Largely self-taught, Van Gogh believed that drawing was "the root of everything." His reasons for drawing were numerous. At the outset of his career, he felt it necessary to master black and white before attempting to work in color. Thus, drawings formed an inextricable part of his development as a painter. There were periods when he wished to do nothing but draw. Sometimes, it was a question of economics: the materials he needed to create his drawings—paper and ink purchased at nearby shops and pens he himself cut with a penknife from locally grown reeds—were cheap, whereas costly paints and canvases had to be ordered and shipped from Paris. When the fierce mistral winds made it impossible for him to set up an easel, he found he could draw on sheets of paper tacked securely to board.
Van Gogh used drawing to practice interesting subjects or to capture an on-the-spot impression, to tackle a motif before venturing it on canvas, and to prepare a composition. Yet, more often than not, he reversed the process by making drawings after his paintings to give his brother and his friends an idea of his latest work. Over a three-week period, between mid-July and early August in 1888, he reproduced some thirty of his paintings in pen-and-ink drawings, which he sent to two artist friends, Émile Bernard and John Russell, and to his brother Theo. A number of these highly stylized presentation drawings are on view. The New York venue of the exhibition uniquely features multiple renditions of key motifs: Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Arles: View from the Wheat Fields. Each of Van Gogh's paintings of these subjects is shown with three pen-and-ink répétitions. Never before seen together, these dossiers offer a fascinating glimpse of Van Gogh's successive reinterpretations—through line—of vibrant color compositions.
Several important series of drawings, including the sweeping landscapes he composed atop Montmajour, are featured. The artist regarded the Montmajour suite of six drawings, which range from elaborate panoramic vistas of the countryside to spirited views of the rocky mountain slopes with their windblown trees, as his greatest achievement as a draftsman. These landscapes are exceptionally reunited for this exhibition. In addition, a number of portraits and figure studies are on view, including a rare self-portrait, one of only two such drawings known.
Van Gogh's dialogue between drawing and painting was most fully realized while he was working in Arles and in nearby Saint-Rémy. Several paintings from this period are exhibited alongside related drawings. In a splendid grouping, the oil Harvest in Provence of about June 12, 1888—very seldom lent by the Van Gogh Museum—is shown with a brilliant preparatory watercolor and a dazzling pen-and-ink drawing Van Gogh made after his painting.