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Monday, July 18, 2011

Vincent the Loser

Vincent van Gogh at 18
One of the surest ways to start a conversation with an artist is to ask, "Who's your favorite artist." The reaction will vary from a quick response of a single individual to a deeply puzzled look, or perhaps two or three favorites. My own usual response is Salvadore Dali though I'm kind of partial to two or three others. Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo, in 1874 listed his favorites.  Man, did he ever!  He reeled off a grand total of fifty-six favorites, nearly every one of them what we would today count as being of the Realist School. He also included, painters of the Barbizon School as well as Millet, Troyon, Rousseau, Breton, and Anton Mauve (who just happened to be a distant relative and one of his early art instructors). Later however, as he developed as an artist himself, Vincent seems to have taken a special liking to Jean-Francois Millet, whose paintings he copied quite often.

Galarie Goupil, 2 place de l'Opéra, Paris
Vincent had plenty of opportunity to familiarize himself with the art and artists of his world. He was born into a family with two lines of endeavor--religion and art. Both his father and grandfather were Protestant ministers in a predominantly Catholic Holland. On his mother's side, he had three uncles who were art dealers working for the firm, Goupil and Company, which had offices in London, Brussels, and Paris. Vincent's, younger brother, Theo, eventually went to work for this company. Vincent, himself, started working for the company in Brussels, then was transferred to the London office, and finally to the Paris office where he showed more interest in studying the paintings in the company showrooms than selling them. Likewise, the time he spent at the Louvre began to cause him to neglect his duties. The company finally had to let him go.

No, it's not an anti-smoking
public service ad, it's van Gogh's
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning
Cigarette, dating from 1885-86,
perfectly capturing the artist's
frame of mind at that juncture
in his life.
A dismal failure in the art world at the age of 23, Vincent turned his attention to the other family trade, religion. It was during this time of personal and financial desperation he became even more deeply religious. He tried working as a teacher in London but within months, was forced to move back in with his parents. He found work briefly in a bookstore, but that too lasted only a few months before he decided to go to Amsterdam to study theology. That didn't work out but he was able to enroll in an evangelical training course in Brussels, where he proceeded to flunk all his courses. In spite of this he managed to wheedle a six-month trial period working and preaching to the poor and sick in the coal mining region of Southern Belgium. And even though he threw himself into his work with what could only be termed "religious abandon," eating, living, and sleeping in the same hovels as those he served, the evangelical board, disapproving of his extreme lifestyle, fired him. Despite this, and with a little financial help from Theo, he stayed on for over a year working on his own. However by 1880, this sad loser came up with another ambition. He decided to become an artist.

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