The Legend van Gogh: True or False?

1. Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting in his life.

FALSE. He sold more than one (if the legend is, mostly, about him never selling a painting, the more informed know that he sold at least one, The Red Vineyard, to Anna, the sister of Eugène Boch (whom he painted the famous portrait so called The Poet) . The sell took place in 1890, at the XX Exhibition in Bruxelles (400 fr. belges = about 1000 $ in today’s money). But there are some authors who doubt that this was precisely the painting sold. What is certain is that van Gogh sold ONE of the paintings exposed there and The Red Vineyard was one of those… In fact, in his early correspondence with his brother Théo, he mentions an order for a series of Anvers landscapes one of his uncles made to him. In all probability, he fulfilled the order and cashed the 40 guldens (if I am not mistaken). In a word, FALSE, van Gogh sold more than one painting. What is true is that he couldn’t earn his living with his art and that all the richness and glory were post-mortem. It happens.

2. Vincent cut his ear in a madness attack.

FALSE. He cut a part of his earlobe only. The local press from Arles reports that he put the earlobe in an envelope and offered it to a favorite of his named Rachel, from the local brothel he frequented. There is some craziness in the gesture, of course, but less than is usually supposed. It seems that Rachel liked to play with Vincent’s earlobes and to ask when she can have them. Arles being a place where tauromachia was still present in those times – in the old Roman Arena – and the dead bulls ears where offered by the torreadores to their local Dulcineas…

3. Before cutting his ear(LOBE) , Vincent tried to kill his buddy Gauguin with a razor  blade. Guguin, only with his cold, manly stare, subdued Vincent who ran away to cut his ear(lobe), ashamed…

FALSE or, at least, very uncertain. The only testimony to that is Gauguin’s own, in a writing composed 15 years after the events! Gauguin, who was a proved egomaniac and known for his rich imagination and his tendencies to bend the facts so that they fit HIS legend, badly needed to justify somehow the fact that he abandoned his supposedly best friend and host, in one of his worst moment of Vincent’s life.

I beg your pardon, I do like some of Gauguin’s paintings and his Paradise Lost and Found trick, but, morally, he was nothing like Vincent. Neither generous, nor truthful, an egomaniac and, even after his own time standards, an immoral person. Not only because he abandoned his own family, prior to abandoning Vincent, but also because of what we call today pedophilia. Aggravated no end by the fact that he had syphilis. Even around 1900, infecting 13 years old girls with syphilis was something at least spiteful…

(Note: It’s true that a lot of painters and poets had syphilis those days: Vincent and his brother Théo had it too, as did Toulouse Lautrec, Manet, Baudelaire and many others. (But no 13 year old was involved as in the last years of Gauguin’s life…)

4. The women always rejected Vincent.

FALSE. Based only on a fact – the rejection of his love for a recently widowed cousin of his so well popularized in The Lust for Life (the Irving Stone’s novel and the movie screened after that novel by Vincent Minelli, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent and Anthony Queen as Gauguin) the legend makes of Vincent a shy, recluse, almost monk-like mad genius. But that is not true at all because there was even a women from Utten, Margot, who tried to commit suicide because of her love for Vincent and in Paris he had a mistress, La Segatori, the owner (?) of Café du Tambourin. Here she is, posing for Vincent (there is also a nude tentative but that is quite a sketchy and embarrassing for his genius, nude! it happens even to the greatest…):

Vincent's mistress, La Segatori

Not to mention his almost certain affair with Marguerit, Dr. Gachet’s daughter, one of the source of the last days tension between Vincent and the “good” doctor… Here it is, the portrait of Marguerite:

Another van Gogh's mistress

The list of the dubious or inexact facts in Vincent Mad Genius Legend are many… I just mentioned  a few, the more blattant…

In fact, I see the most balanced presentation of his life (especially the last year) in the excellent 1991 movie “Van Gogh” by Maurice Pialat, with Jacques Dutronc playing Vincent. Considering all my reading, all the movies and paintings  and letters of Vincent I’ve read, my feeling goes for this movie, the most authentic, the most truthful to what I see as the true life of Vincent van Gogh. One day, soon I hope, I would sat down and write this essay I think about for so long: Vincent van Gogh and the Cinema...


13 responses to “The Legend van Gogh: True or False?

  1. van Gogh sold many illustrations for books prior to moving to Paris; also he was in a “civil union” with a prostitute (i think) and her children before Paris as well [as indicated by his letters] Actually I heard an interesting rumor that Gauguin may have cut off van Gogh’s ear during a duel…probably not true though

    • Maybe it,s something there…Gauguin was known to have a blade in his walking stick…he needed the stick because limping after a fight he had with some sailors who insulted his Javanese mistress and their monkey… In fact, Gauguin and Vincent are the only ones that really know what happened that fatidic night of 23 of December…

  2. Thanks again for the fantastic information!!!
    I’m quite certain you still have a lot more to write about your beloved Vincent, meaning: the subject “van Gogh” is endless…
    Those info. about Gauguin were familiar to me. I also read somewhere that in one of Vincent’s “self-portraits with the ear cut” (I guess he painted more than one), it was Gauguin and not Vincent who cut it. (They got involved in a fight or something and Gauguin was quite an aggressive man).
    Thanks for the suggestion “of the most balanced presentation of his life”: the film “Van Gogh” by Maurice Pialat.
    By the way, what is your opinion on the latest book “Van Gogh: The Life”, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and about the new “discovery” that he didn’t commit suicide (as if it made any difference- for me it doesn’t)?

    Leave you with a kiss


  3. Reblogged this on nós.

  4. C, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t read yet that book. I will order it on Amazon. But in my opinion too (even before their theory) I suspected that something else could have happen the 27 of July 1890. I hope to write soon another post about the suicide of van Gogh. Thanks so much for your kind words and constant attention. I’m sorry I cannot do the same all the time, I am on guard and hectically moving around now that my daughter has just another 3-4 weeks before giving birth…

  5. 1 FALSE indeed, but the drawings for his uncle were not from Anvers but drawn in The Hague. The Red Wineyard was the painting bought by Anna Bosch. Another painting was sold by Theo (without an accent) Theodorus was Dutch not French, when Vincent was in Arles.
    2 TRUE The local press from Arles reports that he put the earlobe in an envelope OH NO! All the records early including Vincent mention speak about the whole thing. Rachel playing with his ears is not very convincing. He could have brought sthg else. He himself speaks about a madness attack.
    3 FALSE sure. A first record, some days after the drama, Emile Bernard’s, mention no razor and Vincent said that he has never been armed. Let’s read : ” Happily Gauguin, I and other painters aren’t yet armed with machine guns and other very harmful engines of war. I, for one, am quite determined to try to remain armed only with my brush and my pen.”
    No syphilis for Vincent (only Blennorragia or gonorrea). Also your last sentence between brackets about G. says the opposite of what you want to say.
    4 FALSE of course, Vincent himself again, from Arles to his sister Wil 1887 late Paris period : ” For my part, I still continually have the most impossible and highly unsuitable love affairs from which, as a rule, I emerge only with shame and disgrace”.

    One can like the films about Vincent but it has very few to deal with historical known facts. The same is true with biographies. The most honest is Jan Hulsker’s Dual Biography. He also made a documentary film in the fifties
    Comments : No civil union with Sien Hoornik whith whom he lived in the Hague 1881-83. No illustrations either. The ear cut off by Gauguin is a trupid invention by German scholars, the letters dismiss. “he needed the stick because limping after a fight he had with some sailors who insulted his Javanese mistress and their monkey…” Incident in Concarneau May 1894 cut off 23 dec 1888. Forget the argument. “opinion on the latest book “Van Gogh: The Life”” Just a non sense Vincent did suicide.
    In haste
    B. L.

    • B.L., it seems that we have at least two (probably more) things in common: we write in haste, sometimes, and we are both passionate about Van Gogh’s life (I suppose you are also passionate about his work). You are right, of course, about The Hague. I don’t check always my fact scrupulously enough (lack of time, mostly). I am just an artist, with some background in history, art history and journalism.

      I will check (if I will have the time!) about the Red Vineyard but I positively remember I’ve read some convincing (for me, at least) arguments doubting that this was 100% the painting sold at the XX Exhibition. If I find the source I will cite it.

      Not sure (even if I wish it was as you say) that Vincent did not had syphilis. In his time, it was almost a fatality for artists living “la vie de bohème”. In more than one sources, he figures with syphilis. Considering also his co-habitation with Christine (Sien), a known prostitute, the probability is he had it. Théo (or Theo, I used the French variant because many of his letters ARE in French and it was his own ortograph for Theo). I don’t suppose the accent does any harm…

      I will check also the ear versus ear lobe controversy. Lots if not almost all the “facts” in Vincent life (as it is natural for ANY person who lived more than 100 years ago; a lot of controversy for “facts” that happened a few days ago… the absolute truth is something I don’t think it’s possible to find out, except, maybe in Mathematics…)

      As for “your last sentence between brackets about G. says the opposite of what you want to say” I will try to correct that, if I can. I am not a native English speaker, as you can imagine. I’ve learned my English from books and movies (a LOT of books and even more movies…) so… But I try to improve. Feel free to criticize me whenever you have the time and I thank you very much for the attention. Hope you will visit again my blog. Best wishes, Danu

  6. As for Vincent’s suicide, there are strong facts and arguments PRO suicide and some arguments and uncertain or dubious facts CONTRA suicide. As I mentionned, no absolute certitude. I will read the book – just to be sure – and see for myself…

  7. Vincent van Gogh and the Cinema would be a fantastic piece.

    Also, I’ve gone ahead and nominated you for a Kreativ Blogger award- you can check out the details here.

    Thanks for all the great articles!

    • Wow! Thank you very much! can I reblog that so that I can bragg a little? It’s the first time I got nominated…and the feeling it’s great! BTW, I enjoy very much your writing and I would re-nominate myself if I would be good enough to understand how such a feat is done…Best wishes and I wish I had more time to read…

  8. I would be interested to read what you have to say about Vincent…for sure! I started painting again yesterday since 2005. It was difficult to paint after my Dad was gone. Interesting to read the thoughts of an artist. I read your post about your job, and am glad that you are doing what you love to do!

  9. Thank you for your visit and your kind words, Terri! and sorry for your Dad. My parents are still alive (83 and 86) and I am lucky to have them (for me, it was especially my mom who encourage my artistic inclinations- my dad being an engineer and believing – still does – that artists are destined to starve…) I hope you’ll keep painting (and playing the piano), no matter what!

  10. Very informative post. It’s always interesting to get more info about a historical figure! I recently went to see the Gauguin exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum and was a bit disturbed by his lifestyle.

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