Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Romans Are Coming!

There are two knockout Roman exhibitions opening in the months to come, and once again I wish Floo Powder were real so I could take my students from my Roman Art class this fall. From July 24 to October 26, visitors to London can enjoy "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict" at the British Museum (catch a preview at About 180 objects will be in this show, including some from recent excavations at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, just outside Rome. Hadrian is one of the most fascinating of the Roman emperors: a strong military leader, but also a deeply cultured philhellene and admirer of architecture. (He commissioned the Pantheon in Rome and numerous buildings in Greece as well.) The exhibit will explore his military career as well as his private life.

It's not up on the National Gallery of Art (Washington) website yet for some odd reason, but the NGA is supposed to be hosting "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples" from October 19 to March 22; the show will then move to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from May 3 to October 4, 2009. The guest curator of the Pompeii show is a scholar whose work I and just about any scholar of classical art know very well: Carol Mattusch, particularly renowned for her groundbreaking research on Greek and Roman bronze sculpture. This too promises to be a first-rate exhibition. Both it and the Hadrian exhibit will have published catalogues.

Thanks to "Gladiator" and now the HBO series "Rome," the Romans get more press nowadays in popular culture than they have for a long time. And I LOVE that!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Way to Spell 'Em

While doing some chores around the house earlier, I caught a bit of the Scripps National Spelling Bee early rounds on ESPN (the only time you'll catch me watching ESPN when figure skating is not involved). In an era when spell-check makes many folks incredibly lazy about good spelling -- you wouldn't believe the spelling errors I see on college students' tests and papers -- these young people deserve to be applauded for their dedication and skill. Bravo!

New Guggenheim Installation

The Guggenheim Museum (NYC) today opens a new installation of its famed Thannhauser Collection, which includes works from the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods, as well as the early 20th century. Edouard Manet's lovely "Before the Mirror" (1876) is among the paintings to be displayed, as is Picasso's "Le Moulin de la Galette" (1900), the latter an interesting comparison to Renoir's celebrated earlier painting of the same Parisian dancehall.

Two van Goghs are included in the Thannhauser collection: the first a snowy landscape from Arles, one of Vincent's first paintings there (February 1888) and the second (pictured) a landscape of mountains at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, painted in July 1889 during Vincent's stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. "Mountains at Saint-Rémy" was done while Vincent was feeling well and was allowed to leave the walls of the hospital to paint; unfortunately he suffered a serious attack only a few weeks later that lasted until late August. The painting depicts the Alpilles mountains near the asylum, specifically the peaks known as Les Deux Trous and Mont Gaussier. Although Vincent gives the mountains his own distinctive style, they are recognizable in the landscape. Today, though, you won't see any cottages as Vincent did: you'll see the Roman archaeological site of Glanum, which was excavated beginning in the 1920s. Another of Vincent's views of the Alpilles, done in June 1889, can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

When I visited Saint-Rémy last year, I was struck by the colors of Les Alpilles. They are limestone and are mostly bald rock; the day I was there, the stone picked up wonderful lilac and purplish-blue colors from the sun and clouds. I would imagine every day you would see different colors in the rock, depending on the season, the weather, and time of day. Vincent seems to have embraced this visual effect in his paintings of the peaks.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Going to the Doctor's

Since I brought up Auvers-sur-Oise last week, and we are in the middle of the dates Vincent spent in Auvers (he arrived there on 20 May 1890 and died there on 29 July), I thought I'd dedicate a series of posts to this interesting town and some of the artwork Vincent produced while there. One of the reasons Vincent settled in Auvers, in addition to wanting to be near Theo and his family in Paris, was the presence of Dr. Paul Gachet, recommended to Theo by Camille Pissarro as someone who could possibly help Vincent with his illness. Gachet was a homeopathic doctor and art collector, acquainted with numerous artists such as Pissarro, Cézanne, and others.

Pictured here is the garden of Dr. Gachet's house. Gachet moved to Auvers in 1872 with his wife and three-year-old daughter Marguerite; his son (Paul Gachet fils) was born there in 1873. Gachet's wife died in Paris in 1875. Vincent was a frequent visitor to the Gachet home during his time in Auvers, where he painted portraits of the doctor and of Marguerite (but never Paul the son), as well as pictures of the doctor's garden. Also living in the house at the time was the housekeeper, Madame Louise-Anne-Virginie Chevalier (1847-1904) and her daughter; Vincent does not mention them in his letters, but Theo was said to have given a small painting to Madame Chevalier after Vincent's death. The Gachets were an eccentric family, to say the least, and many stories have sprung up about Vincent's time with them, some true, some not (some exaggerated stories were circulated by the Gachets themselves, especially Paul Gachet fils in later years). Vincent seems to have had mixed feelings about Dr. Gachet, thinking at first that the doctor truly could help him, but later expressing doubts in letters to Theo. Dr. Gachet seems to have done little for Vincent in the way of medical attention, and according to Vincent's letters, encouraged him to focus on his painting and not worry about his illness.

Paul Gachet fils died in 1962, and the house was sold at public auction. It was acquired by an American couple, the Vandenbrouckes, who fortunately treated the house with respect and believed in its historical importance. The French state declared it a historical monument in 1991, and in 1994 paid two million francs to acquire it for public display. After a lengthy restoration, the house was opened to the public a few years ago. Today you can see Gachet objects and artifacts that remained in the house after the 1962 auction, although much of the original furniture is gone (including Marguerite Gachet's piano, today in a musical instruments museum in Brussels). Gachet's printing press--he was an ardent engraver--is here, as are some of his medical knicknacks. The table from Vincent's portraits of the doctor stands under a glass case in the back garden. Gachet's art collection was sold off or donated by his children, with some of the van Goghs he owned (mostly acquired after Vincent's death) today in the Musée d'Orsay, others scattered in public and private collections around the world. Small exhibitions of local artwork by contemporary artists are sometimes held in the Gachet house today.

The house is definitely worth a visit, even though it's a bit of a walk from the van Gogh sites clustered on the east side of town. Both times I've visited, I've had the place to myself, and it's a pleasure to sit in the garden and reflect on Vincent's time there. Non-intrusive plexiglass "posters" of Vincent's paintings stand in relevant places around the house (pictured here is a garden scene with a female figure, likely Marguerite Gachet).

Any van Gogh book will discuss the Auvers period, but here are some especially good sources:
*Anne Distel and Susan Alyson Stein, eds., Cézanne to van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet (Metropolitan Museum, 1999): an exhibition catalogue (I saw that show, it was great) which details in the text the history of the Gachet family, house, and art collection
*Ronald Pickvance, Ed., Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (Metropolitan Museum, 1989): another exhibition catalogue, a terrific resource
*Cynthia Saltzman, Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss (1998): a fascinating account of Vincent's Gachet portrait and its travails through time
*Marije Vellekoop and Roelie Zwikker, eds., Vincent Van Gogh Drawings, Volume 4: Arles, Saint-Rémy, and Auvers-sur-Oise (Van Gogh Museum, 2007): part of the multivolume catalogue of the VGM's holdings, a fantastic resource

Sunday, May 25, 2008

You Call This Archaeology?

I don't like assigning bad grades. Doling out D's and F's for me is depressing work, because I always know the student was capable of doing better, if only they'd done X, Y and Z. So it is with great disappointment that I give "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" a ... D minus. It was awful. I'm only passing it with a squeak because of the occasional sly references to the earlier films, which did make me smile. The rest of the movie made me cringe. It could only have been worse if Jar Jar Binks suddenly popped from the jungle with a cheery "Inddyyyyyy" (and by the end I worried he would).

I don't see how anybody of a certain age -- old enough to have seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the theater, old enough to have adored it -- could possibly like "Crystal Skull". It's pandering of the worst kind, abandoning the cleverness and spiritual subtexts of "Raiders" and "Last Crusade" (let's leave "Temple of Doom" out of it, although after yesterday I think TOD is genius in comparison) for cheesy CGI effects, bad dialogue, and more corn than a prosperous Iowa farm. I know the intent was to evoke 50s scifi B-films, but fer cryin' out loud.

At the end of the sold-out screening, the audience burst into applause. Folks by and large seemed to like it. I, meanwhile, left the theater sad over the state of American moviemaking and the tainted legacy of my favorite childhood hero. When the gang rode into the sunset at the end of "Last Crusade," that's where they should have stayed. Personally, I should have stayed home.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

At the Crossroads

Two years ago this week, I made my first journey to Auvers-sur-Oise, to see Vincent's gravesite and the places he painted. I'd gone to Paris for the first time in six years to reward myself for the publication of my scholarly book, "Music and Image in Classical Athens," and in a way, to search for inspiration. There was a "now what?" feeling about my life at that time, having spent a decade on the dissertation and the book, and although I had journal articles and conference papers to work on, I wanted Something Different, Something New to help me find the "high yellow note" (as Vincent says).

I went to Auvers in a spirit of reverence and pilgrimage, and since it was an ordinary Wednesday, I had the place to myself. Just try and control your imagination if you're a van Gogh devotee and you're climbing the plateau into the wheatfields he painted. If I'd turned around and seen him standing in front of his easel, it wouldn't have been a surprise. The crossroads in the photo is the place where he painted "Crows Over a Wheatfield" (there's a poster marking it), and although I didn't realize it at the time, I was standing at a metaphorical crossroads too. It was an emotional and uplifting day, and already on the train back to Paris, I felt something beginning to stir inside. Words. A story.

When I came back to Florida, I started writing. I still don't know where the road is leading, but last year when I went back to Auvers, I left a little something at Vincent's grave just in case. To say thank you.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Claims of a Third Gachet

The Guardian reports today that Doreta Peppa, the same Greek woman who some months ago claimed to have an original van Gogh sketchbook now claims to have a van Gogh painting of Dr. Gachet, which, if authentic as she says, would be the third portrait Vincent made of the doctor. Greek art experts agree with Peppa that the canvas is an original van Gogh, while other experts in Britain and America are dubious. The Van Gogh Museum curators refuse to comment about the painting at present, according to the Guardian article, although they have discredited the sketchbook in her possession since that story was first reported in January.

I was trying to remember where I'd heard Peppa's name before, and when I watched a Youtube video about the alleged Gachet portrait, I realized where: she is the 'priestess' of a group of polytheists in Greece who are dueling with the Ministry of Culture to perform rituals at ancient sites. I remember reading about the group's protest at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens a while ago, and footage appears in the Youtube piece. Apparently Peppa plans to use part of the proceeds from selling the Gachet (if she sells it) to help her group.

The alleged van Gogh painting appears in the Youtube video as well. Readers can make up their own mind, but I find things about the picture odd, even from just looking at a video. Gachet wears no hat here (he does in the Orsay and private collection versions). And while brushstrokes are difficult to evaluate in an online video, they don't look much like the other two Gachets; neither does the shape of the face. The van Gogh letters say nothing about a third portrait (and actually they say nothing about a second portrait, which has led a minority of scholars to wonder whether the Orsay version was painted by Gachet himself). And why didn't Peppa say she had this painting when she revealed the existence of the sketchbook? It's enough to raise eyebrows. It'll be interesting to see whether the VGM ever weighs in.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Summer Exhibitions

Some interesting exhibitions going on or coming up this summer...

*National Gallery, Washington: "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" (May 25-Sept 7). I just missed this exhibit at the Musee Guimet in Paris last year--it looks great. The National Gallery is the first stop on the US tour. Exhibit includes material from the Greek city of Ai Khanoum, from along the "Silk Road," and from the site of Tillya Tepe (the so-called Bactrian Hoard). Many of these treasures were believed lost during recent conflicts until they were recovered from a vault in 2004. The exhibit highlights Afghanistan as a cultural crossroads in the ancient world. Read about it here.

*Metropolitan Museum, New York: As usual, the Met has a busy program of exhibitions large and small, but the summer highlight is going to be "J.M.W. Turner" (July 1-September 21), the first Turner retrospective in the US in over 40 years. The exhibition will include Turner paintings from both US and European collections, including over half from the Tate Britain. Read about it here.

*Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Up now is "El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III" (April 20-July 27). This looks like a great show, combining painting, sculpture, and decorative arts to present a picture of the Spanish court in Philip III's day. Read about it here.

*High Museum, Atlanta: The partnership between the Louvre and the High continues with the current show, "Louvre Atlanta: The Louvre and the Ancient World," through Sept 7th. Read about the Louvre Atlanta project here.

*Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris: "Marie Antoinette" (Through June 30). I'm bummed to be missing this one; I've always been interested in Marie Antoinette and her era. The official site is here. "Mistress of the Revolution" author Catherine Delors provides an insightful and in-depth review here.

*Musee du Louvre, Paris: The Babylon exhibition remains on view until June 2nd.

*Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam: The big Millais exhibition closes today. A new focus exhibition, "Vincent van Gogh and the French still life," opened a couple of days ago and will be on view until 4 January 2009.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Colors of the Night

The exhibition-formerly-known-as-"Van Gogh at Night," opening this fall at the Museum of Modern Art and continuing from there to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has a new name: "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night." The catalogue is already available for pre-order at MOMA's description of the exhibition is available here. I have to say, the new title makes me want to hum the score from "Phantom of the Opera"...

Fun trivia: Joachim Pissarro, one of the show's curators, is the great-grandson of painter Camille Pissarro, who knew Vincent personally. (So did Camille's son Lucien.) Camille Pissarro was the one who recommended Dr. Paul Gachet to Theo as someone who could help Vincent.

Indy Joins the AIA

On Friday, May 16th, the Archaeological Institute of America announced that Harrison Ford won election to the AIA's Governing Board of Trustees and accepted the position. Ford commented, "Knowledge is power, and understanding the past can only help us in dealing with the present and the future." The AIA chose Ford because of his commitment to archaeology and, of course, his portrayal of Indiana Jones on film. Let's face it, Indy may not always follow the AIA's Code of Ethics, but he's unmatched for inspiring popular interest in antiquities and archaeology. "Raiders of the Lost Ark," as I've said before, drove me right into the study of the ancient world.

I've been a proud AIA member since 1994, and here's what I want to know: Will Harrison Ford make appearances at the AIA's annual conference??!! *insert girlish squeal here*

Read more about Harrison Ford and the AIA here.

New Discoveries at Arles

I am slipping on my classicist's hat today to comment on the exciting new archaeological discovery near Arles: four sculptures, found at the bottom of the Rhone River, including a striking bust thought to be Julius Caesar himself (pictured). Luc Long, the archaeologist supervising the excavation, dates the bust to about 46 B.C. and believes it may have been tossed in the Rhone in the turbulent times after Caesar's assassination in 44 BC. Without an inscription it is difficult to confirm the Caesar identification, but it's definitely likely: Arles (Roman Arlate) was founded at Caesar's direction, and the style of the portrait, with its strong signs of aging and close-cropped hairstyle, puts it squarely in the Republican period. (I'd like to see a profile view to compare to images of Caesar on coins, but nobody's posted one.) Also found were a 5.9 ft statue of Neptune--appropriate deity for a town involved in maritime trade--and two smaller bronze statues, one described as a satyr with hands tied behind his back (likely Marsyas, I'm thinking). The statues will go on display in the fantastic antiquities museum there at Arles (which is definitely worth visiting). They remind modern-day viewers that in Roman times Arles was the greatest city in Gaul and one of the most important cities of the empire.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there, especially my own Mom (I'm happy to be spending the day with her today) and my sister Chantel, the proud mommy of my nephew, Anthony.

The drawing shown here is one of Vincent's earliest drawings, dated 1881 and done in Etten, where he was staying with his parents after losing his post as an evangelist in the Borinage (Belgium). He had recently decided to devote his life to being an artist and at this point was teaching himself to draw. The theme of mothers and children followed Vincent throughout his artistic career, from images of his live-in companion, Sien Hoornik, and her children in the Hague to multiple images of the motherly Madame Augustine Roulin in Arles. One of the last drawings in his Auvers-sur-Oise sketchbook was of a baby in a carriage.

Friday, May 9, 2008

France in Fiction

I enjoy reading novels set in places I like visiting. If something takes place in France, Italy, or Greece in particular, I'll be pulling it off the shelf to take a look. It seems lately I've been reading many French-themed, France-set books, and two I've read recently are worth sharing. As it happens, both feature heroines caught in an atmosphere of war, one the French Revolution, the other Occupied France during World War II.

The first chronologically is Catherine Delors' "Mistress of the Revolution." I should have known better than to start this one right before finals week (which was last week), because I had to keep putting it down when I wanted to keep picking it up! This is Catherine's debut novel, but you'd never guess it. The story--told as first-person memoir--follows aristocrat Gabrielle de Montserrat from her small town in Auvergne (a region I've decided I must visit) to Paris and the court of Versailles on the eve of the Revolution, and finally through the Revolution itself. Without giving away too much of the plot, sufficient to say Gabrielle meets and falls in love with the "unsuitable" Pierre-André Coffinhal but is forced by her family to marry a brutish fellow aristocrat. (This sounds like it will be cliché, but in Catherine's hands, it's not.) Will Gabrielle free herself from her husband's clutches and find Pierre-André again? Will she survive the Revolution when others of her class fall? Read the book and find out! Readers interested in history will appreciate Catherine's attention to detail, and the story itself is gripping. Catherine, by the way, has an excellent website and a very interesting blog that I read regularly (see links at left). Her next book, "For the King," is just beginning publication production.

Second chronologically, set in modern-day but looking back to World War II, is Joanne Harris' "Five Quarters of the Orange." I read Harris' "Girl with No Shadow" a little while ago and loved it, and decided to investigate her other books. This one features Framboise Dartigen, an older woman who has come back to the village where she grew up (Les Laveuses) after years of more or less self-imposed exile. But she is in disguise, not revealing her true identity to the villagers. Why? Because of tragic events that happened during the German occupation involving her family. The novel develops parallel stories between Framboise's reminiscences of when she was nine years old and her contemporary life in Les Laveuses, trying desperately to keep her past a secret. Harris has such a gift for imagery that her writing is a pleasure to read. She also has a gift for keeping the reader engaged, offering just enough clues in each chapter to make one eager to read the next.

It's an interesting coincidence that both these authors drew on family experiences in writing their books. Catherine Delors is French, descended from aristocrats, and this helped inspire "Mistress of the Revolution" (see her website for more). Joanne Harris is half British, half French, and "Five Quarters of the Orange" was partly inspired by her grandfather's stories of living in Occupied France.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dust Off the Fedora...

Two weeks from today, I will either be feeling like a kid again and saying, "YES! It ROCKED!" or I will be grumbling "Why couldn't they just let Indy, Marcus, and Henry ride into the sunset [at the end of "Last Crusade"] and call it a day?"

Yep, two weeks until "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." It is not just a movie-opening for me. It is a Significant Cultural Event. I'd be going to the midnight screening if I were a few years younger and not an over-35 fogey who's in bed by then.

Want to know about the allegedly Mayan crystal skulls that inspired the film? Check out the latest issue of Archaeology magazine.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Auction Revisited / Vincent in Paris

The van Gogh offered at last night's auction indeed did not sell, and neither did 13 other lots (including two Monets). The sale did break an auction record for Monet with another painting, though, an early canvas of the railroad bridge at Argenteuil. It went for $41.5 million. The news-stories today focused on that and tended to say little about the lots that did not sell. Christopher Burge, honorary Christie's chairman and last night's auctioneer, was quoted in the Associated Press commenting about the van Gogh. Paraphrasing a bit, he pointed out that van Gogh's Paris-period works are not as expensive as his later works, and he suggested Christie's may have aimed too high in the estimate.

He's right about the Paris-period canvases (March 1886-Feb 1888): not only are they not as expensive compared to those painted in Arles, Saint-Rémy, or Auvers-sur-Oise, they're also not as famous. The Paris period tends to get lost between the luminous color of 1888-1890 and the murky earth tones of Vincent's time in Holland. And yet, without those two years, it is unlikely van Gogh would have found the style that people today know so well, and in fact, he might not have gone to Provence at all. Formatively, the Paris period was crucial. For the first time, Vincent saw Impressionist paintings; he arrived in Paris in time for the last "official" Impressionist exhibition (most famous for the inclusion of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"). He met a gaggle of contemporary artists whose work opened his eyes to new possibilities of color: Paul Signac, Émile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Lucien Pissarro (son of Camille), among others, and briefly, Paul Gauguin. Vincent's brother Theo provided him with an entrée into a world he would not have found in the Netherlands.

And in the Paris-period works, you can see Vincent struggling to find his own voice in the midst of all these new stimuli. He flirts with pointillism -- but his restless character wasn't going to let him make tiny dots all day. He continues to absorb the influence of Japanese prints, an interest which he first discovered in Antwerp and was able to further explore in Paris. He treats subjects that have always interested him in new ways; one day he's painting the interior of a Paris café, the next he's tramping over the back of the butte Montmartre looking for glimpses of the countryside.

But it all got to be too much. Vincent later says that he was "nearly an alcoholic" by the time he left Paris, exhausted by the city. Hence the flight to Provence, and a desire to see things in a different light. He moved on, and so did his painting.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Auction Update

I can't watch the Christie's auction live because of my dinky dial-up connection (I know, I know), but I think the van Gogh failed to make its reserve and did not sell. The lot-listing is being updated regularly, and no "price realized" is posted for lot 26 (and they've now gone past it). At least a) it's not the only thing that did not sell -- Monet and Pissarro didn't sell either; and b) Christie's didn't have the publicity-blitz for this van Gogh that Sotheby's did for "Fields" back in the fall. Maybe there won't be a big media brouhaha about the van Gogh not selling this time, although it probably does say something about the economy. I do hope Vincent doesn't gain a bad rep as "auction-house poison."

One pities the unwanted puppy in the pet-store window. If I had the money, I'd give the painting a loving forever-home, tuck it in every night, and give it all the chew-toys it wanted.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Up For Auction

Auction season in New York, and although Vincent is noticeably absent from Sotheby's spring Impressionist and Modern Art Sale (what happened to "Fields"? Anybody know?) Christie's New York will be offering one of the Paris-period canvases this Tuesday evening: "Route aux confins de Paris, avec paysan portant la bêche sur l'épaule" ("Outskirts of Paris: Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade"), formerly in a Japanese private collection. The Christie's website has excellent notes on the painting (click here). It was painted in either spring or summer 1887 (the date is debated), under the influence of -- if not in the actual company of -- the painter Paul Signac. Vincent and Signac were great friends while Vincent lived in Paris, even making painting expeditions together to areas on the Paris outskirts such as Asnières and Clichy. The exact location of this painting is not known but is likely to be in one of those places.

The Christie's lot-entry repeats an observation made by Ronald Pickvance in a 1988 exhibition review in Burlington Magazine: originally the "peasant" in the painting was not alone. Even in a photograph, if you look closely you can see the faint outline of a woman with a long skirt to the man's right (our right, his left: try the enlarge 'n zoom picture on the Christie's site). Pickvance speculated that the strolling couple was meant to stand for Vincent (who portrayed himself in yellow straw hats in self-portraits of that year) and his mistress, Agostina Segatori, but when they broke off their affair, he painted her out. There's no way to confirm that, but it's an interesting idea! It is true that yellow-hatted men make cameo appearances in many of Vincent's paintings and that often they may stand for Vincent himself. (In my novel, I do something with the fact that yellow-hatted men appear with dark-haired women in some of the Arles canvases...)

The entry for this painting at the excellent website Van Gogh Gallery (see links at left) provides another fascinating bit of trivia: this work was in a Fort Worth private collection until 1964, and was loaned to the Texas Hotel to decorate President Kennedy's suite for 21 November 1963. Apparently the last known personal phone call the President made was to thank someone for providing artwork for his room.

The auction estimate is 13-16 million dollars. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Other Van Gogh Boy

Happy 151st Birthday to Theo van Gogh, younger brother of Vincent, born on this day in 1857. It's no exaggeration to say that without Theo, there'd be no van Gogh artwork to admire; it's a well-known fact that Theo financially supported Vincent throughout his career as an artist. Himself an art dealer in Paris, Theo tried to market his brother's unconventional work and was just beginning to succeed when Vincent died. Theo died six months after Vincent, in January 1891, from complications arising from syphilis. Today Theo lies next to his brother in Auvers-sur-Oise, his body having been moved there in 1914 by his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger.

Theo has languished in his famous brother's shadow for most of the twentieth century, although in recent years, scholars have sought to uncover more about "the other van Gogh." Among the important publications are Jan Hulsker's "Vincent and Theo: A Dual Biography" (1990); the Van Gogh Museum's exhibition catalogue "Theo van Gogh, 1853-1891" (1999); and the VGM's English-translation compilation of letters between Theo and Johanna, "Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo van Gogh and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger" (1999). Theo should be recognized not only for his role in his brother's art, but also for his own career as art dealer. As manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch of Boussod & Valadon (formerly Goupil's), Theo handled contemporary art of all sorts, and helped promote the careers of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Gauguin. The dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, a very successful contemporary, has tended to overshadow Theo in art historical memory, but Theo was truly an advocate for artists of the day. He was remembered by customers and artists as someone fair and trustworthy. Theo and Vincent built a superb art collection of their own, and many of the paintings and prints remain in the Van Gogh Museum today.

The more one gets to know Theo, it's impossible not to like him. Reading his letters to Johanna, in particular, makes this quiet, dutiful man come to life. And reading the correspondence with Vincent...well, Theo must have been incredibly patient to weather his brother's fits of temper. Vincent's two years living with Theo in Paris from 1886-1888 cemented their bond, and the depth of Theo's love for his brother is eloquently seen in Theo's letters to Vincent, Johanna, and other family members during the long period of Vincent's illness in 1888-1890. Try reading the last letter in the "Brief Happiness" collection -- from Theo to Johanna, describing Vincent's death and funeral -- without getting misty-eyed. It's probably accurate to say extreme grief at losing Vincent hastened Theo's own demise.

So here's to Theo -- a good man, a good brother, and a gift to art history.