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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

van Gogh's Dr. Gachet

In late July of 1890, in the south of France, in the little village of Arles, in his tiny bedroom situated over a small shop, Vincent van Gogh lies dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His brother, Theo, has rushed to his bedside from his home in Paris. Also present is Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. Vincent had very nearly botched the suicide. He lingered near death for more than 24 hours after he'd pulled the trigger of the small revolver that lodged a bullet in his brain. He'd hoped to die amidst the warm, swaying, wheat-field-yellows he loved so much. Dr. Gachet could do nothing for him.     

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, June, 1890,
Vincent van Gogh
Actually the good doctor had done not much more for him in life than he had in death. He'd misdiagnosed his mental illness, prescribing quite a number of useless drugs that had adversely effected his physical health and vision, not to mention his mental state. The one thing he had been able to do for Vincent was advise him to enter a mental hospital, and then to care for him after he got out for the few days before his suicide (which he'd not sensed was imminent). He'd also served as a model for a portrait Vincent had earlier painted of him. (Perhaps in payment of his fees). It was a good likeness. It took the troubled artist three days to complete. The painting is brooding and somewhat sad, but unmistakably a labor of love. The doctor is posed, his head leaning against his hand, his elbow on a garden table. The usual rich yellows, blues, and greens of Van Gogh's palette are everywhere evident in the painting.   
After the doctor's death in 1897, a Danish art collector named Alice Ruben purchased the painting for the equivalent of $58. In 1890, coincidentally almost exactly 100 years after the artist's death, a Japanese businessman purchased the same painting for the astounding price of $82.5 million. Between these two events is a twisted trail of disreputable art dealers, museum politics, the Nazi war on "degenerate art", and refugees from the Holocaust trying to save both themselves and the painting. Add to this a more recent history of greedy buyers and sellers caring only to turn a fast buck on the painting as its value soared beyond all reason, and you have a case book study of everything wrong with the art market for the last hundred years. Sadly, today, this touching masterpiece resides, unseen, crated up, stored for safekeeping in a Japanese warehouse.      

Note: Van Gogh's Dr. Gachet  has now moved into second place as the most expensive painting in history.  Its place was taken by Gustave Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which sold in 2006 for $135 million.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907,
Gustave Klimt

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