This post has been corrected. See note below for details.
It was a particularly lively reception Thursday evening at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. More than 600 people -- local curators and artists, media and museum members, many nibbling on bread sticks and sipping wine -- gathered to welcome a most distinguished guest: an iconic van Gogh painting on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
"This is the biggest crowd I've ever seen here," said Andrea Leone, 28, who comes almost weekly to the museum.
"Self-Portrait, 1889," an oil on canvas, features a somber-looking van Gogh, forehead tensed and eyes askew, holding a palette and paintbrushes. Of the 36 self portraits van Gogh painted in his lifetime, only three depict him as an artist. The visiting self portrait is one of them.
“For me, this is a pronouncement of van Gogh having an idea, finally, of who he is -- an artist," said Norton Simon chief curator Carol Togneri. "It's comforting to know, less than a year before he died, that he had some semblance of who he was."
Outside, in the museum's sculpture garden, waiters passed trays of artfully arranged hors d'oeuvres, the line at the bar growing long and unwieldy.
Inside the museum's 19th century wing, however, a crush of onlookers, arms outstretched and cellphone cameras poised in the air, moved toward the painting.
At the time he painted this self portrait, van Gogh was especially fragile. Six months earlier, he'd famously mutilated his ear; after suffering a subsequent breakdown, he voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in the South of France. Not long after the painting was completed, van Gogh, at 37, died from a gunshot wound thought to be self-inflicted.
As part of the exhibit, the Norton Simon is showcasing two additional van Goghs from its collection, neither of them paintings. An etching of Dr. Gachet, who cared for the artist when he was released from the asylum in Saint-Remy, is on display along with a signed, personal letter van Gogh wrote to friends in 1890.
“Van Gogh’s artistic skill and creativity long captivated Mr. Simon, and he collected several of the artist’s most impressive works,” said Norton Simon Museum President Walter Timoshuk in a statement. “However, Mr. Simon was never able to purchase a self portrait. This incredible loan from the National Gallery of Art gives us the opportunity to have such a work in our galleries…”
Simon's granddaughter, Pamela Simon-Jensen, a Santa Monica-based painter, put it more simply at the reception: "My grandfather would be proud," she said.
There are multiple van Goghs on display throughout Los Angeles -- the Getty owns the artist's beloved “Irises” and LACMA has two van Gogh drawings in their collection, “The Bridge at Langlois” and “The Postman Joseph Roulin.” Among The Hammer Museum’s three van Gogh works is “The Hospital at Saint-Remy.”
In all, the Norton Simon Museum owns seven van Gogh paintings as well, including “The Mulberry Tree” and “Portrait of a Peasant [Patience Escalier].”
"Self-Portrait, 1889" is part of a now 6-year-old exchange program between the Norton Simon and the National Gallery. Every other year one of the two museums lends a major piece of work to the other. In 2007, the Norton Simon sent Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Boy” to Washington. The next year it received the National Gallery’s “A Lady Writing” by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. For last year’s exchange, the Norton Simon lent an early Renoir, "The Pont des Arts, Paris," to the Washington museum.
The van Gogh self portrait now on display is the first 19th century painting the Norton Simon has chosen from the National Gallery’s collection. It will be on display through March 4.
For the record: Dec. 7, 11:32 a.m: Carol Togneri is chief curator at the Norton Simon Museum. An earlier version of this post incorrectly gave her title as senior curator. The earlier version also said 'Self Portrait, 1889' was the next-to-last work the artist made. It was the next to last self portrait he made.