2 Oct

20-kirk-douglasVVGLobbyCardThe 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.

Jean-François_Millet_AngelusOther 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.


  1. stevemessam 02/10/2013 at 2:10 PM #

    that’s a shockingy bad image of the Millais painting. I’d much rather have a Millais than a grotty old Van Gough any day. But only a repro mind. Never really been a fan of the connection between art and money, so thanks for this post.

    • Alistair 02/10/2013 at 10:30 PM #

      I agree about it being a terrible photo (blame Wikipedia!), but the painting itself is pretty grim IRL. There’s no accounting for taste. Personally I bloody hate Millais and all the pre-Raphaelites so much that I’d happily use their work as kindling even if I didn’t really need to start a fire. So cloying, pretentious, disingenuous, retrograde, reactionary, misogynist and just plain tacky, and the artists themselves (plus über dickhead pre-Raph critic Ruskin) were a very rum shower of sexually dysfunctional and morally dubious twats.

      • stevemessam 02/10/2013 at 10:36 PM #

        Ach well. Painting’s dead anyway.

      • Alistair 02/10/2013 at 10:43 PM #

        LOL, yes. I don’t call it “painting”, I call it “The Renaissance Affectation”.

      • James King 20/01/2016 at 8:03 PM #

        I might be missing the joke, but are you really confusing John Everett Millais, the pre-Raphaelite, with Jean-François Millet, the painter of ‘Les Glaneuses’? As for the PRB, I don’t mind admitting that I admire something that the majority of my fellows in the unwashed masses also admire. It’s the neo-post-pre-Raphaelites of the Art Renewal crowd that bother me. Probably because what I do could so easily be confused with what they do!

      • Alistair 20/01/2016 at 8:08 PM #

        I’m not, it’s a typo.
        Which I have to leave there now, otherwise your comment won’t make sense.

      • James King 21/01/2016 at 3:15 AM #

        That’s OK Alistair, my comments often make no sense, particularly at this time in the morning (4.14 am).
        Loving your brave, reckless blog!

  2. erickuns 02/10/2013 at 3:28 PM #

    Even though your description of Millet’s Angelus as a “kitsch, sentimental, dingy load of crap” was my favorite part of the post, Van Gogh actually admired that painting enough to have done his own version. http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/vincent-van-gogh/the-angelus-after-millet-1880

    • Alistair 02/10/2013 at 10:21 PM #

      You’re completely right, though VVG’s is better. Thanks for drawing attention to this fact. I’m not sure if admiration is the right way to characterise his interest, though. He put himself through a pretty rigorous and self-initiated drawing and painting course and copied artists he thought he could learn from, including the engraver Doré, for example.

      • erickuns 03/10/2013 at 4:36 AM #

        Good point. I remember reading that he admired Millet’s depictions of peasantry, but did my reading about Van Gogh over 20 years ago, so have no idea if it was from his letters to Theo, a fictional biography, art books, or a crappy psychological biography I saw through when I was 18.

        Wait, just looked it up. He was mad for Millet, and did more than a dozen studies after him, including “The Sower”, and this one: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/64.165.2

        Apparently Vicent wrote to Theo in 1885, “Millet is father Millet . . . counsellor and mentor in everything for young artists.” He admired Millets peasant background and depiction of simple, laborers.

        I agree with you. I like Van Gogh’s versions better than the original Millet’s. Van Gogh’s last version of “The Sower” was made just weeks before he died, so he never appears to have stopped admiring Millet’s work, or improving upon it.

        This version of “The Sower” is awesome: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sower.jpg

  3. Alistair 04/10/2013 at 11:00 AM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

  4. Jeff 14/10/2013 at 4:10 PM #

    I suppose Theo’s financial support helped with finding the time to paint. Today, VG would probably have to work in a call centre, and his collected emails with his brother would get lost by his ISP. And would he paint at all? I imagine he’d fill a hall with furrows of earth and arrange for some crows to fly over it. Title? ‘Post–’

    • Alistair 14/10/2013 at 4:23 PM #

      In 21st century Britain he’d still eventually kill himself before he was forty because he’d be turfed out of residential mental health care, left homeless and/or find it nigh on impossible to get reasonable, affordable accommodation that anybody would rent to him as a single man with a low income and a patchy employment record, and he’d be hounded off the benefits and care he’s entitled to, if he could even battle through to get them in the first place.
      The Red Cross will be providing general food aid to British people this winter, for the first time since 1945. No doubt some of these individuals will be creative people who could be and should be enriching the world’s culture while they’re alive in the way that Vincent did posthumously, instead of attending soup kitchens in a G7 nation and/or working in a shit job for less than a living wage.

  5. Robert Le 04/11/2013 at 12:06 AM #

    Vincent looks like Torgo, who’s actor also did suicide (real not career).

    • Alistair 04/11/2013 at 11:01 AM #

      Wow, Robert, this is an obscure reference even by my standards! But you’re right. ‘Lust for Life’ would certainly be a very different film if Kirk Douglas was “massaged to death” and wore backwards satyr legs. The actor’s name was John Reynolds and he shot himself at the age of 25.
      Now I have to see this film “widely recognised as one of the worst films ever made”, although on the other hand it sounds too awful to bear except in the MST3K version.

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