For the modern New Yorker, Van Gogh’s world offers none of the pleasant shock of recognition we know from Manet and Renoir and Seurat. “Van Gogh in Arles,” the exhibition currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,[1] is not a beguiling spectacle; in the South of France, Van Gogh does not take the part of the city dweller on vacation in the country. Arriving in the South from Paris—where he had spent the past two years living with his brother Theo—Van Gogh, who always felt happier in a rural setting, dives so completely into the place as to make us feel that he is a native. While painting the members of the Roulin family, he writes to Theo that he is a bit like a family doctor, on familiar terms with a whole clan. Though Van Gogh’s Arles paintings have the perfume of the South, you can spend hours at “Van Gogh...


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