To the world, Vincent van Gogh was the quintessential starving artist, who never received recognition in his lifetime and committed suicide at 37 thinking himself a failure.
That he is now established as one of the greatest and most beloved artists of all time - that in 1990 his "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" sold for the world-record price of $82 million - may be the cruelest story in the history of art.
The story's true, but it has been fed by a legend that's not. According to popular lore, van Gogh sold only one painting in his entire life. This oft-repeated tale was challenged more than 30 years ago, but it still goes on.
In fact, van Gogh sold at least two paintings in his lifetime, and some drawings as well. That doesn't change the outlines of his life - "What matters is that he sold very little," says curator Richard Kendall, who wrote the main catalog essay for the current blockbuster show "Van Gogh's Van Goghs" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But it does explode the one-painting legend.
The story probably gained circulation because there is only one painting known by name that van Gogh sold in his lifetime. It is "The Red Vineyard" or "The Red Vines" (1888), and it sold at Brussels in early 1890 for 400 Belgian francs.
At Vincent's suggestion, his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh, sent six paintings to Brussels to be exhibited with works by a group of artists called the XX (or the Vingtistes), which also included Cezanne. "The Red Vineyard" was bought by Anna Boch. She was a painter herself and the sister of the poet Eugene Boch, a friend of van Gogh's. Eugene visited van Gogh in Arles in 1888, and van Gogh painted his portrait.
On February 15, 1890, van Gogh wrote to his mother that Theo had written him about the painting and its price.
Subsequently "The Red Vineyard," now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, became the "only lifetime sale" of popular lore. But 34 years ago the myth was challenged by art historian Marc Edo Tralbaut, a leading van Gogh scholar who wrote more than 100 books and articles on the artist. In 1964 Tralbaut published a letter, later referred to in his 1969 biography:
"On October 3, 1888, Theo wrote to the London art dealers, Sulley & Lori. In this letter he said: 'We have the honour to inform you that we have sent you the two pictures you have bought and duly paid for: a landscape by Camille Corot ... a self-portrait by V. van Gogh.'
Another picture was therefore sold in England nearly fifteen months before Anna Boch bought 'The Red Vines.' "
Despite this evidence, the one-painting idea persists, even in scholarly writings. In the latest complete catalog of van Gogh's paintings, drawings and sketches, published in this country by John Benjamins Publishers in 1996, van Gogh scholar Jan Hulsker writes of "The Red Vineyard:" "It has achieved the rather sad distinction of being the only painting of Vincent's that found a buyer during his lifetime (namely at an exhibition in Brussels in February 1890)."
And in the new book "The Essential Vincent van Gogh," written by critic and curator Ingrid Schaffner and published this fall by Harry N. Abrams, Schaffner quotes art historian Evert van Uitert: "In the popular view, van Gogh has become the prototype of the misunderstood, tormented artist who sold only one work in his lifetime ..."
Is there a possibility that the van Gogh work sent to London was not a painting? In theory, the van Gogh "picture" Theo refers to in his letter to the London dealers might have been a drawing. But in Hulsker's complete catalog, there are 37 van Gogh self-portrait paintings and only four self-portrait drawings. All four of the drawings belong to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam, which owns the collection that descended in the van Gogh family (and that is now in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). So they were not sold, and the picture that went to London must have been a painting.
Louis van Tilborgh, chief curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (which lent the paintings for the National Gallery show), mentions another possible sale. "Somewhere in his [Vincent's] own letters he mentions that he sold a portrait to somebody," van Tilborgh says. The work Vincent mentioned was a portrait, not a self-portrait, van Tilborgh says, but what portrait is not known.
Van Tilborgh also notes that early in his career van Gogh did sell some drawings to his uncle, an art dealer who bought them as a gesture of charity. "His uncle wanted to give him some money," van Tilborgh says. And van Gogh also exchanged works with other artists.
Even with these exceptions, van Gogh was not a successful artist in his lifetime. But to say that is to leave something of a wrong impression about the acceptance of van Gogh's work, van Tilborgh thinks. Van Gogh did not paint the great works for which he is now famous until after he went south to Arles in 1888, just two years before his death.
"Two years is a short time to make a reputation as being a great artist," van Tilborgh says.
And he began to be recognized soon after his death. By the early 1890s van Gogh works were acquired by museums in Stockholm and Rotterdam, and shortly after 1900 several German museums acquired his works. By 1903, when he would have been 50, his greatness was becoming recognized. "That's more or less the way to look at it," van Tilborgh says.
It doesn't make his personal story less poignant, for Vincent never knew what van Gogh would become. But like the only-one-painting-sold tale, the truth of the van Gogh story isn't quite as dismal as the popular legend.
Pub Date: 10/25/98