Most of us think we know a good deal about Vincent van Gogh. We ought to, he's one of the most written-about artists to ever stand before an easel. Unfortunately, most of what we know about the man centres upon the last two years of his life in Arles. These are the years of myth and legend, also the years of his greatest proficiency and his most incredible output. Yet van Gogh had a life before Arles. For just over two years before that he lived with his brother, Theo, in Paris, and was an important figure in the newly evolving avant-garde during the period 1886-88. He was a catalyst for bringing together a number of artists, some of whom could barely stand the sight of one another, for art exhibits and discussions, influencing them and being influenced by them as they sought to make sense of Impressionism and at the same time move beyond it. These artists were, what we might call today, the cutting edge - or as van Gogh called them, the artists of the "Petit Boulevard."
Van Gogh came to Paris after the death of his father and a brief fling at studying art in Antwerp for some three months during which time he fought tooth and nail the academic principles being handed down by the instructors. He was not the academic type. And though he knew well the Impressionists, he was not their type either. By this time, Impressionism had gradually become accepted, saleable, and even somewhat old fashioned, at least in Paris and especially among those younger artists such as Gauguin, Signac, Emile Barnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Louis Anquetin, Charles Angrand, and Georges Seurat. These were the core of the Petite Boulevard artists, who, thanks to van Gogh, also included older artists such as Pissarro, Sisley, and others seeking to build upon Impressionism something, as CÚzanne put it, solid and lasting. This latter group had come to be known as Neo-Impressionists. They would have nothing to do with younger artists who only later came to be known as the Post-Impressionists. Yet van Gogh moved freely between these two groups, was accepted by both, and managed to organise art exhibits integrating their work.
The St. Louis Art Museum organised an exhibit integrating their work too. "Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard" was a grouping of some 70 paintings and drawings by van Gogh alone, along with dozens of other pieces by his contemporaries. Most have seldom, if ever, been shown in this country and never juxtaposed together like this. The show went beyond looking at van Gogh's influence upon them and they upon him. It also explored the tentative first steps of an avant-garde who had yet to recognise they were an avant-garde. These were artists outside the mainstream at the time - which van Gogh termed the "Grand Boulevard" painters (Monet, Renoir, Degas, and other headlining Impressionists). Van Gogh could not realistically be called the leader of the painters of the Petit Boulevard (they had none), but he was a cohesive factor in shaping the two generational factions into a credible movement, both in pulling together their work for exhibition and facilitating a flow of dialogue between them. An exhibition he organised in 1887 of Japanese prints had a tremendous influence on several of his friends on both sides. And even as van Gogh fled Paris to the South of France in hopes of sustaining his own mental health, his letters to them helped define what came after Impressionism - whatever its name.