RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Portland Art Museum just got a nice holiday gift: a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, thought to be the only Van Gogh in an Oregon Museum or any museum in the Pacific Northwest. The donors are longtime Oregon residents, and, for the last half century, nobody but their family knew they had a Van Gogh.
NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to Portland as the painting went public.
Unidentified Woman: Two short mug-sized cappuccino to go?
STAMBERG: Coffee is fuel in rainy Portland, a welcoming city of some 500,000 moist souls, many of whom are artists. One, Victor Maldonado, learned of the art donation on local TV.
Mr. VICTOR MALDONALDO (Artist): I'm always interested how art captures the imagination of Portland. And so I was really surprised to see this Van Gogh on TV being spoken about on the evening news, so I thought, that's hilarious.
STAMBERG: He's thrilled, of course, to have a master's work in town, although fellow artist Sally Cleveland thinks all those Van Gogh sunflowers on postcards, posters, cups, ruin the image. If someone asked to use her paintings that way...
Ms. SALLY CLEVELAND (Artist): I would say no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CLEVELAND: I do not want to be a coffee mug. I would rather submit to obscurity than be a coffee mug.
(Soundbite of espresso machine, crowd chatter, footsteps)
Unidentified Woman: There it is, right here a...
STAMBERG: The Portland Art Museum's new Van Gogh has been obscure pretty much since 1884, when it was painted. There's not a sunflower in sight. Van Gogh's "Ox-Cart" is dark as coffee grounds.
Mr. BRUCE GUENTHER (Curator, Portland Art Museum): Brown and black and gray and green, and it's filled with an atmosphere.
STAMBERG: Curator Bruce Guenther says the painting was done in Neunen, a Dutch village near the Belgian border. Van Gogh made it before he went to France, Arles and those other towns in the south, and discovered sunshine.
In Holland, he painted poor peasants in an eternity of moody, brown shadow. Here, a beast of burden - the scrawny ox - hauling a rickety cart full of - dung?
Bruce 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.
Mr. GUENTHER: He becomes an artist in the gesture, the way he uses paint to sculpt the leg of the ox, 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.
STAMBERG: It's a nice story, a curator's dream, really, how this Van Gogh got to Portland - thanks to the Sohn family of Roseburg, Oregon.
Mr. GUENTHER: I got a phone call in May from someone I didn't know saying that the family had a painting and they weren't sure what to do with it. They had an idea, and could they talk to me. But I was traveling and didn't get the phone message returned. And then they called again, and I called them back, and it was Howard Sohn and he didn't say right upfront, and by the way, it's a Van Gogh.
You know, you get these calls all the time. I finally asked what it was, and he mentioned Van Gogh. And I thought, do I need to come to Roseburg?
STAMBERG: And now Roseburg has come to Portland, or at least a priceless piece of it.
Should we sit under the ox?
Mr. HOWARD SOHN: Oh, sure.
STAMBERG: Howard Sohn, the eldest of five Sohn sons, represents his 90-something parents, Fred and Frances. Howard was a little kid when he first saw "The Ox-Cart."
Mr. SOHN: My grandfather purchased the painting in 1950, my mother's father.
STAMBERG: Where was he?
Mr. SOHN: They lived in Connecticut at that time. They had it hanging in their dining room. That was the only work of art in their dining room, which had a big, long table at which we all sat - all grandchildren. 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.
STAMBERG: No ta-dahs, no tremendous excitement. More, says Howard Sohn, just a painting that hung on the wall for 50 years as decoration, not dessert.
And for all those years, Howard Sohn saw the painting some more, that gloomy, moody Van Gogh. Although, Howard doesn't think it's gloomy.
Mr. SOHN: I've never experienced it as a down or sad painting. The climate, of course, is very similar to what we experience in Oregon that's reflected here, 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.
STAMBERG: Dreary or not, eventually, Howard Sohn's parents and the rest of the family agreed their Van Gogh deserved a wider audience, and so the donation to the Portland Art Museum. Makes you wonder what else is out there in houses, in little Oregon towns.
Brian Ferriso, the museum's executive director sure wonders, and hopes the Sohn's donation plants some seeds.
Mr. BRIAN FERRISO (Executive Director, Portland Art Museum): I have always thought collectors are not necessarily owners, they're more renters. 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.
STAMBERG: 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, Mrs. Van Gogh 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 Howard's parents.
Mr. SOHN: And it disappears.
STAMBERG: At least from public view. Again, curator Bruce Guenther.
Mr. GUENTHER: The track is lost in art history, until it comes back up the road, up by the five to Portland.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STAMBERG: The city of Portland wouldn't mind the world beating a path to its door to see their Van Gogh, and a new direct flight from Amsterdam might make that possible - nice to bring some cultural tourism money to town.
After all, Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most popular painters in the history of art. And his little-known "Ox-Cart" might just draw in some crowds to sample the work of a young Dutch artist, before sunshine broke on his canvas and changed everything.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music, "Claire de Lune")
MONTAGNE: Get a look at the painting, "The Ox-Cart," at our Web site, and read about letters from Van Gogh newly on display that show a rarely seen side of this famous painter.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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