances Sohn recently donated the Van Gogh painting to the Portland Art Museum. "The Ox-Cart" had been in their family for more than 50 years.

Courtesy Portland Art Museum
Vincent Van Gogh, in his 'Self-Portrait with Felt Hat' (1887-88). i

Vincent Van Gogh, seen here in his "Self-Portrait with Felt Hat"(1887-88). AFP/Getty Images from the Van Gogh Museum hide caption

toggle caption AFP/Getty Images from the Van Gogh Museum
Vincent Van Gogh, in his 'Self-Portrait with Felt Hat' (1887-88).

Vincent Van Gogh, seen here in his "Self-Portrait with Felt Hat"(1887-88).

AFP/Getty Images from the Van Gogh Museum
The red ox version of 'The Ox-Cart.' i

Van Gogh produced two versions of "The Ox-Cart". The second version, with a red ox, is at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Courtesy Kroller-Muller Museum hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Kroller-Muller Museum
The red ox version of 'The Ox-Cart.'

Van Gogh produced two versions of "The Ox-Cart". The second version, with a red ox, is at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands.

Courtesy Kroller-Muller Museum
Curator Bruce Guenther looks at 'The Ox-Cart' before framing. i

Curator Bruce Guenther looks at "The Ox-Cart" before framing. In this early Van Gogh work, the artist is "establishing his vocabulary as a painter," Guenther says. Jane Greenhalgh, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jane Greenhalgh, NPR
Curator Bruce Guenther looks at 'The Ox-Cart' before framing.

Curator Bruce Guenther looks at "The Ox-Cart" before framing. In this early Van Gogh work, the artist is "establishing his vocabulary as a painter," Guenther says.

Jane Greenhalgh, NPR
The Portland Art Museum i

Portland Art Museum officials hope the Sohns' gift encourages other potential benefactors to come forward. Courtesy Portland Art Museum hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Portland Art Museum
The Portland Art Museum

Portland Art Museum officials hope the Sohns' gift encourages other potential benefactors to come forward.

Courtesy Portland Art Museum

In Depth

Many people think of Vincent Van Gogh as an extraordinary painter who ended up in a sanitarium, mutilated himself and committed suicide. But an exhibit, Painted with Words, at the Morgan Library in New York City gives a more nuanced portrait.

The Portland Art Museum just got a nice holiday gift — a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. "The Ox-Cart" was owned by longtime Oregon residents who decided to share the work with the public. When they approached the museum, the owners didn't mention at first that it was by the famous Dutch artist.

The painting has been obscure pretty much since 1884, when it was created. There's not a sunflower in sight. Van Gogh's "The Ox-Cart" is dark as coffee grounds.

Curator Bruce Guenther describes the painting as "brown and black and grey and green ... and it's filled with an atmosphere."

The painting was done in Nuenen, a Dutch village near the Belgian border. Van Gogh made it before he went to Arles and other towns in southern France and discovered sunshine. In Holland, he painted poor peasants, in an eternity of moody brown shadow. In this case, a beast of burden — the scrawny ox — is hauling a rickety cart, probably full of dung.

Guenther says "The Ox-Cart" is an important early work. Van Gogh had been using oil paint for only three years, and you can see him learning to manipulate his oils like icing.

"He becomes an artist in the gesture, the way he uses paint to sculpt the leg of the ox," the curator says. "The way the wheel becomes a definition lifted off the surface of the painting with the brush is Van Gogh establishing his vocabulary as a painter. He becomes Van Gogh here. In Arles, he finds his place in history."

A Curator's Dream

The story of how this Van Gogh got to Portland is a curator's dream.

Guenther received a call saying the Sohn family of Roseburg, Ore., "had a painting and they weren't sure what to do with it." The curator was traveling and didn't get the message right away. Finally Guenther spoke with Howard Sohn, the eldest of five Sohn sons. Howard Sohn didn't immediately say how important the painting was.

"You know, you get these calls all the time," Guenther says. "I finally asked what it was and he mentioned Van Gogh and I thought, Do I need to come to Roseburg?"

Howard Sohn represents his parents, Fred and Frances Sohn. Howard Sohn was a child when he first saw "The Ox-Cart." His grandfather purchased the painting in 1950 and hung it in the family home in Connecticut.

A Van Gogh in the Dining Room

"It was the only work of art in their dining room, which had a big, long table at which we all sat, all [the] grandchildren," Howard Sohn says. "I looked at it through the '50s in their dining room. And then by 1960, it came to my parents and hung in their house."

Despite the painting's dark nature, he doesn't think it's gloomy.

"I've never experienced it as a down or sad painting," Howard Sohn says. "The climate, of course, is very similar to what we experience in Oregon ... so it's not a shock to see grayness and fog. Nor do we experience grayness and fog here as necessarily the worst thing in the world."

Dreary or not, eventually his parents and the rest of the family agreed their Van Gogh deserved a wider audience, so they donated the work to the Portland Art Museum.

A Painting's Journey

Brian Ferriso, the museum's executive director, hopes the gift encourages others to donate important works as well.

"I have always thought collectors are not necessarily owners, they're more renters," Ferriso says. "They rent these works for a period of time and ultimately the works transcend all of us. And they really do belong to a larger institution and mission and to our larger ideals about what art and culture is."

The art world likes to talk about provenance — where a picture was, and where it went. Van Gogh's mother had this painting for years — Vincent left it behind when he left Nuenen in 1885. Eventually, she sold "The Ox-Cart" to a dealer, who sold it to a collector, who sold it to a few other Dutchmen. And then to Howard Sohn's grandparents. And then it went to his parents.

Then it disappeared from public view until it turned up in Portland.

The city of Portland wouldn't mind the world beating a path to its door, to see the Van Gogh. Officials hope that a new direct flight from Amsterdam will bring some cultural tourism money to town.

After all, Van Gogh is one of the most popular painters in the history of art. And his little-known "Ox-Cart" might just draw some crowds to sample the work of a young Dutch artist, before sunshine broke on his canvas and changed everything.

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