Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Lautrec!

November 24th is the birthday of Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa (1864-1901), to my mind one of the most colorful figures in art history. Replicas of his famous poster designs for the Moulin Rouge and the Divan Japonais decorate many a kitchen or dorm room nowadays, and certainly his distinctive drawing style found admirers in his own time, including Vincent van Gogh.

Although they are grouped together in art history textbooks under the Post-Impressionist umbrella, most people might not realize van Gogh and Lautrec were very close friends. They must have made quite a pair in the Montmartre cafés and cabarets, the socially awkward Dutch preacher's son and the flamboyant, 4'11" son of aristocrats with his trademark bowler hat. They met in the studio of Fernand Cormon, where Lautrec was studying alongside artists like Émile Bernard when Vincent arrived in Paris in early 1886. The particulars of their friendship are not well documented in the surviving source material, but it seems Vincent introduced Lautrec to the influence of Japanese prints, while Lautrec helped bring Vincent into the avant-garde fold. Vincent invited Lautrec to exhibit in a group show he organized at the Restaurant du Chalet in 1887 and probably encouraged his brother Theo's purchase of Lautrec's painting Poudre de riz (Rice Powder, click image to enlarge) in January 1888. (This painting today is in the Van Gogh Museum, along with a pastel drawing Lautrec made of Vincent in a café.) Lautrec's painting of Mlle. Marie Dihau at a piano influenced Vincent's portrait of Marguerite Gachet at the piano in 1890 while at Auvers-sur-Oise. From model-painter Suzanne Valadon, who possibly posed for Poudre de riz, we learn Vincent was a frequent but shy guest at Lautrec's artist soirées; from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, we learn the two friends last saw each other in early July 1890, when Vincent made his last trip to Paris from Auvers and a luncheon was held in Theo and Johanna's apartment.

My favorite van Gogh-Lautrec story centers on the exhibition of Les Vingt in Brussels in early 1890. Vincent showed six works (including two Sunflower canvases) but did not attend the opening, because he was at the hospital in Saint-Rémy at the time. Lautrec showed five works in the exhibition and did attend the inaugural dinner on 16 January. The Belgian painter Henry de Groux, drunk and disorderly, proceeded at the dinner to insult Vincent's paintings, referring to him as an 'ignoramus' and 'show-off.' The equally drunk Lautrec flew into a rage and insisted de Groux rescind his comments or face the consequences ... Lautrec's friends had to stop him from challenging de Groux to a duel over the matter. Eventually de Groux was made to apologize.

Unfortunately, any letters exchanged between Lautrec and van Gogh no longer exist. Three brief letters to Theo from Lautrec do survive, including a letter of consolation dated 31 July 1890, after Vincent's death. Lautrec did not learn of his friend's passing in time to attend the hasty funeral in Auvers. Lautrec writes, "You know what a friend he was to me and how eager he was to demonstrate his affection -- unhappily, I am only able to tell you all this by clasping your hand very warmly but in the presence of a coffin."* Lautrec would die at nearly the same age as Vincent, just shy of thirty-seven, eleven years later in 1901.

*Trans. in R. Pickvance, ed., "A Great Artist is Dead: Letters of Consolation on Vincent van Gogh's Death" (Van Gogh Museum, 1992).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Home to Italy

The Cleveland Museum of Art has agreed to repatriate 14 objects of dubious provenance to the Italian government, the latest in a string of repatriations from museums and private collectors in recent years. The objects include Etruscan and Greek artifacts (the Greek material either ancient imports to Italy or made in the Greek colonies of south Italy/Sicily), and a medieval processional cross. See the list and links to object information/pictures on Prof. David Gill's superb blog Looting Matters.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Novel Reader

Around mid-November 1888, while in Arles, van Gogh painted this "liseuse de romans," or novel-reader, today in a private collection (click on image to enlarge). She is rendered in a sketchy, expressionistic style and seems to have been an experimental piece on Vincent's part, namely because he was not working from a model, his usual practice. He painted this figure from his imagination, and if he based her on someone he knew, we don't know her identity. In the letter to his sister Wilhemina in which he describes this picture (W9), Vincent mentions his house-guest, Paul Gauguin, adding that Gauguin "strongly encourages me to work often from pure imagination." As someone who preferred to base his pictures in something tangible, even if he altered reality in the end, Vincent found this technique "de tête" a challenge.

Particularly noteworthy here is the book in the woman's hands. To a viewer of our time it seems innocuous, but a viewer of Vincent's day would instantly identify the book as a "modern" novel, typically published as yellow-covered paperbacks. Books are a recurring motif in van Gogh's work; often he depicts the novels that he enjoyed so much, by authors like Zola or the Goncourts. But such novels were acceptable reading for a man -- not for a woman. Vincent differed from most men of his time in believing women *should* read modern novels, so they themselves could be modern in thinking and worldview. As art historian Judy Sund* says it, for "this imagined female...[to be] reading a yellow book (i.e. a modern novel) with wide-eyed attention reflects the artist's conviction that everyone should read, and suggests anew that his conception of the ideal woman included a devotion to the modern fiction that was modelled on his own" ("Favoured Fictions," p. 260). Vincent's surviving letters to his sister Wil include many reading recommendations. In the letter mentioning "La Liseuse de Romans," he says, "It is a very good thing that you have at last started to read Au Bonheur des Dames" [a novel by Emile Zola about a girl working in a Parisian department store]. We can contrast Vincent's attitude with his brother Theo, who says in a letter to a female acquaintance (T1a), " many fine things are written that one can hardly discuss, at least with ladies. Zola, Guy de Maupassant and others will go on belonging to the forbidden fruits for a long time to come." One wonders what he thought of Vincent's encouraging Wil to read exactly those books!

*Judy Sund, "Favoured Fictions: Women and Books in the Art of Van Gogh," Art History 11, 2 (June 1988) 255-267.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Day

It's a great day for America and a great day for our world. Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Who's That Lady in the Hat?

On Friday, the Van Gogh Museum announced it has confirmed the authenticity of two little-known female portraits in its collection, that is to say, their attribution to van Gogh himself. Although in the past they were claimed to be original van Goghs, the seeming difference in style from other examples had cast doubt. But in-depth research using paint samples, careful examination of the supports (=the stretchers), and the discovery of a Paris paint merchant's stamp on the verso of one of the portraits suggest both pictures date from Vincent's Paris period, most likely from spring 1886, when he was studying in the studio of Fernand Cormon. At that point, he was trying to work in a more conventional style, which explains the look of the pictures.

One of the two, showing a lady in a hat, is shown here. (You can see both pictures and read more about the discovery in the Associated Press article and on the Van Gogh Museum website.) The other picture shows a woman seated with hands folded in her lap. But who are these women? We have no idea, and we will probably never know. The lady with the hat intrigues me in particular -- if this painting were from a few years later, I'd be picking my jaw up off the floor. Why? Because she looks a lot like how I've imagined my novel's heroine, Rachel!

The Van Gogh Museum will be showcasing both portraits, and the research involved in attributing them, in a special focus exhibition through September 2009.