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van Gogh
The painter on himself: van Gogh's self-portrait

Why are thousands lining up daily for van Gogh?

The man, rather than the art, may be the main attraction

November 9, 1998
Web posted at: 4:57 p.m. EDT (1657 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The long lines forming outside the National Gallery of Art are the kind you usually find at a rock concert instead of a museum.

Thousands of people are braving cold weather and waiting for hours every day for a chance to see the National Gallery exhibit of Vincent van Gogh's paintings.

But it may be van Gogh's life, rather than his work, that is attracting the crowds.

"There's been an overwhelming demand -- wonderful interest from people all over the country," said Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery.

Know your van Goghs
What profession did Vincent van Gogh's brother, Theo, practice?

A. Preacher
B. Painter
C. Art Dealer

The 72 paintings in the exhibit include van Gogh's landscapes of the countryside outside of Paris and his bedroom at Arles, which was painted just two years before his suicide. It is the largest exhibit of van Gogh's work outside Amsterdam in more than 25 years.

The paintings are bright and exciting, but the story of the man may seem even more compelling.

Van Gogh was born in 1853 in the Netherlands. After a short-lived career as an unordained preacher, he turned to painting as a profession in 1880. He moved to Paris in 1886 and became part of the Paris art scene that included Camille Pissaro, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Emile Bernard.

In 1888, van Gogh moved to Arles, in southern France, where the landscape and sunlight inspired him to use even more vibrant colors in his paintings. In this period came one of the events that is a major part of the van Gogh legend today: Gauguin was visiting van Gogh in Arles, but the visit ended when the Dutch painter brandished a razor at his French friend and then used it to cut off his own earlobe.

The last 19 months of van Gogh's life were spent battling mental illness. The artist alternated between deep depression and intensive productivity. In 1890 van Gogh committed suicide.

It's that history that fascinates people, said Philip Conisbee, senior curator at the National Gallery.

"The tragic, romantic life that he had, the genius neglected in his own time, that he sold only one painting in his life and now they fetch huge sums of money," he said.

The exhibit, "Van Gogh's Van Goghs," will remain at the National Gallery until January 3. It will move to Los Angeles, where it will be open from January 17 through April 4.

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