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 palate 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 Senior 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. They aimed to capture the second-to-last work the Dutch artist ever produced, created in the fall of 1889.