30 March 2015

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh! Portrait of Dr. Gachet, a book review

by Angelina Giovani 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, van Gogh (1890) First version

[Editors' note: One way to celebrate Vincent van Gogh's birthday is to reminisce about one of this most important works of art, Portrait of Dr. Gachet. Angelina Giovani reviews Cynthia Saltzman's captivating history of a painting executed by van Gogh shortly before his untimely death in mid-1890.]

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, by Cynthia Saltzman, came out in 1998. This unusual book traces the provenance history of a portrait that Vincent van Gogh painted of his doctor in 1890, shortly before he took his own life. Saltzman provides us with the context and circumstances of the portrait’s creation, focusing on the first of two versions which van Gogh painted, the profiles of the people involved in the many transactions that marked its history and the state of the art market in Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

The story begins when Vincent van Gogh is 37 years old and had already created a large body of work, amounting to over 600 paintings and drawings. Even though he had not made any profit from his paintings, his brother Theo received his works, while he was based in Paris, acting as Vincent’s dealer. Their close relationship comes out clearly in the letters that Vincent and Theo exchanged during the years, which also shed light on other close relationships that van Gogh had built with other artists of his time, such as Gauguin, Signac, Pissarro, etc. Pissarro recommended that Dr. Gachet look after Vincent’s health which had deteriorated. There are still many theories on van Gogh’s diagnosis. Although we will probably never know exactly what he suffered from, the more plausible theories center on acute mania with hallucinations, depression and melancholia. He met Dr. Gachet on May 20, 1890 and immediately realized that Gachet could not help him; at times Vincent was concerned that the doctor might be more ill than he was. Nevertheless, by June 3, van Gogh had started painting his portrait. Art historical analysis and research into the iconography and history of styles tells us that the portrait is not a simple objective portrait of the doctor. Van Gogh drew his inspiration for this work from two sources. The first one was Delacroix’s Tasso in the Hospital of St. Anna, Ferrara (1839) and the other was Puvis de Chavannes’s Portrait of Eugène Benon (1882). Ever since its conception, the painting has never been viewed as just a portrait. It embodies the artist’s philosophy regarding his work. The general consensus is that it should be read on a symbolic level.
Vincent van Gogh

The period from January to July 1890 was a troubled time for Van Gogh. His condition worsened in the days that led up to July 28th when he shot himself with a revolver. Van Gogh died the next day, soon after Theo had reached Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town north of Paris. Theo inherited approximately 600 works produced by his brother, from which about 70 were produced during his time in Auvers. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was among them. Theo moved the Auvers paintings to Paris, together with the 600 paintings and 350 drawings already in his possession. Theo struggled between trying to sell his brother’s works and trying to get him the recognition he believed he deserved while keeping his own health. Paul Durand-Ruel refused to help Theo sell any paintings, so Theo’s only option was to hang the works in hi
s apartment at 54, Rue Lepic. With the help of Emile Bernard, Theo managed to hang 350 paintings. A list of the works was compiled by Theo’s brother in law, Andries Bonger. As the story goes, Theo did not live to see these paintings sold, as he passed away, six months after his brother’s death on January 25, 1891.
Theo van Gogh

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger
After Theo’s death, his wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger inherited all of Van Gogh’s works. Troubled and uncertain about what would come next, she decided to leave Paris and together with her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, moved to the Netherlands. In the span of a few months she managed to bring most of the paintings with her. She was convinced that the paintings would find a broader audience and that the local art scene would embrace van Gogh ‘as a painter in the Dutch tradition’. Her instinct proved right, since by February 1890, Van Gogh’s work had already seeped into the Dutch art market. Ten paintings were on display at Buffa Galleries in Amsterdam and another twenty at the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam. A few months later in 1892, a retrospective of forty-five paintings was organized at the Hague and in 1893 an even larger show took place at the Kunstzaal Panorama, in Amsterdam. Finding a market for the paintings was an immense undertaking, but it came second to Johanna’s most major undertaking which was collecting and transcribing Theo’s and Vincent’s correspondence, which amounted to over 600 letters. She put the letters in chronological order and organized them in an edition which she completed on July 28th 1914 a few days before the outbreak of World War I, 24 years after van Gogh had shot himself. Johanna’s edition was published initially in French and Dutch, then in German. She worked on an English version until the end of her life in 1925. That edition was published in 1928. The letters played an important role in how the world would come to view van Gogh. The letters and her careful selection of what to reveal to the world helped create a myth around van Gogh, which romanticized his condition and depicted him as the tortured genius misunderstood by the society of his time.

In 1893, the first request to exhibit the Portrait of Dr. Gachet came from a Danish group called Free Exhibition (Den Frie Udstilling) founded in 1891 and headed by Johan Rohde. He considered van Gogh to be 'the greatest Dutch painter of the century’. The portrait was selected along with twenty other paintings and was singled out by critics who interpreted it as symbolic rather than an accurate description of the sitter. The choice to include works from van Gogh and Gauguin in the exhibition in Copenhagen, was not only a testimony of growing interest in these artists, but also of a rising appreciation for the French avant-garde throughout northern Europe. Most of the works on display were for sale, but The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was not one of them.

Durand-Ruel could not or did not want to sell van Gogh paintings. Even when he agreed to take some works on consignment from Johanna, he ended up returning all of them. The only other person in Paris selling van Goghs was the Tanguy family who owned a paint shop and to whom Theo had consigned works which they ended up keeping, since there was no full inventory of these works. But in the French art market, these works were fetching less than half the price of their equivalents in the Dutch art market. At a Hôtel Druout sale organized to benefit Julien Tanguy's widow, two van Gogh paintings came up for sale and Ambroise Vollard bought one of them. At that time, Vollard had barely entered the Paris art market. His gallery space was tiny but strategically placed among the more important galleries, close to Durand-Ruel and Benheim-Jeune. Soon Vollard contacted Johanna and asked her for some paintings with the intentions of exhibiting them. He sold one of these paintings, Salle de Restaurant. A larger exhibition was organized in November 1896, and included the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which hadn’t been seen in Paris since it hung in Theo’s apartment before his death. Vollard bought the portrait along with 5 other paintings and 10 drawings for 2000 francs. The sale of these paintings market the end of Johanna’s dealings with Vollard. That being said, Vollard kept selling van Gogh’s that he was acquiring from other sources, filling the gap left in the market by Theo’s death.

Alice Ruben was an artist and occasional member of Copenhagen’s Free Exhibition Group when she first came across van Gogh’s work. Upon a visit to Paris, Alice Ruben saw the portrait in Vollard’s new gallery in 1897 and bought it. Vollard’s sparse records indicate at least one payment of 200 francs on April 30, 1897 but there are no further records concerning the finalization of the transaction. Alice and her husband brought the picture back to Denmark. Her family’s upper-middle-class roots gave her financial stability that allowed her to collect contemporary art. She spoke a number of languages and had multiple connections in the art world. She knew Johan Rohde and many avant-garde Danish artists. It still is not known to us why Alice chose the Portrait of Dr. Gachet in particular, but she certainly appreciated it a great deal. The photograph below depicts Alice lying in bed. Resting on her night stand is the Portrait of Dr. Gachet along with a painting of mother and child by Maurice Denis.

Alice Ruben in bed next to Dr. Gachet
Mogens Ballin and his wife, by Felix Vallotton
Both paintings in the picture were transferred before 1904 to Mogens Ballin (1871-1914). Like Alice, Mogens was also an artist and collector. He also came from a well-established Jewish family in Copenhagen. Curiously, Mogens had been one of the few people interested in van Gogh’s oeuvre right after his passing, and had visited the apartment where Theo displayed Vincent’s works. Mogens considered bringing the portrait back to Paris to sell it. Aware that there still was little interest in van Gogh’s work and that Gachet might end up in storage, he decided to take it to Berlin.

(to be contined)...