Vincent Van Gogh might be regarded as a master artist today, but he went almost unnoticed during his lifetime by the general public. He had a loyal gang of friends and a small number of followers. Still, it wasn’t until after the Dutchman’s death that the wider world finally caught on to the idea that Van Gogh was a visionary and a man who saw the world differently to almost everybody else. Since that revelation occurred, anything connected to his name has a value – even his most sordid correspondence.
In recent years we’ve become accustomed to seeing and hearing of Van Gogh in places other than art galleries and history books. He was played on screen by Tony Curran in the “Doctor Who” episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” which won enormous international acclaim. He’s even paid a visit to online slots websites in the form of the “Van Gogh” slot, which uses many of his paintings as symbols on its reels. While online slots websites aren’t usually a place you’d go looking for fine art, Van Gogh is joined by Leonardo da Vinci in becoming an online slots attraction. We suppose that if their work can sell for millions of dollars, it can also entice people to spend a fraction of that amount playing online slots to reap a greater reward.
Whenever a Van Gogh painting becomes available for sale, it usually changes hands for several million dollars. This most recent Van Gogh sale attracted a far lower price – a mere $237,000 – but it wasn’t a painting. It wasn’t even a sketch. It was a letter written jointly by himself and fellow artist Paul Gaugin and addressed to their friend and peer Emile Bernard. In it, the two artists discuss their enthusiasm for recent late-night painting sessions in Parisian cafes – and also their passion for the brothels of the French capital. As it turns out, the famous painter was so enthused about the beauty of the women he found inside them he considered them to be works of art in their own right.
Van Gogh Correspondence
When the letter was written in November 1888, Van Gogh and Gaugin had been living in Paris and spending much of their time in each other’s company for two years. The friendship and respect between the two men are writ large across the four pages of the letter. An effusive Van Gogh favorably compares Gaugin’s energy as being akin to a “wild beast,” with a peaked interest in “blood and sex.” He expresses a hope that the two will be permitted to go into the brothels to paint and his belief that by including the women in the brothels in his cafe paintings, he’ll be able to create beautiful new works of art. He also displays his socialist political leanings. No sooner is he done praising Gaugin and the brothels, he proposes creating a new union for artists – one which Bernard is cordially invited to join.
Gaugin’s contribution to the letter is shorter and appears on the final page. He seems to attempt to temper the more flamboyant aspects of Van Gogh’s message, warning Bernard not to listen to Van Gogh on account of the fact that he’s prone to both ‘admiration and indulgence.’ It was almost certainly intended to be a humorous comment, but in a few short words, it speaks volumes about the manic aspects of Van Gogh’s personality and the fact that his friends were very much aware of it.
While the two painters were clearly enjoying each other’s company when the letter was written, the good times didn’t last. In December 1888 – just one month after the letter was written – Van Gogh famously severed his ear and delivered it to one of the women working inside one of the brothels. This gratuitous act of self-mutilation repulsed Gaugin, and immediately left Paris to return home – or at least, that’s the accepted version of events as discerned by Gaugin’s own later writings. Some believe that Gaugin himself severed Van Gogh’s ear with a sword, and Van Gogh made up the self-mutilation story to cover for his beloved friend. Whatever the truth may be, the two men never saw each other again after that night – although they did continue to exchange letters until Van Gogh tragically took his own life eighteen months later.
Van Gogh the Man behind the Art
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the letter to those who aren’t familiar with Van Gogh’s smaller details is the joviality of it. When we’re taught about Van Gogh’s life while we’re at school, we hear only of the mad painter who suffered from depression and mutilated himself before taking his own life. We’re told that he was lonely, poor, and unappreciated, and misunderstood by those around him. From this letter, we can see clearly that this wasn’t always the case. Van Gogh might have lived in poverty, but he also found joy in his surroundings. His friendship with Gaugin – a man who he considered his superior as an artist – brought him great pleasure and inspired the most creative period of his short life. While Van Gogh’s demons may have been too much for him in the end, there were also periods of happiness. He was a very complex character, and the four pages of this letter display much of that complexity. Perhaps it’s no wonder that someone saw fit to pay almost a quarter of a million dollars.
This is far from the only example of Van Gogh’s personal correspondence that’s survived to the present day. Nearly one thousand of them are known to exist, albeit mostly of a more trivial nature and containing references to his poverty, and discussions of family matters with his brother. However, none have ever attracted so much attention or as high a price as this co-signed letter with Gaugin. It might not be a painting, but it’s still a priceless piece of art history that we hope will appear in a gallery one day. Try your hand at art by copying some of his paintings and see how you stack up against the best.