The Red Vineyard: SOLD!

I have plenty of things to do this afternoon, but I keep stopping to think about Van Gogh. Today I was discussing with my students about how Van Gogh is the quintessential example of the “artist-genius” construct (an artist who essentially is tortured by his art and creative mind). After all, Van Gogh cut off his own ear (unless Gauguin cut it off!), checked himself into a mental asylum (no doubt because of his uncontrollable passion for art, right???), and committed suicide.

Such aspects of Van Gogh’s life are popular to discuss in the world of art history (after all, we still are drawn to the “artist-genius” idea), but there has always been one other biographical detail which has puzzled me for a long time. In order for one to fully emphasize Van Gogh’s oppressed, tortured life, one of the following “facts” is oft repeated in the art world: “Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime” or “Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime.”

So, which is it? Did Van Gogh sell a painting or not? Or did he sell more than one painting? I’ve seen different answers in all types of locations (such as here and here), and I find it curious that there is so much ambiguity on this topic. Perhaps this confusion is partially a result of the internet, although I think that these these “facts” about Van Gogh have been independently propagated for much longer than the past two decades.

Luckily, the internet also has resources to allow for fact-checking. This afternoon I’ve been reading through an unabridged collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters online. These letters indicate that Van Gogh did sell (at least) one painting during this lifetime. The Red Vineyard (shown above, 1888) was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890 (just a few months before Van Gogh’s death). The Red Vineyard had been on display at the 1890 “Les XX” exhibition in Brussels. Van Gogh was well aware of his sale, since he wrote his mother about the sale in a letter from 20 February 1890. In a later letter the following month (dated 29 March 1890), Vincent’s brother Theo asked if he could send Vincent the money “from your picture from Brussels.”

A website dedicated to Anna Boch has put forward some suggestions as to why Boch bought The Red Vineyard. One suggestion is that Boch wanted to show some support for Van Gogh, since his art received a mixed review from artists and critics at “Les XX.” Or, as an Impressionist painter, it is possible that Boch simply was interested in Van Gogh’s style. Whatever the reason, the sale was made.

Do you know any more information regarding Van Gogh’s sold painting(s)? Any thoughts as to why this ambiguity has not been completely resolved?

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    I'm glad you've raised this issue because I too would like a definitive answer!

    But consider this: sold implies an exchange of art for money, but what about the other things artists exchange their art for?

    1. other art (e.g. the various trades Van Gogh made with Gauguin, Bernard, and other artists). Searching the letters for "exchange" comes up with a lot of hits.

    2. painting materials. Can't recall off the top of my head, but Van Gogh (like Cezanne) may well have exchanged paintings for materials with color merchants like Pere Tanguy. (Van Gogh painted Tanguy, of course.)

    3. And then there's the complicated dependence that VG had on his brother, where VG would send him completed works and Theo sent him an allowance. Arguably, this was merely a fraternal obligation and Theo did not ever expect to receive a centime from Vincent's art. But there was also an expectation or hope of eventual sales and this clearly played an important part in the brothers' dynamic. (Most notably, Vincent feels guilt and resentment about being dependent on his younger brother. The idea that he might eventually be able to "repay" his brother assuages the guilt. Theo's eventual marriage complicated the economic situation, of course.)

    More broadly, since Theo was a fairly sophisticated player in a larger art market, there was always a sense that at least some of these various trades and exchanges might eventually turn into actual money. Someday!

    I omit the even more complicated issue of gifts and the implied obligations that go with them.

  • M says:

    Aw! Ben, I was rather hoping that you would have a definitive answer.

    You've brought up some good issues in regards to the exchange of art. No doubt that part of the confusion on this topic stems from how one might define "sold" instead of "exchanged."

    As you said, even if Van Gogh didn't sell any other paintings for money, his work was being exchanged and distributed to some degree. It's not very fair (or accurate) to build up Van Gogh as a completely rejected artist. It doesn't seem like unwanted canvases were piling up on Van Gogh's studio floor, with absolutely nowhere to go.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Ha! No, no answers. But I did want to draw your attention to the beginning of Julian Schnabel's film Basquiat, which has a VG theme running through it. (The clogs!) Basquiat, perhaps, has the opposite problem to VG: too much success, too early.

    VOICE (O.S.)
    Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh boat. There's no trip so horrible that someone won't take it. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent Van Gogh for really sending this myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell? One? He couldn't give them away. We are so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for Van Gogh's neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh.

  • heidenkind says:

    I might have mentioned this to you before, but did you know there's an iPad app that has every one of VG's letters digitally scanned and searchable by keyword? It's very shiny & cool.

  • M says:

    I love that quote from "Basquiat," Ben. Thanks for sharing. It fits perfectly with my artist-genius discussion at the beginning of my post.

    heidenkind: How cool! Just one more reason why I should get an iPad, I guess. 🙂

  • sam says:

    Nice man. Extremely informative post. I'll be sure to pass this along to my tech guys.
    1989 Chevrolet Tahoe AC Compressor

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    @ sam: I'm afraid you might want to rephrase that scam ad of yours – it appears that Van Gogh's car of choice would have been a VW rather than a Chevy 😉

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M!

    I dont think it's worth picking at any more than the Boch sale, which for all intents and purposes was as much a token of support for his struggle than a sale purely vased on the content of the piece.

    The fact of the matter is that Vincent, even despite his brother's connections never penetrated the mainstream art market – which was interested in other things than what he was producing at the time.

    Getting finicky over what constituted a sale or not is one of those things only art historians would obsess about. His style wasn't 'saleable' at the time – simple as that. It took his death, and the perceptual shiftings of subsequent generations to develop his work into a market force.

    @penbrushneedle – best not address spambots directly – their ability to hold a fruitful conversation is extremely limited!

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    c@penbrushneedle: I was going to delete that spam comment, but I think I'll leave it up, given your amusing response.

    H Niyazi: Yes, the main point definitely is that Van Gogh's works were not popular during his lifetime. Regardless of what information (or misinformation) exists about how many paintings were sold by Van Gogh, everyone can agree that his works did not penetrate the mainstream market. Even outside of the Academy and mainstream market, many avant-garde artists didn't like Van Gogh's art, either. Instead, Van Gogh is one of the best examples of an artist to receive posthumous fame and reputation.

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    M, I must admit that, since reading this post at Tenured Radical's blog, I tend to see the comic potential in spam comments 😉

    At the end of the day, though, I guess that H Niyazi is right and it's best not to engage in conversation with spammers. I also realize now that I really ought to have left it to you, the blog owner, to deal with that comment and I'm sorry if I crossed a line here.


  • hcr says:

    I subscribe to the Myth of the Undiscovered Genius theory.

    It does raise the issue of the relationship between art, patronage, and popular consumption, though, an issue I am surprised not to see discussed more these days as public funding of the arts is so under attack. I thought at least the ubiquitous reviews of Patti Smith's Just Kids– which had this issue on almost every page– would take it on, but to my (very imperfect) knowledge it's still pretty dormant.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.