The legendary single sale of a painting by Vincent van Gogh in his lifetime is not the art market discovery it is usually taken to be. It has a rich and moving background involving a cast of admirable characters, not least of them Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who in Brussels challenged a vilifier of van Gogh to a duel.
On July 29th the van Gogh world will be commemorating – celebrating is I hope not the right word – the 125th anniversary of Vincent’s death. I honor him on the threshold of his year with this little-known story.
There is a remarkable passage in a letter written by Vincent van Gogh to his mother on 19 February 1890, a few months before his death. It concerns an event that has taken on legendary significance in accounts of artists’ careers, namely the single documented sale of a painting by Vincent during his lifetime. For the seventh time, in the month of February, the annual sales exhibition was held of a progressive artists’ group called Les XX (Les Vingt), founded and financed by an admirable attorney and writer named Octave Maus.
Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Octave Maus (1856-1919), 1885
Brussels, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België
The Wikipedia article on Maus says of his involvement with Les XX: “He was not only the founder of the movement, he was also the secretary, the mecenas, the exhibition organizer and the spiritual inspiration.” For the 1890 exhibition, Vincent van Gogh was invited to participate. The invitation caused the kind of incident that today could never occur in blasé Europe. Maus told the story like this:
Two days before the opening, the Symbolist Henry de Groux announced that his works would not be seen side by side with the “abominable Pot of Sunflowers by Monsieur Vincent or any other agent provocateur.” At the opening dinner of the exhibition, De Groux once again attacked Van Gogh’s paintings and called him an ignoramus and a charlatan. At the other end of the table Lautrec suddenly bounced up, with his arms in the air, and shouted that it was an outrage to criticize so great an artist. De Groux retorted. Tumult. Seconds were appointed. Paul Signac announced coldly that if Lautrec were killed he would assume the quarrel himself.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac putting their lives on the line for the “neglected” Vincent van Gogh! Why doesn’t everyone know this?
That same evening, Les XX expelled De Groux from their association; the next day he apologized and was allowed to resign. Thus the duel was averted. De Groux moved to Paris, where he played a part in the Dreyfus affair. Not, as you may have imagined, on the reactionary side of the battle, but as a bodyguard to Emile Zola.
Vincent van Gogh, La vigne rouge, 1888
Moscow, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
It was at this prominent and highly charged event that the Belgian artist Anna Boch, risking her 42-year-old life, bought for 400 francs a painting by Vincent: La vigne rouge, The red vineyard, acquired by the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, in 1948.
Théo van Rysselberghe, Anna Boch (1848-1936), 1889
Springfield, Massachustts, Darmour Museum of Fine Arts
Anna Boch was independently wealthy – her family were the Boch of Villeroy et Boch – and she collected contemporary painting on a largish scale. She was the only female member of Les XX. Her acceptance was undoubtedly furthered by the fact that she was a cousin of Octave Maus. Anna’s purchase of that particular painting by van Gogh had a certain background. It had to do with Anna’s younger brother Eugène.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Eugène Boch (1855-1941)
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Eugène was also a painter and a generous supporter of other artists. In 1888 he visited van Gogh in Arles, where Vincent painted his portrait, now in the Musée d’Orsay as a bequest by the sitter to the Louvre. Van Gogh inspired the wealthy Boch to work in an impoverished part of his own country where Vincent had earlier been active, the Borinage mine district.
Eugène Boch, Mine at Crachet-Pecry, 1888
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Eugène followed his advice. One of the paintings he made in the Borinage, of the Crachet & Pecry works, he later exchanged with Vincent for a painting by the Dutch master.
Now comes an interesting twist. On 2 October 1888 Vincent wrote to Eugène Boch in the Borinage:
Is your sister also going to do miners? There’s certainly work for two people there. I believe that it’s very fortunate for you that the two of you both do painting in your house. Ah well, I have to go to work in the vineyard, near Montmajour. It’s all purplish yellow green under the blue sky, a beautiful, colour motif.
In other words, a year and a half before she bought Vincent’s painting of a vineyard in Montmajour, Anna Boch had been the subject of a rather personal exchange between the artist and her brother. Although she did not join Eugène in the Borinage, Vincent had attempted to intervene in her life as well as that of her brother. It was through his contact with Eugène and Anna that Vincent was invited to participate in the sales exhibition of February 1890.
Vincent van Gogh, The green vineyard, The red vineyard, 1888
Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum / Moscow, Pushkin Museum of Art
The painting that Anna Boch bought – The red vineyard – was made as a companion piece to the Green vineyard, now in the Kröller-Müller Museum, which Vincent mentions in his letter in one breath together with his remarks about Anna Boch. So we see that the purchase by Anna Boch of that painting by van Gogh, far from being a spontaneous impulse or a new discovery, was part of an affective, artistic and patronage complex of considerable significance to all involved.
At the same time, it was also the first record of cash being paid by a buyer for a painting by Vincent, after fifteen years of struggle. One would think that this breakthrough moment of recognition would have thrilled the artist and his brother Theo, who was also his art dealer and patron. I am therefore surprised – stunned, actually – by the low-key tone in which the transaction is mentioned in their letters. I quote a passage from Vincent’s letter to his mother from the translation, like those above and below, on the inestimable website vangoghletters.org. It’s on the second page, after some chat about brother Cor and Tante Mina’s health.
Yesterday, what’s more, Theo informed me that they’d sold one of my paintings in Brussels for 400 francs. In comparison with other prices, including the Dutch ones, this isn’t much, but that’s why I try to be productive in order to be able to keep working at reasonable prices. And if we have to try to earn our living with our hands, I have an awful lot of expenses to make up for.
If this was really the first painting of Vincent’s ever sold, then what could he have meant when he said that he intended to keep working at reasonable prices? As I understand it, it means that he and Theo maintained highish but payable prices even in the complete absence of demand at that level. How he could have done this is not a mystery. It is documented in his correspondence with his brother Theo and in Theo’s ledger. With nearly saintly dedication, Theo and his wife Jo nurtured Vincent’s career and managed the preservation, presentation and sale of his works.
In a letter to Vincent of 19 March 1890, Theo too is rather businesslike about the sale. On the fourth page of an equally chatty letter, he writes almost as an afterthought:
I’ve received the money for your painting from Brussels, and Maus writes to me: ‘When you have an opportunity please tell your brother that I was very happy that he participated in the Salon of Les Vingt where, in the melée of discussions, he found lively artistic sympathies’. Do you want me to send you the money? I’m holding it for you for whenever you want it.
The money! For years Theo and Jo had been supporting Vincent with monies that amounted to about a third of Theo’s income. Now the first return comes in and Theo makes it completely available for Vincent. Vincent had written to his mother that he had an awful lot of expenses to make up for. All those expenses were financed by Theo, who compounds his generosity to the point even of relinquishing his dealer’s commission. This goes beyond anything that can be called a normal or even friendly business investment. It can hardly even be accounted for by brotherly love.
These are wonderful people, all of them. I honor them from the bottom of my heart.
© Gary Schwartz 2015. Published on the Schwartzlist on 2 January 2015. Adapted from “The best things in life are free: the non-market for art,” a talk at the Arts Market Workshop at the Université libre de Bruxelles on 28-29 April 2011.
In 2014 I published the following eight Schwartzlist columns:
329 King Willem’s wall The Palace of the Academy in Brussels has a secret that was revealed in a magical moment to Schwartz in June 2006. It concerns the greatest princely collection of paintings ever assembled in the Netherlands. In anticipation of an exhibition devoted to that collection, Schwartz now discloses all. Below the line he appeals for a celebration of the centenary of Kazimir Malevich’s abolition of reason.
330 Frederik Hendrik gets the hots When P.J. Blok, one of the leading Dutch historians of the first half of the twentieth century, came across a dirty remark in a letter by a leading seventeenth-century personality of the House of Orange, he simply left it out of his transcription. Schwartz digs up the shocking source.
331 “Kafka meets Catch-22”; Schwartz meets Heller The final scenes of two of the greatest books of the twentieth century, The trial by Frans Kafka and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, are eerily similar. Schwartz examines this and other disturbing overlaps, including ties between him and Heller.
332 Vermeer’s blood-sopping saint Christie’s is about to auction as a Vermeer a painting of the early Christian St. Praxedis, who distinguished herself by conserving the body parts of martyrs. In doing so, the auction house braves the dismissal of the Vermeer attribution by nearly all experts in the field. Schwartz is convinced that Christie’s is right and they’re wrong.
333 Food guide to Washington Heights in 1953 A yeshiva boy’s food memories, topped by Mrs. Hrzka’s potluck kitchen on West 181st Street.
334 Dutch Franks in Safavid Persia The Safavid shahs of Persia entertained a real interest in European art, at a period when Europeans had nothing but disdain for the art of Persia. Schwartz publishes on the subject once again.
335 A Hebrew Bible page for Paul Huvenne With admiration and affection, Schwartz offers tribute to Paul Huvenne on his retirement as director of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. In keeping with Paul’s conviction that thinking in images precedes thinking in words, I present confirmation from my childhood years of learning Hebrew from a school Bible.
336 The Camus complex at The New Yorker For the past 70 years, short stories in The New Yorker that refer to death do so in a strikingly undercooled way, in avoidance of “sentimentalism or fear” or “being maudlin.” This phenomenon was unknown in the magazine before 1946, when Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger was published in English. Schwartz relates the famous opening of L’Etranger to an unacknowledged feature of New Yorker fiction.
How Vermeer and his generation stole the thunder of the Golden Age, Uhlenbeck Lecture 32, Wassenaar (NIAS), 23 June 2014
“Terms of reception: Europeans and Persians and each other’s art,” in: Mediating Netherlandish art and material culture in Asia, edited by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North, published by Amsterdam University Press, distributed in US by University of Chicago Press, published August 2014, pp. 25-63.
Emotions: pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age, catalogue of an exhibition of which I was guest curator at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, 10 October 2014-15 February 2015. With an essay by Machiel Keestra on the neuroscientic view of emotions. Published by the Frans Hals Museum and nai010 Publishers, Rotterdam. Published in Dutch as Emoties: geschilderde gevoelens in de Gouden Eeuw.
“The meanings of Rembrandt,” in exhib. cat. Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age, Budapest (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, 31 October 2014-15 February 2015) 2014, pp. 36-57; entries on Rembrandt, Self-portrait in the Uffizi, pp. 378-381 and Rembrandt circle or follower, An angel telling Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, pp. 352-355. I also wrote an entry on Rembrandt’s Portrait of Amalia van Solms in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, which in the end was not lent to the exhibition. It will appear later this year on the Schwartzlist or Schwartzlist Documents.
Responses are always welcome and will be answered.
So are and will donations.