“[Gauguin] created a life for public consumption as part of his campaign to make his exhibitions – and therefore his future – a success.” ― Nancy Mowll Mathews
There was one thing, and only one, besides them both being artists, that Vincent and Gauguin had in common. They both had money difficulties. In a way, Vincent had an easier career, given the almost uninterrupted patronage of his brother. For Gauguin it was much tougher, especially since he came from privilege, even worked as stockbroker, and then suddenly had to deal with the effacement of poverty.
Gauguin did sell some of his works, including three pictures in 1888, but overall, he only became popular and successful after his death. I have already mentioned Gauguin was bitter, suffering with advanced syphilis and penniless at the time of his death, so much so he was driven to attempt suicide. The question is, was Vincent similarly twisted and tortured by the rigours of failure and moneylessness?
Although Vincent didn’t have it easy, the main difference with Gauguin was that Vincent had been struggling for far longer. He was used to it. He was a self-effacing kind of guy. One might even go so far as to say martyrdom was a default setting for Vincent. Is there any artist who worked as hard, or as long, for his art as this one?
In a December 2014 article published in Vanity Fair, the word “martyr” is mentioned four times. These instances are worth close and careful study:
…The chief purveyor of the suicide narrative was Van Gogh’s fellow artist Émile Bernard, who wrote the earliest version of artistic self-martyrdom in a letter to a critic whose favor he was currying… Boosted by the gripping tale of his final act of martyrdom, Van Gogh’s celebrity took off like a rocket…[Ultimately]Vincent chose to protect them as a final act of martyrdom.
The article ends with a quote from the curator of the Van Gogh Museum no less, saying that what happened to Van Gogh is “self-evident”:
“Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”
One could also argue that Vincent chose struggle and hardship [in the same way that he volunteered for treatment at Saint-Rémy], while Gauguin did his best [or is it worst] to avoid these hardships. One artist avoids effacement like the plague, the other is self-effacing to the point of martyrdom. But if this is true, then Vincent was a lot more resilient in life than he’s given credit for. Well, resilient people don’t kill themselves.
Money forms an important backdrop to the ear incident, the shooting in Auvers and our new theory of resilience. We know how fraught the financial situation was leading up to that fateful Christmas in 1888. We’re less clear on how money played into the dynamics eighteen months later, or indeed, for the decades following his death.
Since we are dealing with the world’s most valuable artist, with canvases that today are worth tens of millions, it’s vital we investigate both ends of this spectrum – how Vincent dealt with having no money, and how and why the world decided he should be worth more than any other artist. Was he really a martyr, in the absolute sense, he’s been made out to be?
There seems to me to be the same inversion at work here, where the madder and more troubled the artist, the more valuable his work [as it applies to Vincent van Gogh]. The mirror provided by interminable financial struggle reflects his obsessive commitment and mad frustration. The poorer he was, the greater the struggle, the more valuable, and valiant, his efforts. Conversely, if Vincent was less mad, less of a martyr, and not quite as deprived as he’s depicted, then his story is less inspiring and his art “self-evidently” less impressive, and less valuable.
Now let’s test the authenticity, and the portent, of the money narrative.
A Peek inside the Purse
More than half of Vincent’s correspondence to Theo contains references to the word “money”. A handy tool in the webexhibits archive, allows one to track the instances money comes up in their correspondence. It comes up in 372 letters. At a glance one can see that…