Van Gogh admirers – and let’s face it we’ve all failed to meet someone who doesn’t admire him in some way – will all know that an outstanding exhibition is now running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Entitled Van Gogh Up Close, several Van Gogh masterpieces will now be on show that feature the most intense and vibrant phase of Van Gogh, one that sadly corresponds to his mental depression, i.e. the period just before his death. While there are some major hits, other lesser known Van Gogh paintings truly complete the greatness of the artist. One such work is Rain (1889), an oil on canvas measuring 73.3 x 92.4 cm and loaned from the Henry P. McIlhenny Collection.

The work Rain was completed just after Vincent van Gogh voluntarily entered the mental clinic of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée in southern France on May 8, 1889. The picturesque institution was located on a mountain range near Arles, where the artist had just spent the winter painting. Unfortunately the cold and the bleakness meant that he also suffered depression, which required hospitalisation. Ironically, a hospital was perhaps the best place for Vincent to work – with his basic needs cared for he could concentrate on his art, filling it with unbridled emotion.

Van Gogh thus produced several notable art on canvas works from this period, including Rain, which peers out from his room and onto a wheat field below. Now, for any aspiring artists out there, know that one factor combines all master painters – they are relentless perfectionists who don’t stop until their oil painting is absolutely 100% right in their minds. Van Gogh was no different: during his 11 months he painted 12 versions of the image Rain, each slightly different but each with diagonal slashes of paint to represent the rain, which at the time were clear references to the popular Japanese prints currently in vogue in France.

The oil painting is just one example from many Van Gogh paintings where the artist radically changed methods of painting, not only in the application of paint but also in terms of depth of field and focus that borrowed heavily from Japanese prints. This in-focus style was a breakthrough for continental European art and one that is still felt today. Van Gogh was emotionally and he wanted viewers to feel the full force of such emotion. As he wrote in a letter to his sister one year before his death: “I…am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself.”