Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece

Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece

by Cynthia Saltzman, Cynthia Saltzman

In 1990, at a star-studded auction, a painting was sold for the astonishing price of $82.5 millionùa record-breaking price. That painting, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, was one of Vincent van GoghÆs last. Painted exactly one hundred years earlier, this revolutionary and haunting painting has seemed to countless admirers to portray modern life, in van GoghÆs words, as…  See more details below


In 1990, at a star-studded auction, a painting was sold for the astonishing price of $82.5 millionùa record-breaking price. That painting, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, was one of Vincent van GoghÆs last. Painted exactly one hundred years earlier, this revolutionary and haunting painting has seemed to countless admirers to portray modern life, in van GoghÆs words, as something bright in spite of its inevitable griefs. This fascinating book reconstructs the paintingÆs journey and becomes a rich story of modernist art and the forces behind the art market. Masterfully evoked are the lives of the thirteen extraordinary people who owned the painting and shaped its history: avant-garde European collectors, pioneering dealers in Paris and Berlin, a brilliant medievalist who acquired it for one of GermanyÆs great museums, and a member of the Nazi elite who sold it after it had been confiscated as a work of degenerate art. Shortly before the war, the canvas was sent to America before its owner, a Jewish refugee, fled Europe. A remarkable and riveting read in the tradition of Lynn NicholasÆs The Rape of Europa, Portrait of Dr. Gachet illuminates, in dramatic detail, the dynamics of the art market and of culture in our time.

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Editorial Reviews

Commerce and art have been strange bedfellows since the days of Renaissance patronage. In the last two decades, however, the relationship between the two has reached the level of the bizarre. In 1990, Vincent van Gogh's portrait of the doctor who unsuccessfully treated him for depression in the final months before his suicide was sold at auction to a Japanese industrialist for $82.5 million. Even more astonishing than the price, or the irony of Van Gogh's lifelong destitution, is the journey of Portrait of Dr. Gachet as told by Cynthia Saltzman, former Wall Street Journal reporter. Reading at times like a travelogue, at others like a spy novel, Saltzman's account of the painting's history rings with urgency and a wry sense of humor. Interest in Van Gogh and his work, the sea changes in modern art criticism, and the boom and bust of the fine arts marketplace will all be satisfied in this extraordinary look at the intersections of human will, genius, and money in this century.
. . .[F]rom Alice Ruben. . .who paid $58 for the work in 1897, to infamous Nazi official Hermann Goring, who sold the painting for $53,000. . .these diverse background figures turn out to be a compelling lens for viewing the usually esoteric art world.
Entertainment Weekly
Library Journal
Weeks before his suicide in 1890, van Gogh painted a portrait of his physician in a melancholy pose and uncannily labeled it 'the heartbroken expression of our time.'This is a richly detailed, dramatic account of the amazing journey of the portrait from its creation in a French village to the record-breaking $82.5 million paid for it by a Japanese industrialist a century later.

After several ownerships, it was placed in a Frankfurt museum only to be confiscated by the Nazis and deposited in a Berlin warehouse. When the avaricious Hermann Gring sold the canvas, it was acquired by a Jewish investment banker living in Amsterdam, who fled to New York with Dr. Gachet.

Saltzman, a former reporter, weaves a spellbinding narrative involving the global art market, political upheavals, connoisseurs, dealers, and the sad visage of Dr. Gachet, which is now again on the auction block. -- Joan Levin

Elizabeth C. Childs
As Saltzman spins tales of the painting's travails and encounters, one glimpses a rich cross-section of lives deeply touched by the love of modern art, the debasing power of greed and the psychological toll of war. New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Saltzman, a onetime reporter for Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, chronicles the peripatetic fate of one of van Gogh's last paintings, from his brother Theo's unsellable stock to a record-breaking auction at Christie's in 1990. In papers found after his suicide, van Gogh had written to Gauguin, 'I have a portrait of Dr. Gachet with the heartbroken expression of our time,' One hundred years before its spectacular sale for million at the peak of the go-go '80s bubble art market.

Saltzman draws the story of van Gogh's reputation and the painting's ownership from a detailed collage of biography, art criticism, history, and current events. Dr. Ferdinand Gachet, the portrait's subject, was an elderly doctor in the isolated village of Auvers who served as van Gogh's last recourse for his undiagnosed mental illness. The painting's itinerary after van Gogh's suicide is almost epic. First it went to his art-dealer brother, Theo, in Paris, then to Theo's widow, who took it to Holland. She had to try several dealers before placing it outside the circle of avant-garde connoisseurs. The portrait found its first institutional owner in Frankfurt's Stadel art museum, purchased by the prescient director Georg Swarzenski, who had to endure its confiscation in 1937 by the Nazi government and its exhibition as 'degenerate art.'

It then fell into the hands of Hermann Goring, who liquidated it for foreign currency in 1938. Eventually passing into the hands of a collector who emigrated to America, it was often displayed in American museums, until a combination of new tax laws and soaring art prices brought it to the auction block. To become the sequestered property of a bankrupt Japanesebusinessman.

An intriguing map of the painting's wanderings, but what this journalistic account fails to convey is insight into the work's significance and of the emotional investment of those who tried to save or possess this refugee artwork.

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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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Van Gogh:
Dealer, Preacher, and Painter,

To show the peasant figure in action, that--I repeat--is what an essentially modern figure painting really does, it is the very essence of modern art, something neither the Greeks nor the Renaissance nor the old Dutch school have done.

--Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, July 1885

VINCENT VAN GOGH arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise on May 20, 1890, hoping to find subjects for his pictures and a resolution to the physical and psychological problems that plagued him. Auvers was "set against a long ridge of rocks eaten into by stone quarries," and stretched along the Oise river. "Auvers is very beautiful," van Gogh wrote his brother Theo. "Among other things a lot of old thatched roofs, which are getting rare. ... It is real country, characteristic and picturesque." Thirty years earlier, Charles-Francois Daubigny, a Barbizon painter whom van Gogh admired, had built a house in Auvers and lived there until his death in 1878. While the artist was optimistic that the doctor Paul-Ferdinand Gachet would diagnose his baffling illness, the landscape of Auvers promised to provide material for the ambitious painting program he was determined to pursue.

    Van Gogh was thirty-seven. Whether the stay in his wearing illness was temporary, he could not tell, but he had reached a decisive point in his life as a painter. Although he had worked as an artist for only ten years, he had produced over six hundred canvases and almost as many drawings, and recently he had begun to gain recognition for his art. Within the last year his paintings had appeared in exhibitions not only in Paris but in Brussels, and his work had won critical acclaim. Four months before, in a lengthy piece in the first issue of Mercure de France, the symbolist poet Georges-Albert Aurier had hailed him a "great painter" and a "not unworthy descendant of the old masters of Holland."

    In the embryonic but expanding market for avant-garde art, van Gogh was exceptionally well positioned. First, his brother Theo was an art dealer who supported him with a steady income. The van Gogh brothers had been born into a family well connected in the art trade; three of their uncles were successful dealers whose galleries in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague gave them vast influence in the Dutch art market. Through one of these uncles, the painter had been apprenticed at Goupil & Cie, a major international Paris gallery. Van Gogh had quit the gallery in 1876, but Theo, also an employee of Goupil's, had worked his way up to become manager of its Montmartre branch. There he handled the controversial art of the Impressionists. Although van Gogh had sold but one painting, a decade amounted to little time for an artist to establish himself, and he had as his patron and brother one of the most important avant-garde art dealers in Paris.

    Six years' experience at Goupil's gave van Gogh a relatively sophisticated, sometimes jaded understanding of the art market, a topic frequently discussed in his letters. "Fortunately, it is very easy to sell nice polite pictures in a nice polite place to a nice polite gentleman, now that the great Albert [Goupil] has given us the recipe," he told Theo in June 1888. "Nothing," he rightly argued, "would help us to sell our canvases more than if they could gain general acceptance as decorations for middle-class houses. The way it used to be in Holland." The artist also understood the economics of art. He lectured his brother on what economists would call the "opportunity cost" Theo incurred by investing in pictures, pointing out he was forfeiting income by putting money into canvases by the still-obscure Paul Gauguin. (A former stockbroker, Gauguin had quit the exchange after the market crashed in 1882.) Those pictures, van Gogh argued, "will be sold one day," but in the meantime, they "may freeze the interest on the purchase money invested for years to come."

    Theo knew only too well the risks of speculating in the work of unknown painters. For years he generously contributed part of his substantial salary (some 7,000 francs a year plus commissions) to provide his brother with a stipend of 220 francs a month in exchange for his canvases. (At 2,660 francs a year, van Gogh's income was about a quarter of the annual earnings of a French doctor or lawyer--some 10,000 francs--but one and a half times the salary that the postman Joseph Roulin, the subject of four of the artist's portraits, used in Arles to support three children.) Willingly accepting Theo's donations, van Gogh characteristically refused to consider them charity. Instead he liked to think of their relationship as strictly professional; Theo's gifts, in his mind, were standard payments made by a dealer to an artist who in turn produced pictures. "Even if it should be your high pleasure to tear up my work," he wrote, "or maybe leave it peacefully alone, or if you should try to do something with it, I have no right to find fault with you. But only if I am allowed to consider it a purchase on your part."

    Theo's patronage had allowed van Gogh to develop as a painter, yet the artist nevertheless longed to release his brother from the constant financial demands it put upon him. Vincent stressed that he considered Theo his partner in a creative enterprise. "Though you are indirectly involved in painting, you are more productive than I am," he wrote in July 1888. "The more completely you are involved in dealing, the more of an artist you become." At the end of that same letter, he added, "I would be doing no more than my duty should I ever manage to pay back in kind the money you have laid out. And in practice that means doing portraits." By the time van Gogh reached Auvers, he was an accomplished if unconventional portraitist. When he made the decision to paint Dr. Gachet, a prominent figure in the village, he hoped he might attract commissions for other portraits. Thus what was arguably van Gogh's most introspective and metaphysical portrait was born in part of practical and commercial considerations.

EARLY LIFE, 1853-1876

Vincent van Gogh was born into a middle-class family on March 30, 1853, in Groot-Zundert, a town in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands, not far from the Belgian border--closer in fact to Antwerp than to Amsterdam. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a minister in the Dutch Reformed church. His mother, Anna Cornelia Carbentus, was the daughter of a bookbinder who had worked at the Dutch court in the Hague. Van Gogh received an excellent secondary education in local town schools, which gave him a good grounding in both French and English.

    On July 30, 1869, at the age of sixteen, van Gogh began his apprenticeship at Goupil & Cie in the Hague, a gallery originally owned by his uncle Cent van Gogh. The Hague gallery occupied the first floor of a handsome nineteenth-century building on the Plaats, a fashionable square. Inside, it resembled a grand Victorian private house, its gloomy rooms stocked with heavy furniture and lined with dark paintings. A shrewd cosmopolitan businessman, Cent van Gogh developed a lucrative trade, dealing, it seems, primarily in contemporary Dutch art. In 1858 he had sold his business to Goupil's in exchange for a partnership in the French firm and moved to Paris. Goupil's had been founded in Paris in 1827 by Adolphe Goupil as a publisher of prints of both old master and contemporary paintings (many of them by now-forgotten artists). To obtain rights to produce engravings or lithographs from contemporary paintings, Goupil acquired stocks of canvases; eventually he began dealing in the pictures he had reproduced as prints. Through these prints and also photographs (photography being invented in the 1830s), Goupil's had advanced a mass market for art reproductions. By the 1860s the gallery had branches not only in the Hague but in Brussels, Berlin, London, and New York (later known as Knoedler).

    If progressive in his international business practices, Adolphe Goupil was conventional in his taste. The gallery specialized in expensive canvases by then-famous living artists who wielded influence as members of the French Academy and had made their reputations by winning prizes and medals at the Paris Salon, the annual (or biannual) juried exhibition of contemporary art. (Drawing thousands of visitors and generating commentary in the press, the Salon remained French art's most important exhibition until the 1880s.) Goupil's illustrious artists included William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, and Jean-Leon Gerome, who happened to be Goupil's son-in-law. They considered themselves inheritors of the French tradition of history painting, brilliantly exemplified in the seventeenth century by Nicolas Poussin's somber epics of classical, biblical, and mythological history: The Rape of the Sabines and The Death of Germanicus. The French Academy set history painting at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of painting types, above landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and genre scenes (scenes of everyday life). Brandishing allegorical lessons of courage, honor, duty, and fate, history paintings theoretically served to instruct and inspire the public and to glorify the French state. In the mid-nineteenth century academic artists tended to paint precisely detailed literary and historical melodramas--Andromache, fighting enemy soldiers to keep an infant from certain death, or the arrest of Charlotte Corday. At the Salon of 1864, Meissonier exhibited a small panorama of Napoleon on horseback leading troops through the snow. Five years before, French critics reviewing the Salon had noted (only some with regret) the decline of history painting and the proliferation of genre scenes and landscapes.

    But Adolphe Goupil, whose gallery thrived on academic art, ignored the increasingly popular landscape painters, including Camille Corot and members of the Barbizon school--Charles-Francois Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau, and Constant Troyon. Their seemingly traditional pictures, painted in the 1830s and 1840s, often on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, were innovative in that their creators had attempted to record faithfully the natural world by sketching out of doors, before completing the canvases in the studio. Praised by the critic Jules Castagnary for their "melancholy, elegance and a gloomy grandeur," the romantic Barbizon landscapes sold well in Paris, Amsterdam, and New York. Ironically, this passion for images of the untouched French countryside, with wide vistas and ravishing skies, emerged as Europe was becoming increasingly industrialized, and the industrialists themselves bought many of the Barbizon pictures. "Nature was the desired realm," as art historian Robert Herbert wrote, "both the inner world of the untrammeled instinct and the outer world of field, forest, riverbank, or seashore."

    Van Gogh was among those drawn to the Barbizon pictures. In 1874 he listed Corot and Rousseau as painters he particularly liked, and he began to voice his profound enthusiasm for the often-sentimental, sometimes politically charged scenes of peasants laboring in the fields by Jean-Francois Millet. (About Millet's Angelus, he wrote Theo, "That's magnificent, that's poetry.") After a few years at Goupil's, van Gogh was undoubtedly aware of the more radical currents in French painting, including the realism of Gustave Courbet, who at the 1850 Salon had riled conventional taste with Burial at Ornans and The Stone Breakers, canvases that portrayed villagers and manual laborers on a scale traditionally allotted to history painting. "Painting is an essentially concrete art," declared Courbet in 1861, "and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things." Van Gogh probably also knew of Edouard Manet, who in 1863 exhibited his Dejeuner sur l'herbe, a scene of contemporary life in which a nude woman is picnicking in the woods with two fully clothed men.

    In the Hague, van Gogh, a hard-working employee, was put in charge of selling photographs, an increasingly significant part of the gallery's art-reproduction business. In June 1873 Goupil's management promoted him to a job in the London office. Meanwhile Cent van Gogh had secured a position for Theo (four years younger than Vincent) in Goupil's branch in Brussels; soon after Vincent left for England, Theo moved to the Hague. On May 15, 1875, Goupil's French owners, seemingly anxious to have their Dutch colleague's nephew under their supervision, brought van Gogh to the gallery's headquarters in Paris, at 2, place de l'Opera. But in Paris van Gogh grew discontent with his situation and hostile toward the gallery, devoting his free time to studying the Bible. On April 1, 1876, when he was twenty-three years old, he was fired.


On leaving the gallery, van Gogh seemed determined to follow his father and to serve in the Protestant church. He spent the next four years struggling to find steady employment as a minister. After stints of teaching, working in a bookstore, and studying theology, he succeeded in becoming an apprentice preacher in the Borinage, the desolate Belgian coal-mining district near the French border. When he failed to have his contract renewed, he insisted on continuing his grueling work with the miners; at the same time he began making numerous sketches and developing his skills as a draftsman.

    By October 1880 van Gogh, now twenty-seven, had made the decision to become an artist and had enrolled in the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. In retrospect his seemingly wayward path from art dealer to minister to artist was something of a logical progression. Van Gogh treated painting as no less than a religious calling, while also producing pictures he hoped would find a market. For the next five years he painted in Belgium and the Netherlands (in the Hague, Antwerp, and the villages Etten and Nuenen, where his parents lived). From the start he often chose to depict working-class subjects (peasants, weavers, old "orphan men") whose bleak and bitter situation he captured in the emphatic, rough-hewn sweeping lines of his drawing style. His early works (from what would later be called the Dutch period) culminated in a painting of peasants seated at a dinner table, which he called The Potato Eaters. It was a monumental picture, dark, brooding, reverential, its figures awkwardly drawn in an exaggerated style that borders on caricature, forfeiting the dictates of naturalism to convey the metaphorical meaning of the family gathered at a meal. He himself explained his intent:

The point is that I've tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and--a meal honestly earned. I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people. So the last thing I would want is for people to admire or approve of it without knowing why.

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Jonathan Petropoulos
An artful book. Saltzman's fascinating study transcends van Gogh's painting and represents an important contribution to the social, economic, and political history of art.

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