NEW YORK, MAY 15 /1990 — the room burst into sustained applause at the climactic hammer price of $75 million, recognized by Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, and chief executive officer of Christie’s New York… Tonight, Christie’s auction house selling for a staggering $82.5 million. A stunning Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” set a world record. The price eclipsed the previous high set by van Gogh’s “Irises,” sold by Sotheby’s in New York in November 1987 for $53.9 million…
Zundert, a village in the southern province of North Brabant. March 30, 1853. In the family of Reverend Theodorus van Gogh and Anna Cornelia Carbentus first child was born… Vincent van Gogh, he was the eldest son. Vincent van Gogh the artist was named after his older stillborn brother Vincent, who was in turn named after their grandfather. Another of van Gogh’s brothers, Theo, fathered a son – whom he named Vincent Willem van Gogh. The other children were Vincent’s sisters Elisabeth, Anna, and Wil, and his brother Theo and Cor. Little is known about Vincent’s early years other than that he was a quiet child with no obvious artistic talent. Van Gogh received a fragmentary education: one year at the village school in Zundert, two years at a boarding school in Zevenbergen, and eighteen months at a high school in Tilburg. At sixteen he began working at the Hague gallery of the French art dealers Goupil et Cie, in which his uncle Vincent was a partner. His brother Theo, who was born 1 May 1857, later worked for the same firm. In 1873 Goupil’s transferred Vincent to London, and two years later they moved him to Paris, where he lost all ambition to become an art dealer. Instead, he immersed himself in religion, threw out his modern, worldly book, and became “daffy with piety”, in the words of his sister Elisabeth. He took little interest in his work, and was dismissed from his job at the beginning of 1876. He now decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a clergyman. Although disturbed by his fanaticism and odd behavior, his parents agreed to pay for the private lessons he would need to gain admission to the university. This proved to be another false start. Van Gogh abandoned the lessons, and after brief training as an evangelist went to the Borinage coal-mining region in the south of Belgium. his parents despaired, regarding him as a social misfit. In an unguarded moment his father even spoke of committing him to a mental asylum… He failed at multiple jobs before becoming an artist.
Vincent, was at his wits’ end, and after a long period of solitary soul-searching in the Borinage he decided to follow Theo’s advice and become an artist. His parents could not go along with this latest change of course, and financial responsibility for Vincent passed to his brother Theo, who was now working in the Paris gallery of Boussod, Valadon et Cie., the successor to Goupil’s.
It was becaus of Theo’s loyal support that Van Gogh later came to regard his oeuvre as the fruits of his brother’s efforts on his behalf. A lengthy correspondence between the two brothers (which began in August 1872) would continue until the last days of Vincent’s life. When Van Gogh decided to become an artist, no one, not even himself, suspected that he had extraordinary gifts. He didn’t start drawing or painting until age 27. His evolution from an inept but impassioned novice into a truly original master was remarkably rapid. He eventually proved to have an exceptional feel for bold, harmonious color effects, and an infalliable instinct for choosing simple but memorable compositions. At the end of 1881 he moved to The Hague, and there, too, he concentrated mainly on drawing. At first he took lessons from Anton Mauve, his cousin by marriage, but the two soon fell out, partly because Mauve was scandalized by Vincent’s relationship with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute who already had an illegitimate child. He loved, and lived with, a prostitute. Van Gogh made a few paintings while in The Hague, but drawing was his main passion. In September 1883 he decided to break off the relationship with Sien and follow in the footsteps of artists like Van Rappard and Mauve by trying his luck in the picturesque eastern province of Drenthe, which was fairly inaccessible in those days. After three months, however, a lack of both drawing materials and models forced him to leave. He decided once again to move in with his parents, who were now living in the North Brabant village of Nuenen, near Eindhoven. May 1884, he moved into rooms he had rented from the sacristan of local Catholic church, one of which he used as his studio. 1885, feeling the need for a proper artistic training, Van Gogh enrolled at the academy in Antwerp. He found the lessons rather tedious, but was greatly impressed by the city and its museums.
In early 1886 Van Gogh went to live with his brother in Paris. There, at last, he was confronted with the full impact of modern art and especially with the recent work of the Impressionists Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet and postimpressionists Paul Gauguin. His relationship with painter Paul Gauguin was likely homosexual.The two lived as roommates for a time in the South of France. An article in Harvard Magazine states that “[van Gogh’s] medical biographers agree that his adulthood included periods of hypersexuality, hyposexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality,” and that “his stormy homosexual affair with the painter Paul Gauguin included endless, often argumentative discussions.” Van Gogh described their bond as “electric,” and although it may have had its high points, it also saw its fair share of tumult which did not shy away from violence. Scholars speculate that Gauguin actually cut off van Gogh’s ear. The famed ear-slicing incident is often told this way: van Gogh and Gauguin had a quarrel that escalated to the point that van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor. Possibly acting out in a manic fit (as van Gogh was oft known to do), instead of harming Gauguin, van Gogh sliced off part of his own ear – later giving it to a prostitute. Adding substance to this theory, in a subsequent letter to Theo, van Gogh wrote that “Luckily Gauguin…is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons.” He later said he had no recollection of the night in question. Gauguin make a hasty departure and Van Gogh’s dreams of an artist’s colony disappeared. In the closing months of the year he had a success when two of his paintings were shown at the fifth exhibition of Societe des artistes independants.
He discovered that the dark palette he had developed back in Holland was hopelessly out-of-date. In order to brighten it up he began painting still lifes of flowers. At the beginning of 1888, Van Gogh, now a mature artist, went south to Arles, in Provence, where he at last began to feel confident about his choice of career. He set out to make a personal contribution to modern art with his daring color combinations. Van Gogh never painted a single artwork entitled “Sunflowers.” Instead, he did several renditions of the large yellow blossoms in two separate series of sunflowers.
But It was typical of Van Gogh’s faith in his own abilities that he decided not to try to sell any work yet but to wait until he had thirty top-class pictures with which he could announce himself to the world. He cherished the hope that a number of other artists would come and join him in Arles, where they could all live and work together. The idea seemed to get off to a promising start. Toward the end of the year, however, his optimism was rudely shattered by the first signs of his illness, a type of epilepsy that took the form of delusions and psychotic attacks.
Van Gogh had a mental breakdown in the winter of 1888, and checked himself into an asylum – the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He painted his most famous work, Starry Night, while there. While the painting is perhaps the one most commonly associated with his name, van Gogh was not pleased with it.In fact, he considered it to be a complete failure (among the other works he painted at the asylum), saying that neither “Starry Night” nor the other paintings made while there meant anything to him.
Van Gogh had a few crushes, including both his widowed cousin and a disinterested upper class woman named Eugenia. Once he left his family home in Holland and moved to The Hague, however, he mainly commiserated with prostitutes. Van Gogh had a favorite named Sien, whom he lived with and took care of — he even helped raise her baby for a time. He never married or had children.
In January 1890 the critic Albert Aurier published an enthusiastic article about Van Gogh’s work. Art lovers revel in the rich hues present in van Gogh’s work, but the colors we see are not, in fact, what the artist meant for us to see — specifically the yellow tones. Like many artists of the time, van Gogh used an unstable pigment called chrome yellow that was prone to fading or browning over time. The chemical change is irreversible, so we can only imagine the luminosity the paintings once held. As for van Gogh’s common usage of the color yellow, biographer Charles Moffatt believes it reflects points of time when van Gogh was on a bi-polar upswing. Although he now had a small but growing circle of admirers, Van Gogh had lost his original passion.
The artist left Saint-Remy in May 1890 and went north again, this time to the rustic village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. He wrote to his brother: “I feel – a failure. That’s it as far as I’m concerned – I feel that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change. ”
He nevertheless continued working hard during his two months in Auvers, producing dozens of paintings and drawings. Life, though, had become an intolerable burden. On 27 July 1890 he shot himself in the chest… His death may have been homicide, not suicide. Though the man was deeply troubled and often depressed, there is some doubt that van Gogh’s death was caused by self-inflicted wounds. It is purported that van Gogh shot himself in the stomach while painting in a field, then walked back to the inn where he was staying (which was a mile away) to die. (However, co-authors of van Gogh’s biography theorize that he was accidentally shot by a young teen who used to mock him. Feeling that the boy had done him a favor, the authors suggest that van Gogh never attempted to seek help for the wound.)
Theo, who had stored the bulk of Vincent’s work in Paris, died six months later. His widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger returned to Holland with the collection, and dedicated herself to getting her brother-in-law the recognition he deserved. So, Van Gogh’s sister-in-law made him famous…
Without the insistence of Theo’s wife Johanna, van Gogh’s name would have likely faded into oblivion. Upon inheriting hundreds of paintings after both Vincent and Theo’s deaths, she made it her mission to promote van Gogh’s work, and loaned pieces to various exhibitions. She also had all of van Gogh’s letters published in an effort to have his life story heard.
Today, Van Gogh is generally considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt.
The most expensive works of art sold at auction:
- Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” Christie’s New York, May 1990, $82.5 million.
- Vincent van Gogh, “Irises,” Sotheby’s New York, November 1987, $53.9 million.
- Vincent van Gogh, “Sunflowers,” Christie’s London, March 1987, $39.9 million.
4. Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait,” Christie’s New York, May 1990, $26.4 million.
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