The Twenty-five Who Put the Go in Van Gogh
When Vincent van Gogh departed this earth on July 29, 1890, he left behind more than two thousand works of art. But executing this warehouse of masterful paintings, drawings and watercolors was only half the job of creating the Van Gogh phenomenon -- or as Jan Hulsker liked to call it, “The Miracle of Vincent.”
The other half was done after his Death in Auvers by a succession of visionary or prescient others: family, friends, critics, scholars, biographers, journalists and collectors -- the lack of any one of which would likely make the phenomenon somewhat less miraculous than it is today.
If anyone ever constructs a Hall of Fame devoted to these influential partners in the Van Gogh achievement, here is my list of twenty-five candidates, all now deceased, who deserve a bust in the rotunda:
1. THEO VAN GOGH (1857–1891) -- He was the most loyal brother and supportive patron any artist ever had. He held Vincent’s hand and financially supported him through every phase of his single-minded (and, let’s face it, harrowingly selfish) ten-year quest to be an artist. Even as he himself was mentally slipping away, he was making all the right moves to ensure his brother’s legacy. In recent decades, he’s emerged as a much more complex, ambivalent and devious individual than the saintly image that dominated Van Gogh biography during its first century. Yet, however that revolution shakes out, nothing will ever change the fact that Theo was the other half of Vincent, his equal partner in art history’s greatest success story.
2. JOHANNA VAN GOGH-BONGER (1862–1925) -- The halo of Theo’s young widow has also taken some hits in recent years. We now know, for instance, that she made a tidy sum from selling off more than fifty-five of those Van Gogh works we thought she was heroically guarding for posterity (roughly $40,000 a year in today’s money, between 1901 and 1911); and we know as well that she made many calculating efforts to control the family image and obscure the events of Auvers. But for a young woman who knew or cared nothing about art, the prescience and persistence she showed in the first decade after the brothers’ deaths in storing and promoting the then-commercially worthless paintings seems almost celestial. After Theo, she is by far the most important character in the posthumous Making of Vincent.
3. DR. PAUL-FERDINAND GACHET (1828-1909) -- He may have been the worst shrink any troubled artist ever had, and many people over the years have suspected he was a good deal worse than that. But let’s give the doctor of Vincent’s final summer some credit. He was the first person to recognize Vincent van Gogh as a genius, as quite possibly one of the greatest artists who ever lived. (Certainly neither Theo nor Johanna had such faith or foresight). And if the doctor hadn’t spent the decade he lived after Vincent’s death promoting him among his wide circle of famous-artist friends (and promoting the Gachet version of the suicide to the first generation of biographers), it’s very possible the Van Gogh story would not have taken off as it ultimately did.
4. ÉMILE BERNARD (1868–1941) -- Vincent’s loyal French-artist friend, only twenty-two-years-old in 1890, chronicled the Auvers funeral, helped Theo with the first (failed) Van Gogh exhibition in his Cité Pigalle apartment, and then, more than a decade later, arranged for the first publication of the letters: a slim volume of the twenty-two Vincent had sent him from Arles and St-Rémy. Van Gogh believed strongly in Bernard’s talent and even seemed to consider himself the younger man’s spiritual mentor and advisor. Hence his letters-to-Émile are among the richest and most revealing of all the Van Gogh correspondence: choked full of insights, inspiration, brilliant metaphors and Emersonian wisdom.
5. ALBERT AURIER (1865–1892) -- The luckiest thing that can happen to an unknown great artist is to have what’s special about him recognized -- and put into type -- by an influential critic. This happened to Vincent when this French symbolist poet and art critic wrote the first enthusiastic evaluation of his work while he was still locked up in St-Rémy. Published in the premiere issue of what would become an important journal, the Mercure de France, the lengthy puff-piece, “Les Isolés: Vincent van Gogh,” astutely saw what was unique and exciting in the neglected painter, and coined an image of him as something new in Western Culture: the artist as maverick, martyr, romantic outsider, secular Christ.
6. JULIEN LECLERCQ (1865-1901) -- A friend of Aurier, and also a symbolist poet, critic and rare pre-death Van Gogh proponent (he called the Sunflowers “magnificent” in a March, 1890, review), Leclercq met Vincent during the summer of Auvers, wrote his obituary in the Mercure de France and helped Theo and Bernard mount that first posthumous showing of his work. A decade later, using what he could gather up from French art collectors and dealers, he organized the first important Van Gogh exhibition in Paris at the Bernheim-Jeune Galleries. It was this landmark retrospective that inspired the new generation of avant-garde artists in France (the Fauves) to idolize Vincent, the art dealers of Germany to leap on his bandwagon and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger in Holland to start feeling good about ignoring her brother’s advice to cart that attic-full of paintings to the dump.
7. JULIUS MEIER-GRAEFE (1867–1935) -- The first and most influential of all Van Gogh biographers, this German art critic and novelist wrote an enthusiastic fifteen-page appraisal in 1900 (before the Leclercq exhibition), expanded it into a small book in 1910, and kept revising and enlarging it through the teens into his 1921 “biographical novel,” Vincent, which sold like hotcakes and was translated into English and many other languages. Meier-Graefe was the first to see Van Gogh as the bridge between Impressionism and all the modern art movements of the new century; and, glimpsing the power of his mythology, the first to realize that his life was every bit as important as, and inseparable from, his art. (“His story rattles every castle,” he famously wrote.)
8. AMBROISE VOLLARD (1866-1939) -- France’s all-time most canny art dealer (who got on the ground floor of every artist who counted in his era, from Cézanne to Picasso), this Réunion-born impresario mounted the first gallery exhibitions of Van Gogh in his modest Parisian storefront in 1895 and 1896. Neither show generated any lines at his door, but he was unphased in his appreciation of Van Gogh’s vast commercial potential. One of the great (and possibly even true) legends of Vollard is that, after laying eyes on his first Van Gogh painting, he promptly took the night train to Arles and, for peanuts, bought up as many of the canvases as he could find from unsuspecting Provençal owners who still thought they were worthless. In 1911, he arranged for the first book publication of the letters: Letters de Vincent van Gogh à Émile Bernard.
9. PAUL CASSIRER (1871-1926) -- Intrigued by Meier-Graefe’s 1900 Van Gogh article, this dandyish Berlin art dealer journeyed to Paris in 1901 to take in the Leclercq retrospective and see what all the fuss was about. What he saw changed his life. Later that same year, he got his feet wet by borrowing five Van Gogh canvases for the spring showing of the Berlin Secession. Over the next quarter century (until his suicide in 1926) Cassirer would be the most undefeatable, and successful, Van Gogh dealer of his time, establishing a relationship of trust with Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and becoming her primary conduit to a German art market that was embracing her brother-in-law long before any other nation got the bug.
10. HÉLÈNE KRÖLLER-MÜLLER (1869–1939) -- Under the influence of Paul Cassirer and her friend and advisor, the eminent Dutch art critic H.C. Bremmer, this German-born wife of a Dutch mining tycoon -- once estimated to be the richest woman in Holland -- acquired an insatiable taste for Van Gogh and began buying up his work in 1907. Over the next three decades she amassed the world’s second largest (after the Van Gogh family) collection of Van Gogh masterpieces: close to three hundred paintings and drawings. She began opening up her collection to the public as early as 1913 and donated it to the Dutch nation four years before her death in 1939. You can see it today in the elegant Kröller-Müller Museum on her former family estate near the town of Otterlo..
11. SERGEI SHCHUKIN (1854-1936)/IVAN MOROZOV (1871-1921) -- Among the other obsessive art collectors whose impact is worth special mention are these two wealthy Russians who began seeking out Van Goghs long before it became popular: The cloth merchant Shchukin and the textile magnate Morozov. Inspired by the 1901 Leclercq exhibition, the two friends immediately began competing with each other (and later with Kröller-Müller) for the artist’s work, and each amassed a stellar collection that was confiscated by the Soviets in 1917. Even though Stalin sold off most of his nation’s art treasures in the ’30s to finance his economic plans, he regarded Van Gogh as a proletarian-artist and retained most of the Shchukin/Morozov Van Goghs, which are now proudly on display in the Hermitage (St. Petersburg) and the Pushkin Museum (Moscow).
12. GUSTAVE COQUIOT (1865-1926) -- In 1923, just before Meier-Graefe’s Van Gogh biography was published in English and French, this Parisian critic and art historian (once a secretary to Rodin and an early promoter of Picasso and Utrillo) joined the Van Gogh parade with an ambitious new French biography. Even more than Theodore Duret’s earlier first-French-language Vincent bio of 1919, this one caught the attention of the French public and caused the snobby Parisian art establishment to do a big turnaround on the loony Dutchman it had once scorned. Long a forgotten man in the art world, Coquiot has lately made a unlikely comeback as the name of the popular Japanese art-rock band, Gustave Coquiot.
13. LOUIS PIÉRARD (1886-1951) -- Piérard was a militant Walloon politician -- a native of the Borinage, descended from three generations of coalminers -- who wrote La Vie Tragique de Vincent van Gogh, an enthusiastic biography that appeared in French in 1924 (the year after Coquiot’s) and in English a year later. He was not an art expert or a man of letters, but he did much original research into Vincent’s Borinage years, and his highly emotional appreciation was irresistible, and a big boost to the myth. (“Van Gogh! These two simple syllables conjure up in our minds canvases of fire, burning visions, the flaming plains of Provence, enormous suns above fields as hallucinatory monstrances.”) Practically unknown to the English-speaking world, Piérard is still regarded as a hero in the Walloon region of Belgium and his admirers maintain a website devoted to his life and legacy.
14. JACOB BAART DE LA FAILLE (1886-1959) -- Regarded through the first half of the twentieth century as THE foremost Van Gogh expert, this Flemish (father Dutch, mother Belgian) scholar compiled the three-volume, first Van Gogh catalogue raisonné, L’Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, in 1927. De la Faille’s reputation was tarnished by the 1928 Wacker Forgery Trial, in which he kept changing his mind about the authenticity of the paintings in question. But it recovered in the ’30s, his system (with an “F” before the number of the painting or drawing) is still used today to identity Van Gogh works and Americans can feel good about him because he was instrumental in acquiring their nation’s most iconic Van Gogh possession, Starry Night, for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1941.
15. OTTO WACKER (1898–1970) -- The only convicted felon on the list, this dancer-turned-art dealer went to prison for forging some thirty-three Van Gogh canvases in the late-1920s and selling them to wealthy collectors via his own Berlin gallery. The trial was a media event in 1932 that made fools of most of the Van Gogh authorities of the time (who, as expert witnesses, couldn’t figure out what was real and what was fake). But it also generated so much international publicity and interest that it doubled the market-value of Van Gogh’s work. The case against Wacker, by the way, was never conclusively proven and, guilty or innocent, he deserves a place here for mounting the first major exhibition of Van Gogh’s drawings, rescuing them, as one critic put it, “from the shadow of the paintings.”
.16. DR. VICTOR DOITEAU (dates unknown)/DR. EDGAR LEROY (1881-1965) -- In 1928, these two French physicians joined hands to write La Folie de Vincent van Gogh, the first postmortem of the artist’s madness and death. Dr. Doiteau was a lifelong Van Gogh aficionado and Dr. Leroy had been head of the St-Rémy asylum (decades after Van Gogh was there) who supposedly had access to records no writers had previously seen. The book was a landmark of sorts but, writing nearly forty years after the fact, all the doctors directly involved with Van Gogh were dead and most of the medical information about the suicide was filtered through the questionable source of Paul Gachet, Jr. Thirty years after their book, in 1957, Doiteau would appear again in Van Gogh lore as the interviewer of the self-confessed Vincent-abuser and murder-suspect, René Secrétan.
17. IRVING STONE (1903-1989) -- Born Irving Tannenbaum, this mega-bestselling author of historical fiction (The Agony and the Ecstasy, The President’s Lady) got his start with his 1934 Van Gogh novel, Lust for Life, which made the artist, in the words of one critic, a “Depression folk hero” in America. He discovered Vincent as a student in Europe and then spent six months studying the letters and traveling the Van Gogh Trail, interviewing everyone he could find who knew anything about him. According to Stone’s obituary, his manuscript was rejected by seventeen publishers, as “a dull book about an artist.” When it was finally taken on, it went through the roof and over the past eighty years has never once been out of print.
18. ALFRED H. BARR JR. (1902-1981) -- Art historian and the first director of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Barr was only thirty-three years old and had been in his post for only a few years when he was inspired by the popularity of Irving Stone’s Lust for Life novel in 1934 to take what his board of directors considered a big risk to mount America’s first major Van Gogh retrospective in 1935. This legendary show, which toured ten other U.S. cities through 1937, was arguably the world’s first blockbuster museum event and the genesis of a coast-to-coast Vincent-mania. Get your Van Gogh posters, ashtrays and shower curtains here! Perhaps even more than the Stone novel, Barr’s MOMA show made Van Gogh a superstar artist in America.
19. JOHN REWALD (1912–1994) -- A German-born art historian who, fleeing the Nazis, emigrated first to France and then the U.S., Rewald spent much of the ’30s researching every beat and detail of the twenty-year course of French Impressionism. Over the next decade-and-a-half, he cranked out two bestselling chronicles that will forever be regarded as the definitive works on the movement: The History of Impressionism (1945) and Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956). Rewald was also the technical advisor of Hollywood’s Lust for Life movie in 1955 and after the death of de la Faille in 1959 he became the world’s reigning Vincent scholar and éminence grise whose word on anything relating to Van Gogh or Impressionism was law.
20. WILLEM VINCENT VAN GOGH (1890-1978) -- Theo’s only son was ultimately almost as elemental in the posthumous Van Gogh saga as his mother but, growing up surrounded by all those wonky paintings, he originally rebelled against his heritage to become a very practical and business-like civil engineer. (He was known throughout Holland as “The Engineer”). This hard practicality served him (and the legacy) well when, in his December years, he formed the Van Gogh Foundation and drove a hard bargain in the sale of his family’s horde of paintings to the Dutch government: a deal that preserved them in one deluxe place and made him the richest man in Holland. Never especially interested in or knowledgeable about art, he was nonetheless a fierce protector of the Van Gogh family image.
21. PAUL GACHET JR. (1873-1962) -- Dr. Gachet’s son, who was seventeen the summer of 1890, would spend the next seventy-two years of his life as Auvers’ resident authority on the last chapter of Vincent’s life. Over those seven decades, even though he changed his testimony about the events many times (and kept exaggerating his role in them), he singlehanded created the traditional suicide scenario that has been taken as gospel by virtually all Van Gogh biographers. In many ways even more mysterious than his father, and often publicly accused of being a liar and even a forger, Paul Jr. rocked the Van Gogh world after WWII when he decided to give the Louvre, mostly without reimbursement, his father’s priceless collection of art that he’d kept closeted in his Auvers villa for over half a century, including such signature Van Gogh masterpieces as The Church at Auvers and The Portrait of Dr. Gachet.
22. MEYER SCHAPIRO (1904–1996) -- Schapiro was a Columbia University art historian who turned his discipline upside down after WWII by, in the words of Wikipedia, “forging new art historical methodologies that incorporated an interdisciplinary approach to the study of works of art.” In other words, he opened the door of art history to sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and anyone else who wanted to jump in. His 1950 study of Vincent, revised and reissued many times since, was the major influence on Dr. Albert J. Lubin’s 1972 Stranger On the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh, which became a major bestseller of the ’70s and, in turn, inspired a succession of other head-shrinking, demythifying critical studies and biographies culminating in the most psychologically analytical and myth-busting of them all: Naifeh and Smith’s 2011 Van Gogh: The Life.
23. JAN HULSKER (1907-2002) -- The most influential Dutch Van Gogh scholar after De la Faille, Hulsker had his training in Dutch literature but got hooked on Vincent when, as an official in the Culture Ministry, he became involved with the Lust for Life biopic that filmed in Holland in 1955. Devoting the rest of his career to Vincent-study, he was instrumental in the creation of the Van Gogh Foundation and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; he devised a new and more accurate Van Gogh catalogue raisonné (and numbering system); he reordered and re-dated many of the Van Gogh letters; and he wrote a dual biography of the Van Gogh brothers that probed their symbiotic relationship in ways no other biography had ever dared before.
24. NORMAN CORWIN (1910–2011) -- This celebrated essayist, teacher, Golden Age of Radio producer and subject of a 2006 Oscar-winning documentary was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of MGM’s Lust for Life movie. In that capacity, he concocted the film’s indelible wheatfield-with-crows suicide scene and its fraudulent suicide note, which was accepted as fact by most Van Gogh fans for the next half century. Quite a bit of poetic license there. On the other hand, Corwin’s script ignored many of Irving Stone’s fictional contrivances and used the letters for his main source material so that, overall, it’s much more accurate than the novel. Also, to be fair, it was Corwin’s unique vision of Vincent’s life as one of history’s great personal epics that gripped the world like a vise in 1956 and has never let it go.
25. MARC EDO TRALBAUT (1902-1976) -- Tireless Belgian Van Gogh expert who claimed to have been born in Auvers-sur-Oise (on a Oise river barge as it was passing by), Tralbaut was chief curator of the Royal Museum of Art in Antwerp and founder of a Van Gogh archive in The Hague that was later incorporated into the Van Gogh Museum. Besides organizing several international Van Gogh exhibitions, amassing an impressive library of Vincentiana and sleuthing out several archival discoveries (such as a previously unknown journalistic account of the Auvers shooting), he published more than a hundred articles and a massive 1969 pictorial biography that, despite a fair share of errors, would be the definitive work on the artist’s life for the rest of the century.
Portrait of Johanna van Gogh
BY ISAAC ISRAELS
Portrait of Dr. Gachet
BY VINCENT VAN GOGH
Portrait of Émile Bernard
BY HENRI DE TOULOUSE
Sketch of Albert Aurier
BY FÉLIX VALLOTTON
Portrait of Julius Meier-Graefe
BY LOVIS CORINTH
Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
BY PAUL CÉZANNE
Portrait of Paul Cassirer
BY LEOPOLD VON KALCKREUTH
Portrait of Sergei Shchukin BY DMITRY MEINKOV
Portrait of Gustave Coquiot
BY PABLO PICASSO, 1901
DE LA FAILLE, 1925
AT HIS TRIAL
La Folie de Van Gogh (1928)
THE ENGINEER, 1952
Paul Gachet Jr. Medallion
Portrait of Meyer Shapiro
BY ALICE NEEL
Like all lists, this one is arbitrary and other minds might argue it could just as well include Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917), the French author, critic and collector who was one of the posthumous Van Gogh’s most enthusiastic early buyers and supporters; Émile Schuffenecker (1851-1934), the French painter, collector and close friend of Gauguin who is long-suspected of having been a Van Gogh forger but nonetheless deserves credit for being one of Vincent’s most vocal early champions (even while he was still alive); Count Antoine de la Rochefoucauld (1862-1959), the aristocratic French patron and collector whose advocacy is said to have first made Van Gogh attractive to the European carriage trade (and whose wife wrote one of the first Van Gogh novels); Roger Fry (1866-1934), the British critic and tastemaker who coined the term “Post-Impressionism,” organized the first (1910) extensive exhibition of the genre in England and realized very early on that Van Gogh’s life had the makings of modern art’s most powerful myth; and Samuel Courtauld (1976-1917), the British textile manufacturer who is responsible for bringing several of Van Gogh’s greatest works to the U.K. (including the choicest of the Sunflowers series for the National Gallery).
And when the list is expanded in some future day, it will also likely add such influential current Van Gogh authorities as Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, the diligent University of Toronto art historian who’s done so much to rescue Van Gogh’s Paris period from oblivion; Ronald Pickvance, the British art historian who went far beyond the call of duty in his brilliant coffee-table guides for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ’80s exhibitions, Van Gogh in Arles and Van Gogh in St-Rémy and Auvers; Susan Alyson Stein, whose 1986 compendium of writings about Van Gogh, Van Gogh: A Retrospective, and whose guide (written with the Musée d’Orsay’s Anne Distel) to MMA’s 1999 exhibition, Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Dr. Gachet, have been manna to anyone researching the Mystery of Auvers; British journalists Ken Wilkie and Martin Bailey, whose separate detective work has reaped extraordinary rewards and helped open up the artist’s time in England as never before; Canada’s David Brooks, whose internet catalogue raisonné (vggallery.com) is the digital era’s standard reference to Van Gogh art; and the team of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, whose abovementioned 2011 biography, Van Gogh: The Life, has been brave enough to proclaim that the death of history’s most beloved artist could not possibly have been a suicide.