Thursday, 8 May 2008

WRONG: Van Gogh only sold one work

It’s an appealing myth: the starving, passionate artist rising above the market’s total lack of interest in his work. In Van Gogh’s case, the starving and passionate bits are true (“These four days I have lived mainly on 23 cups of coffee,” he wrote in 1888, which at least explains his prodigious output), yet one of the most commonly repeated “facts” about him – that he only ever sold one piece – is not. The Red Vineyard was the only painting we know that Vincent absolutely definitely sold (to fellow artist Anna Boch), but whether he sold any others depends on your definition of “sold”, not to mention your definition of “paintings”.

You can rest easy that it does not depend on your definition of “he”.

We’ll take “sold” first. Does trading or barter count as a sale? Should the buyer have to part specifically with cash for it to count? There is strong evidence that Vincent exchanged art for paint and canvas, for example, and apparently even paid his doctor on at least one occasion with a painting.

Then there’s “paintings”. What about drawings in ink, made with a brush? Or watercolours? We know that Vincent sold the following:

• Five maps of Palestine, sold to his father for ten francs each.
• One “small drawing” (probably a watercolour) sold to Hermanus Tersteeg, his former boss at art dealers Goupil & Co, for 12 guilders.
• 12 pen studies of The Hague, commissioned by his Uncle Cornelis at a price of 30 guilders all in.

And that’s not all. There are hints of other sales:

• A portrait of a friend of the art dealer Julien Tanguy, sold for 20 francs and referred to in a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo.
• Vincent’s friend Gauguin claimed in his memoirs that he witnessed Vincent sell “a little still life, some rose shrimps on a rose paper” (possibly Still Life with Mussels and Shrimps) to a canvas dealer in Paris for five francs. Gauguin isn’t the most reliable witness, but such a sale was very likely, whether or not it was the particular painting Gauguin claims he saw. Van Gogh was a prolific artist, and given his obscurity during his lifetime, many works probably fell through the cracks of history.
• Theo wrote to London art dealers Sully & Lori on 3 Oct 1888, referring to the earlier sale of a self-portrait by “V Van Gogh”.

While we’re on the subject of obscure Van Goghery, not many Brits are aware that Vincent lived for years in England. His first visit was in 1873, when he worked at an art dealership in London for a year, lodging at 87 Hackford Road, Vauxhall (the house is still there). Typically, he fell in love with the landlady’s daughter, and equally typically, it didn’t end well. After a spell in Paris, Van Gogh returned to England in 1876, this time working first as a French, German and Arithmetic teacher in Ramsgate, Kent, then in Isleworth, Middlesex as a preacher.

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