Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Little Seen Van Gogh Painting Fetches 16.9 Million Pounds at Auction

A Sotheby's auction in early February reached a record amount in part due to a Van Gogh painting which fetched 16.9 million pounds, reports Bloomberg.  The Van Gogh was the second most expensive painting of the London auction, which raked in a grand total of 169.5 million pounds (US $266.8 million.)

The first most expensive painting of the evening was "Boulevard Montmartre" by Camille Pissarro.  It was estimated to go at 10 million pounds but when the hammer fell the price was 19 million pounds.  About 60% of the auction pieces went for prices higher than Sotheby's estimate, which indicates that the world art market is coming back strong.

Van Gogh's "The Man Is At Sea (L’Homme Est en Mer)" was estimated to bring in a mere 8 million pounds.  This is the canvas' second time at Sotheby's.  In 1989, it was sold in the New York branch of Sotheby's for a piddling $7.15 million. Things get a little muddied as to the painting's history after 1989. According to Sotheby's, it was bought by an anonymous art consigner in 1993 and sold to Holocaust survivor and art dealer Jan Krugier.  Krugier died in 2008 but his extensive art collection did not go on sale until this year.

Van Gogh painted the woman and baby at home waiting for Daddy in front of the hearth while he was an inmate at the asylum in Saint-Remy, France in 1889, about a year before the artist's death.  Van Gogh's paintings were considered worthless in his lifetime.  The first owner of the painting was Dr. Paul Gachet, Vincent's final therapist and one of his models.  It has had several wealthy owners after the good doctor's family sold the painting in the early 1900s.  It was last exhibited publicly in Paris in 1905.

Painting Focus: "Pieta (After Delacroix)"; By Van Gogh, 1889

What is a Pieta? It's an artistic scene depicting the Virgin Mary sorrowfully receiving the body of her son, the crucified Jesus. It's a subject popular in Western civilization in the last two thousand years, even after the Catholic Church stopped bankrolling many major artists. One of the most famous Pietas in modern history is done by the enigmatic Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890).

Van Gogh could rarely afford models, so he often copied existing artwork in order to paint. His Pieta is a copy of a lithograph he had done by Nanteuil. This lithograph was a copy of a Pieta done by acclaimed French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (1798 - 1863.) This is not a faithful copy but Delacroix's painting done in Van Gogh's vibrant, Impressionist style.


Although there are similarities in figure shapes, positioning and theme, there are many differences between the original Delacroix and Van Gogh's version. Delacroix renders a typical religious painting, where the central characters are unmistakably more than human. Jesus seems to hold himself up despite being dead while Mary's blue dress and red cloak flow dramatically. The way Mary's clothes flow suggests that a strong wind is blowing, but nothing else in the painting, such as Jesus' hair, moves.
Van Gogh's figures are much more human. Both Mary and Jesus have the same skin coloration. Van Gogh put his paint on the canvas in very heavy layers. Coupled with brighter colors and a lack of red, the figures seem slightly squiggly. This slightly distorted image may have been inspired by visual disturbances Van Gogh is thought to have experienced. Whether that cause was a seizure disorder or migraine aura is unknown.

Accidental Art

Van Gogh decided to try his hand at Delacroix's Pieta after his lithograph became damaged. It fell into a patch of bright oil paint that Van Gogh could not remove. This caused a huge bright round patch near Mary's head. This damaged copy was kept by the Van Gogh family and still exists.

This was painted in 1889, when the artist had less than one year to live. This year was also his most productive and included some of his most beloved works. After years of struggling to achieve his own painting style which was considered ugly at the time, Van Gogh had finally mastered it.

Additional Resources

Van Gogh. Rene Huyghe. Crown Publishers; 1967.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. Irving Stone & Jean Stone, editors. Plume; 1995.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Painting Focus: Vase with Gladioli and China Asters, 1886

Today, a painting by Vincent Van Gogh is worth millions of dollars. But when Van Gogh lived, he could barely afford to eat and rarely could afford to hire models. Although he wrote often to his brother Theo about his wish to paint people, he rarely was able to. So Van Gogh was forced to improvise by painting whatever objects were available, including a simple vase filled with gladioli flowers.

Van Gogh painted many varieties of flowers. His best known flower works are his bright series of sunflower paintings. Van Gogh's "Vase with Gladiloi" (1886) is an often overlooked masterpiece in interpreting still life to canvas. Van Gogh did several pieces including gladioli flowers in the summer of 1886, but this is arguably the best in the series. It now hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The painting is also called "Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters", F248a and several others that I'm sure I forgot to mention here.

Van Gogh's Style

Van Gogh is an artist that's either loved or hated. Van Gogh did receive some art instruction, but mostly was a self-taught artist. Critics point out his blocky, borderline cartoonish figures, including those of flowers. Van Gogh used a swirling quality with his colors, laying them sometimes directly next to each other instead of blending them in. "Vase with Gladioli" shows how thickly he laid the expensive oil paints onto his canvass.
Because Van Gogh used paint in such thick layers, we are able to see how long his brushstrokes were and sometimes the actual tiny lines of the brush itself. This is especially noticeable in the vase itself and sprig of gladioli laying nest to the vase. When viewed at a slight distance of a few feet, the colors and brushstrokes do blend to make a solid picture. But seeing the actual brushstrokes gives a personal touch, as if Van Gogh is not afraid for us to see how he works. This makes his work approachable because of this human touch.

Van Gogh's Palette

Most of Van Gogh's flower paintings are done with one predominating color or colors that closely resemble each other. His sunflower series are in mostly bright earth tones, for example. "Vase with Gladioli" is different in that there are a variety of colors used. The background and most of the vase is dark, while the flowers themselves are bright green, yellow, red and white. The red is quite dark, which helps to balance the dark and light colors.

The vase itself is quite interesting, although it is dominated by the gladioli. It may have been an old tin can that perhaps at one time held Van Gogh's brushes. It is smeared with odd splotches of colors, suggesting that Van Gogh may have used it as a substitute palette at one point.