Vincent van Gogh, Red Vineyard, 1888–the single painting that van Gogh sold during his lifetime
From Solar Dance by Modris Eksteins:
The problem was that Vincent both craved and despised success. Indicative was his response to his last exhibition with the Indépendant. Expressions of enthusiasm for his ten contributions multiplied. ” Your paintings in the show are very successful,” his brother wrote. “Monet said your pictures were the best in the whole exhibition. Many other artists have spoken to me about them.” Toulouse-Lautrec challenged the Belgian painter Henri de Groux to a duel when the latter made some disparaging comment about van Gogh’s work. Gauguin wrote to Vincent to tell him that his paintings were “the best things in the exhibition.” But Vincent remained skeptical, and three months later, as if unable to deal with the indications of mounting acclaim, he ended his suffering. “In a painter’s life,” he wrote to his mother after Aurier’s article [praising van Gogh’s work] appeared, “it is generally the case that success is the worst thing of all.”
In Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery and the Eclipse of Certainty, Modris Eksteins answers a question that had been on my mind for a long while. Since Vincent committed suicide having sold only a single painting in his life, and his brother Theo went mad and died not long afterward, how did it happen that Vincent miraculously rose to the heights of artistic recognition from near complete obscurity? It turns out that without the efforts of Theo’s wife, it’s possible that Vincent’s work would have dropped entirely out of sight.
The most prominent dealer of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work of the time was Paul Durand Ruel, and he refused to have anything to do with Van Gogh’s work. The critic, Albert Aurier, who was a great admirer of van Gogh was planning a biography of the painter but he died prematurely, not long after Theo van Gogh’s death. Aurier was no doubt one of the few people interested enough in Vincent’s paintings to have gone to see them at Theo’s house, where it was scattered about haphazardly and without frames. It’s striking that Theo was not seriously trying to promote or sell van Gogh’s work. That’s made clear since Theo’s wife, Joanna, not having any connections or credibility as an art dealer was able to put together shows after Vincent’s death that his brother failed to secure while he as alive. As shown in the above quote, there was support for his work among the serious artists of van Gogh’s time that formed the basis for Vincent’s paintings being taken seriously and exhibited.
Joanna van Gogh was able to stage exhibitions for the painter in Rotterdam, the Hague, and Amsterdam within two years of his death. And in the third year she managed to arrange a show pairing Gauguin and van Gogh in Copenhagen. After that van Gogh’s work began its ascension to the place of prominence that it holds today. Of course, given the lamentable condition of painting at present Vincent van Gogh’s work is no doubt less appreciated than it was at the time it was initially shown. Today, the deteriorated condition of culture in general insures that Barnum and Bailey values prevail over serious artistic values and hard won artistic achievement.
Van Gogh’s work was appreciated by the wider culture of artists as well. The great author and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, viewed one of the shows of van Gogh’s work and felt as if he’d been “struck by lightning.”
From Solar Dance:
In a story published in 1907, Hofmannsthal depicted a German who, on returning to his homeland, was revolted by the materialism and banality of his compatriots. He visited by chance an exhibition of paintings, lush with color and implication, and through them discovered meaning in an “inward life,” thus overcoming his alienation and malaise. Color, Hofmannsthal suggested, is more powerful in the end than musical tone. The visual is primary. He, too, picked up on the theme of the sun, as life-giver and -taker. “For me music compared to this art, is like the pleasant life of the moon set beside the terrifying life of the sun,” he wrote.
In the year 2012 in America, I can sympathize with the character in Hofmannsthal’s story who finds himself revolted by the materialism and banality of his compatriots. From my point of view, that same materialism and banality is reflected in the Global Art trying to ape American artistic values, which aren’t artistic values at all.