Thursday, February 21, 2013

If Van Gogh Was So Great, Why Didn't He Sell More in His Lifetime?

This is a loaded question that Van Gogh fans often hear.  The insinuation, of course, is that the art world only likes its artists dead.  Another insinuation is that people buy art only if it has been declared "great" by a certain amount of critics.

Now, if you really do not like the art of Vincent Van Gogh, there is nothing anyone can write that is going to change your mind.  Van Gogh's art is polarizing; you either love it or hate it. 

Van Gogh was getting some critical praise in 1890, the year he would commit suicide.  He had paintings in two major exhibitions in 1889 and 1890 and a large positive write-up in the French magazine Mecure de France by respected art critic Albert Aurier.  A translated version of the article, "The Isolated Ones" is up on the Vincent van Gogh Gallery website.  It seemed that Van Gogh was poised for stardom -- or, at least, poised to earn enough money for paints and smokes. 

The main problem with why Van Gogh didn't sell during his lifetime was due to Van Gogh's abrasive personality.  He went out of his way to offend people -- including the very people he needed to ask favors from, such as restaurant owners (which often displayed art) and art dealers.  He argued so much with all of his art teachers that they kicked him out of their studios after a few weeks.

Van Gogh's early work (1885 in particular) was very dark, with depressing subjects and people painted in a grotesque fashion, such as the portrait above.  His art dealer brother, Theo, would constantly beg Vincent to stop doing black and white drawings and concentrate on bright paintings like those of the leading Impressionists of the day, Monet and Degas.

Although Vincent eventually took his brother's advice, he spent most of his time drawing or painting exactly what others advised him NOT to paint or draw.  Not surprisingly, these works did not sell until after Van Gogh died.  Even now, his later works from 1887 to 1890 are best known than his darker early works.

The point is that had Van Gogh lived longer -- even to the end of 1890, he would have sold a lot more paintings in his lifetime.  Tastes not only had changed to admire Van Gogh's wildly vivid work, but Van Gogh had changed his art in part to accommodate current tastes.

Why he chose to shoot himself when on the verge of attaining his dream of supporting himself with his art is cause for much debate.  It could be that Vincent's mental illness had progressed so far that he thought that only death was appropriate.  It could also be that Vincent enjoyed the climb up rather than the view from the top.

Image: "Head of a Peasent Woman with a White Cap" (1885)

No comments:

Post a Comment