The first lesson is that during the late 1880s Vincent was more or less ignored by everyone in the art world except his brother Theo, and there was absolutely no prospect of any exhibition for Vincent’s work. In spite of this, he set himself the firm and no-excuses goal of making fifty paintings “worthy of exhibition” anyway. In the process he painted some of the works that are regarded as among his best. If I had £1 for every time an artist or a student told me they didn’t have time to make any work, I could probably just live from the proceeds of people saying they don’t have time to be artists. If it’s important to you, MAKE TIME.
The second lesson relates to the damage commerce does to art and artists. It comes from a letter to Theo about the July 1889 sale of a painting by Millet for the (then) huge sum of over 500,000 francs. The painting was from the 1850s and Millet was long dead.
“And the high prices one hears of, that are paid for works of painters who are dead and who never received such payment in their lifetimes– it is like selling tulips, and is a disadvantage to living painters, not an advantage. And, like this business of selling tulips, it will pass.”
He was probably referring here not only to the present but also to his home country’s 17th century tulipomania, a financial bubble driven by speculators in tulip bulbs. Like all bubble economies it soon crashed and led many people to financial ruin, including a great many innocents who had nothing to do with the speculators and their dodgy deals. Sound familiar? In another letter– with his trademark mixture of vulnerability, sadness, ferocious self-belief and idealism– he wrote:
“And yet, and yet there are certain pictures I have painted that will be liked one day. But all the brouhaha about high prices paid recently for Millets etc. serves to make the situation worse, in my opinion.”
Below you can see Millet’s Angelus, the kitsch, sentimental, dingy load of crap that went for over half a million francs. No wonder Vincent despaired sometimes. He killed himself in the summer of 1890. A letter found in his pocket strongly implies that in his usual unbalanced, melodramatic way he’d hoped to vindicate Theo’s faith in him by becoming one of those dead artists who never saw a franc while they were alive but lived on through their work. He was right, but Theo never reaped the benefits either. Heartbroken, he only outlived his brother by about six months and it was left to Theo’s widow Jo to make sure Vincent and his work were not forgotten. The art market ruined him even though it wouldn’t touch him with a bargepole. Again, there are artists around right now about whom I’d say the same thing.
Other lessons we can learn from Vincent include “don’t eat paint”, “don’t slice off your earlobe and give it to a local prostitute”, and don’t kill yourself to increase the value of your art, but hopefully most of you don’t need to be reminded of that.