"Van Gogh's paintings make me want to go outside."

That's what I told my husband when he asked why I'm so fond of Vincent Van Gogh's art and why I was looking forward to seeing the "Van Gogh Up Close" exhibit that opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last week.

My knowledge of Van Gogh going into this exhibit was not extensive. I knew the stories of his mangled ear and his suicide. As a kid in the '70s, singer Don McLean taught me that Vincent "suffered for his sanity."

I own a couple of garage sale prints of his work because they drew me in when I saw them. His still life of "Vase with Irises" hangs above my mantle in the living room. "Starry Night" is gathering dust in my basement after a dining room redecoration. I've always loved staring at the actual painting of "Sunflowers" in its permanent spot at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and find it difficult to tear myself away.

It was, as always, difficult to tear myself away from "Sunflowers" in its temporary, prominent spot at the entrance of the "Van Gogh Up Close" exhibit when I visited this past weekend. If I wanted to see the rest of the exhibit, I needed to move on, and so I did.

The exhibit contains a few still lifes and many landscapes, borrowed from collections around the world. Because it focuses on Van Gogh's relationship with nature, there are no portraits. With the exception of the still life "Pair of Shoes" (caked with mud as if they had just been worn outside), each painting is focused on nature.

I knew Van Gogh did many paintings of flowers in vases. One of them in this exhibit is "Poppies and Cornflower," a beautiful and cheery painting that my friend Susan said gave her inspiration for home decorating. Those flowers may have been some of the many he painted during the last years of his life that came from a weekly delivery of flowers sent by acquaintances.

What I didn't know was that he often dug down to the minutia of flower petals, blades of grass, single strands of wheat, the undergrowth in a forest (as in "Undergrowth" above) and other detailed elements of nature in many of his lesser-known paintings. It's in these paintings in the exhibit that those only familiar with Van Gogh's most popular works (people like me) will find a growing appreciation for Van Gogh and his talent.

That just scratches the surface of what I learned about Van Gogh through the exhibit. Van Gogh thought about nature – a lot. It's said he painted a blade of grass as a metaphor for living simply and observing the surrounding world with thoughtful attention. His personal and professional life were grounded in his belief in living simply – something so many of us are trying to figure out how to do in today's world.

And that was one of the great things about "Van Gogh Up Close." It transported me out of today's world for a couple of hours and into the world of Vincent Van Gogh where I observed nature through his eyes. The branches of "Almond Blossom" below brought feelings of hope and awe. The jail-like trees of "Undergrowth with Two Figures" at the top of this page brought feelings of sadness and fear.

For me the exhibit began with the comfort of the familiar "Sunflowers" and ended with the hope of "Almond Blossoms," but in between the two masterpieces other paintings took me through a gamut of warring emotions as I walked through the rooms of the exhibit. I was delightfully emotionally drained at the end.

If you're going, here are some things to know.

  • Tickets for the exhibit are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $20 for students and $12 for ages 12 and under (under age 4 is free). Tickets for this exhibit include general admission into the rest of the museum and can be ordered ahead of time online.
  • Headphones with a guided tour of the exhibit are available and are complimentary with admission.
  • The exhibit runs through May 6, 2012 and is closed on Mondays (with the exception of Feb 20 and April 30).
  • Visit Philly has more specifics about admission, a special deal for both the exhibit and the upcoming 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show, and hotel packages that include tickets to the exhibit.

I'd like to thank Visit Philly for the complimentary tickets to "Van Gogh Up Close" and the staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their hospitality. Although the tickets to the exhibit were complimentary, I was not compensated by either Visit Philly or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for this blog post.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Van Gogh exhibit is about nature as he saw it
'Van Gogh Up Close' at the Philadelphia Museum of Art focuses on paintings from the last four years of Vincent Van Gogh's life and his intense relationship with