Van Gogh at the Columbus Museum of Art: “Through Vincent’s Eyes”

Works collected by the artist’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Columbus native Greg White, will be displayed alongside the masterworks they inspired.

Peter Tonguette
“Oleanders” by Vincent van Gogh

If ever a great artist was in a class by himself, surely it was Vincent van Gogh. 

The Dutch painter, who was born in 1853 and died in 1890, captured the world’s imagination with his sunflowers, siestas and starry nights, all realized with ferocious brushwork and brilliant colors that shocked his contemporaries. 

Yet a new exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art makes the case that Van Gogh also owed something to his time and place. Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources, which opens Nov. 12 and runs through Feb. 6, supplements 17 original paintings, drawings and prints by Van Gogh with numerous works by artists to whom he owed an artistic debt, including Degas, Manet and Pissarro. 

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“It’s rewarding for the viewer to see the whole panorama of works that were being produced in the 19th century and that an artist like Van Gogh was exposed to,” says chief curator emeritus David Stark, who co-curated the exhibition. “Van Gogh’s art wasn’t produced in a vacuum.” 

Portrait of Steven Naifeh (left) and Greg White Smith

A large number of these works are from the collection of Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh of Aiken, South Carolina, and his late husband, Greg White Smith. In 2011, Naifeh and Smith coauthored “Van Gogh: The Life,” a rigorously researched, widely admired biography. They also amassed a substantial art collection, which didn’t include pieces by Van Gogh himself—prices of his works were out of sight—but did include works by others that could illuminate a Van Gogh exhibition. 

For example, Van Gogh was taken with the work of French impressionist Armand Guillaumin, whose paintings he commended to his art-dealer sibling, Theo. One still life in their collection, Naifeh says, directly relates to a work by Van Gogh in the “lushness of the color” they share and even in the scene they depict. 

“Still Life with a Blue Box of Gloves” by Armand Guillaumin

Naifeh chose the Columbus Museum of Art as host for the show partly in homage to his life and writing partner, Smith, who was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1981 but spent most of his childhood in Columbus. Smith died in 2014. “I knew just how profoundly meaningful it would’ve been to Greg to have our collection seen in Columbus,” says Naifeh, who co-curated the show with Stark and whose new book, “Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved,” is just out from Random House. “I knew what people across America don’t necessarily know … and that is what a great museum Columbus is.” 

"Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved" by Steven Naifeh

Yet the museum owns no Van Goghs. Since Van Gogh’s works are difficult to borrow in large numbers, few museums could undertake a Van Gogh-only exhibition. 

“We realized that [our collection] would make it possible for regional museums—something other than the Met or the National Gallery or the Art Institute of Chicago—to mount a Van Gogh exhibition of importance,” says Naifeh. After its Columbus run, the exhibition will go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. 

One of three children born to William R. Smith, who built hotels and restaurants in Columbus, and Kathryn White Smith, Greg White Smith was a prodigy. At 8, he was composing novels using his father’s Dictaphone; his mother dutifully typed. 

Smith attended Columbus Academy and took drawing lessons that informed his own amateur architectural drawings of imaginary houses based on those he encountered in Bexley, where his family lived. “He never really thought of himself as a lover of the visual arts, but he was,” Naifeh says. “He went to as many museums as he could.” 

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Although Naifeh and Smith met while students at Harvard Law School, neither felt destined for careers in law. Naifeh had a longstanding interest in art and received a fine arts degree. At the same time, when the two set out to write their first art book, 1989’s “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” he viewed Smith’s comparative lack of academic study of art as an asset. 

“When he was approaching the material, he came at it without any preset ideas,” Naifeh says. 

Following the Pollock book, which took a decade to research and write, Smith and Naifeh undertook the even more arduous Van Gogh book. Since neither spoke Dutch, they employed 11 translators; they paid the bills and helped fund their art collection by publishing a line of annual books that touted the nation’s best doctors and lawyers. 

But Smith had health issues; a brain tumor, first discovered when he was 22, plagued him all his days, requiring 13 surgeries, and eventually took his life. 

Two circles are closed with the arrival of this exhibition in Columbus: It returns Van Gogh to his proper cultural context, and it delivers Greg White Smith back home. 

“He loved the town,” Naifeh says.

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.