An art collection is seldom a perfect reflection of the wishes of the collector. Budgetary constraints and coincidence can be just as important to a collection as determination and vision. Luck is often a major factor, and this was certainly true of the art collection assembled by Theo (1857–1891) and Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) between around 1880 and 1890. The brothers’ distinct tastes and passion for collecting were inevitably curbed to some extent by their limited financial means. Even though Theo had a decent job at the Paris art dealership of Goupil & Cie, which became Boussod, Valadon & Cie in 1884, he was from a young age the mainstay of the family, and this was a significant drain on his resources. After Vincent decided to become an artist in 1880, he lived on an allowance from Theo, who also sent money to their mother after the death of their father, Theodorus, in 1885. Their younger siblings Willemien and Cor, who still lived at home, likewise depended on Theo’s support. Yet this lack of funds did not prevent Vincent and Theo from making shrewd purchases, and they added to their modest holdings by exchanging Vincent’s paintings for the work of other artists. Although swapping artworks proved to be an effective means of acquisition, a collection built up in this way was subject to arbitrariness. By no means could the brothers always choose which works they were given in exchange, nor did they have much say in the various works they received as gifts.
Despite these limitations, however, the brothers were able to form a sizeable collection, of which some eighty paintings, more than seventy-five drawings and over seventy prints are still preserved in the Van Gogh Museum, which means the collection has stayed largely intact. The collection contains work by artists who are now considered among the greatest of the avant-garde, including Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), as well as the work of artists who have since been forgotten. Most of them belonged to Vincent and Theo’s immediate circle and were still relatively unknown, which was true of Vincent too. Their work was not expensive, so the brothers could afford it, but it took vision and boldness for them to stake their money on these avant-garde artist friends whose future was uncertain. Thanks to their keen eye and instinctive discernment, Theo and Vincent were able to acquire a varied collection with a large number of pieces that have earned a place in the canon of modern European art.
An introduction to this collection is obliged to point out that the Van Gogh brothers did not collect merely out of a love of art. Around 1885, Theo conceived a plan to set up his own art dealership, and with this in mind, both he and Vincent began to see their collection as stock in trade for their future gallery. Because the brothers planned to devote themselves to promoting artists whom they admired, their acquisitions were based on personal tastes and commercial considerations, which largely coincided. As far as we know, Theo made two – unsuccessful – attempts to set himself up in business. When he died in 1891, the entire collection came into the hands of Theo’s heirs: Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925) and their son, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1890–1978). A chronology of the collection’s genesis – inasmuch as it is possible to establish – gives rise to an interesting picture of the brothers’ evolving tastes and their steadily expanding network of contacts, thereby augmenting previous publications on the collection, chief among them the exhibition catalogue Theo van Gogh, 1857–1891: Art Dealer, Collector and Brother of Vincent (1999). That catalogue, though, breaks down the history of the collection according to the various methods of acquisition, without paying much attention to the brothers’ evolving tastes and widening network. Moreover, that publication and many others make Theo’s role seem disproportionately large, whereas both Vincent and Theo played vital roles in building up the collection. The frequent question as to which works belonged to whom is therefore irrelevant. In their letters, the brothers often referred to ‘our’ collection and the works that ‘we’ have acquired. The collection is actually the product of the brothers’ ongoing artistic dialogue, which began in their teenage years and continued – in both face-to-face conversations and letters – until Vincent’s death in 1890.
The prelude: collecting reproductive prints
Long before the brothers acquired their first painting or drawing, they were actively engaged in collecting reproductive prints and magazine illustrations. The low prices of black-and-white reproductions of works by famous artists in such techniques as wood engraving, line engraving and autotype actually made collecting an affordable undertaking and provided the brothers with an excellent opportunity to discover, by degrees, their artistic predilections. Collecting reproductive prints can therefore be seen as the prelude to collecting one-of-a-kind drawings and paintings, even though the brothers still had no clear-cut goal when they embarked on their collection of graphic art.
Vincent began to collect reproductive prints in 1869, at the age of sixteen, after becoming the youngest employee at the Hague branch of Goupil & Cie, an art dealership with headquarters in Paris. At its height, the firm also had branches in Brussels, London, Berlin and New York. His appointment had been arranged by his uncle Vincent van Gogh (Uncle Cent), a partner in the firm since 1858. Although Goupil & Cie increasingly developed into a gallery that sold paintings and drawings, its core business was the trade and production of prints after important works of contemporary art. Such reproductions were immensely popular among art lovers and therefore a lucrative line of business. During Vincent’s time at the gallery, thousands of prints must have passed through his hands, fostering a desire to own such reproductions himself. No doubt he was further stimulated by the art collections of both Uncle Cent and Uncle Cor (Cornelis Marinus van Gogh), who was also active in the art trade.
Vincent was glad that he could share his passion for art and collecting reproductions with his brother Theo, his junior by four years. Theo, who began his career at Goupil’s Brussels branch on 1 January 1873, at the age of fifteen, had barely started work when Vincent wrote to him: ‘You must write to me in particular about what kind of paintings you see and what you find beautiful.’ This marked the beginning of an intense correspondence in which Vincent and Theo frequently exchanged ideas about art. Both brothers were transferred a number of times, but they never worked together at the same branch of Goupil. The written word thus remained their primary means of communication, and in this Vincent took the lead. As the older brother, he was determined to help Theo develop good taste. Theo thus received in January 1874 a list of the artists whom Vincent found interesting. This list betrays his eclectic taste, which ranged from landscapes to religious subjects and from then ‘modern’ artists, including Camille Corot (1796–1875) and Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch (1824–1903), to academic painters like Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891) and romantics such as Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803–1862). Vincent did not care about an artist’s nationality. This wide-ranging, international approach is also apparent in the collection the brothers eventually built up, although not all of the above mentioned artists are represented in their holdings.
Vincent often told Theo about paintings on offer in the gallery and exhibitions he had seen. Gradually he developed distinct preferences. He often discussed the work of the painters of Barbizon and those of the Hague School, but he also told Theo about the art of the Old Masters, such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Frans Hals (1582/3–1666) and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9–1682). Vincent’s ideas largely concurred with both current Dutch tastes and the art on offer at Goupil’s. His favourite artist was Jean-François Millet (1814–1875). After seeing an exhibition of Millet’s drawings in Paris in 1875, he wrote to Theo: ‘felt something akin to: Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’.
Soon after embarking on this artistic dialogue, the brothers started to exchange not only letters but also prints after their favourite works of art. Collecting reproductive prints came to be a joint undertaking that prompted a constant exchange of ideas. The brothers often put prints for each other in crates of paintings that were sent from Vincent’s branch to Theo’s or vice versa. The collection contains two albums filled with prints, which must have been compiled in this period . Although it is not clear whether Vincent or Theo was responsible for these scrapbooks, they confirm the brothers’ early artistic preferences. One of the albums contains, for example, many reproductions after the work of contemporary landscape painters such as Weissenbruch, Willem Roelofs (1822–1897), Jules Dupré (1811–1889), Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (1807–1876) and seventeenth-century masters such as Rembrandt, Hals and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641). It also included many genre scenes by Jan Steen (1626–1679), among others, religious representations by the engraver Léopold Flameng (1831–1911) and narrative scenes by Gustave Doré (1832–1883).
Theo moves to Paris
Around 1 November 1879, Theo was transferred to Paris, where he took up a position at Goupil & Cie at 19 boulevard Montmartre, one of their three branches in the French capital. The other two were situated at 9 rue Chaptal and 2 place de l’Opéra, both more prestigious locations. Evidently Theo did a good job, because in early 1881 he was appointed branch manager (gérant). It cannot be a coincidence that around the time of this promotion, Theo began to acquire original artworks, such as drawings, artist’s prints and paintings. At this point the brothers still had no well-defined ideas about a joint collection; Theo’s early purchases were mainly for himself.
While it is true that Theo now had more money to spend, Vincent had meanwhile decided to become an artist and had no income of his own. The funds put aside for Vincent’s allowance represented a considerable drain on Theo’s income. He earned between 11,000 and 14,000 francs a year, an amount that consisted of a monthly salary and a yearly commission of 7.5 per cent of his branch’s profit. On average, 14.5 per cent of Theo’s total income went to Vincent.
His obligations to Vincent and the costliness of life in the French capital meant that Theo did not have enough money left over to buy paintings by their favourite artists. For example, Millet’s painting The Hay Trussers (Les botteleurs de foin, c. 1850, Louvre, Paris) was sold in 1880 for 40,000 francs: three times Theo’s annual income. Nor could he afford the painted work of prominent exponents of the Hague School such as Jacob Maris (1837–1899) and Jozef Israëls (1824–1911), whose paintings generally fetched between 1,000 and 3,000 francs. In order to acquire original artworks by their favourite masters, Theo sometimes resorted to drawings or artist’s prints, which were published as independent works of art, as opposed to reproductive prints, of which the brothers already owned so many. Theo thus bought rather unambitious but well-executed drawings by Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878) , Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) and Charles-Émile Jacque (1813–1894) . The collection also contains three etchings by Jacque. Theo attended sales held at Hôtel Drouot, an auction house where such drawings could be acquired rather inexpensively. Another drawing that he bought in this period, Man with a Turban, Sitting Cross-Legged (1870–71) by Charles Bargue (1825/6–1883) , bears the stamp of the posthumous Drouot sale of 1883. Theo also purchased two lithographs by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (1844–1925) , whose naturalistic paintings had enjoyed great success at the Salon. Vincent, who in the early 1880s had still not seen a single painting by this artist, had nevertheless read articles about Lhermitte and knew him as ‘the Millet and Jules Breton in Black and White’. Although such prints were much less expensive than paintings, the Van Gogh brothers thought them by no means inferior, for they valued virtuosity in a graphic medium as much as a brilliantly painted canvas.
As regards the Hague School, Theo also resorted to drawn work. The collection contains a double-sided sheet by Anton Mauve (1838–1888), comprising Study for the painting On the Heath near Laren (recto) and Sketch of a Landscape with Sheep (verso) . He also took advantage of the lower prices of work by the Hague School’s younger generation, such as Théophile de Bock (1851–1904). De Bock’s work, which was sold at Goupil’s for much less than that of Maris and Israëls, fetched between 200 and 1,000 francs in the early 1880s. Theo received a visit from De Bock in 1880, at which time he possibly bought two oil paintings and two watercolours. As a Dutchman active in the Paris art market, Theo was certainly important to De Bock, who might have sold him these works for very little money or even presented them to him as a gift.
Theo also bought two paintings by the Norwegian artist Hans Heyerdahl (1857–1913), whose work had been on offer at Goupil’s since 1881. He paid 250 francs for Portrait of a Girl with a Bunch of Flowers and Park, both produced in 1882. For these two works, which are modest in size, Theo paid the market price. Unlike Theo’s previous purchases, Heyerdahl did not represent a continuation of the direction the brothers had taken with their collection of reproductive prints. Theo had become acquainted with Heyerdahl in Paris and had written to Vincent about him. From Vincent’s reaction, we may assume that Theo had expressed enthusiasm for Heyerdahl’s work and had praised his ‘proportions for the purpose of design’. Heyerdahl’s work was rather sentimental, and in terms of style it was somewhere between naturalism and impressionism. Theo must have found it exciting to buy the work of a totally ‘new’ artist.
Not only did Theo’s promotion mean an increase in salary, but his new position also gave him higher standing, which had a positive influence on the collection that he and Vincent were forming. His dealings as branch manager were crucial to the commercial success of the artists whose work Goupil dealt in. Theo’s network steadily grew, as evidenced by his surviving address books and notebooks, which are filled with the names of influential artists, critics and collectors, including Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) and Georges de Bellio (1826–1894). Theo’s new position therefore made it more likely that artists would make him a gift of their work. This is probably how he acquired, in the first years after his promotion, the watercolour Girl in the Grass by George Hendrik Breitner (1857–1923), who hoped, through Theo, to have his work shown at one of Goupil’s Paris branches. As he wrote to Theo: ‘For my part, I hope to send you something soon. Would you see a chance to place sketches of nudes by me?’ Breitner probably sent him the watercolour to strengthen their relations. It did not have the desired effect, however: Breitner’s work was not sold at Goupil & Cie until after Theo’s death, and then only at the Hague branch.
The Italian artist Vittorio Corcos (1859–1933) made a similar gift in 1884, even though he was not hoping to be promoted by Theo. Instead, he was thanking him for services rendered. From the time he took up his position at Goupil’s in Paris until his death in 1891, more than ninety works by Corcos were sold. On Portrait of a Young Woman, intended for Theo, he wrote: ‘A m. Th. Van Gogh / souvenir de Corcos’. A work in the collection by Albert Besnard, who served more or less the same market as the fashionable Corcos, was presumably given to Theo with similar strategic motives.
The brothers’ estate contains, in addition to works by Breitner, Corcos and Besnard, a number of drawings that were given to Theo by artists who are now forgotten. One such work is Marie-Désiré Bourgoin’s (1839–1912) Landscape with a Woman and a Goat , which bears the inscription ‘Souvenir à mon ami van Gogh//D.Bourgoin//83’. His name is not mentioned in the sales ledgers of Goupil, nor in those of Boussod, Valadon & Cie, so if he gave the drawing to Theo in the hope of furthering his career, it failed to have the desired effect. His name does occur, however, in Theo’s address book, so the two must have been on friendly terms or indeed had some kind of business relationship. This does not seem to have been the case with John Alexander McDougal (1810–1894) and Charles Théodore Bichet (1863–1929) , each represented in the collection by one drawing. Although these works were probably also gifts, we do not know how or why they ended up in the possession of Theo and Vincent. The presence in their collection of works by lesser-known artists shows that there are significant gaps in our knowledge of Theo’s network and his trading and collecting practices in this period.
Theo’s burgeoning interest in modern art
An interesting question is the extent to which Theo’s evolving taste in art was influenced by his new cosmopolitan life in Paris. In the early 1880s, Goupil was anything but a beacon of the new developments in painting. The firm mainly sold the work of established artists, such as the painters of Barbizon (most of whom had meanwhile died) and the Hague School. Their paintings – primarily landscapes – were still popular, but so was the work of such Academy painters as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). The work of Lhermitte and Jules Breton (1827–1906), who belonged to the second generation of French naturalist painters, likewise sold well, as did the work of society painters such as Giuseppe de Nittis (1846–1884) and the previously mentioned Corcos. Theo must have admired much of the work that passed through his hands; his purchase of two paintings by Heyerdahl can be seen as confirmation of this. After all, this Norwegian artist was an affordable alternative to fashionable, more expensive French work, such as that of Jean Béraud (1849–1935). As emerges from the brothers’ correspondence, Vincent, too, admired many of these popular artists.
At the same time, Theo was well informed about developments outside Goupil’s, where the modern art of the impressionists was steadily gaining in popularity. At the Impressionist Exhibitions in 1880, 1881 and 1882, for example, Theo could have become familiar with the work of Claude Monet (1840–1926), Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) and Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), among others. In 1883, several of these artists were given solo exhibitions at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel, and not long after that, Georges Petit, Goupil’s most important competitor, ventured to exhibit a few impressionist works at his luxurious and fashionable gallery.
Theo must have taken an interest in the impressionists, because in 1883 he made his first, cautious purchase of an impressionist work for his collection. Instead of choosing a more distinctive work by Monet, Degas or Pissarro, he selected a painting by Victor Vignon (1847–1909), an artist who had exhibited a number of times at the impressionist shows and who often collaborated with Pissarro. Vignon was more conservative than his more prominent colleagues; stylistically, he was midway between Pissarro and Daubigny. His work was affordable and in the same price range as the paintings of Pissarro, who was still finding it difficult to sell his work at the beginning of the 1880s. Vignon’s work sold better, which must have been why Theo found it safer as a first step in this new direction. He paid 200 francs for either Woman in a Vineyard or Winter Landscape, it is not certain which.
In 1884, Theo bought an impressionist painting for his branch of Boussod, Valadon & Cie, and this time he did choose a Pissarro. The sales ledgers record a small work titled Landscape (Paysage), which was purchased for 125 francs and subsequently sold with a profit of only 25 francs. In the following year, Theo sold works by Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) and Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) – one painting by each of those artists. That was it, as far as the impressionists were concerned, because his employers were not keen on the new art. With the exception of the work by Sisley, Theo acquired the impressionist works from third parties, which means that he was not yet in direct contact with Pissarro, Monet or Renoir.
It is quite conceivable that during this period of new discoveries, Theo began to buy the work of the leading impressionists for his own collection. An inventory of the estate, drawn up after Theo’s death for a fire insurance policy, lists two paintings by Renoir and one by Pissarro. In 1899, Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, sold these works to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, after which no paintings by these artists remained in the estate. Sisley’s work was attainable and affordable for Theo, in part because he was in direct contact with the artist, but he seems not to have taken a real interest in it. And although Theo held the art of Monet and Degas in high esteem, their high prices prevented him from buying it.
Much has been written about Theo as a dealer in impressionist paintings, in particular by John Rewald in 1973 and Richard Thomson in 1999. Rewald called Theo a hero for his reputed altruism in choosing to deal in art of this kind, whereas Thomson maintains that Theo did nothing more than go with the flow of the art market. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: Theo’s dealings in 1884–85, as well as what he bought for his own collection, reveal that he was moving towards the impressionists on his own initiative and that his personal taste was becoming considerably more modern.
In the same period, Theo no doubt wrote enthusiastically to Vincent about the impressionists, because the term occurs frequently in their correspondence from 1884 onwards. Vincent thus had high expectations of this style of painting when he set off for Paris in 1886. When he finally saw the work of the impressionists, it took him a while – and quite some effort – before he could bring himself to admire it. This shows that the roles of the brothers were briefly reversed, with regard to the formation of their artistic tastes, and that Theo was taking the lead in introducing his older brother to new developments in painting. In fact, this was not so surprising, given that Theo was leading a cosmopolitan life in Paris, whereas Vincent was striving to be a ‘peasant painter’ in rural Brabant.
Nevertheless, Theo must have been frustrated by the limitations imposed on him by his employers with regard to trading in impressionist art, and this made him reflect on his future with the firm. Instead of continuing on the path prescribed by Boussod, Valadon & Cie, Theo would have liked to go into business for himself, in order to focus on modern art with no outside interference. It is possible that he thought of the first impressionist paintings he had acquired as potential stock in trade, even though it was by no means enough. Together with his good friend Andries Bonger, whom he had met several years earlier in Paris, he devised a plan to approach Uncle Cent and Uncle Cor and ask them to invest in his business. Vincent was also closely involved in the plan. Theo made the request in the summer of 1886, while visiting his uncles during a vacation in the Netherlands. But they saw nothing in the plan, thinking it too risky to invest in impressionist paintings. Theo was deeply disappointed but continued to harbour a desire to strike out on his own. From this time on, the brothers’ acquisitions were driven not just by their love of art but also by the hope of future profits.
Prints by Raffaëlli, Forain and Manet
It is remarkable that in the case of Degas, Theo did not turn his attention to his drawings or prints, both of which were less expensive and more readily available than his paintings. This was not so much the case with Monet, who presented himself mainly as a painter. Nevertheless, there are several modern artists whose prints Theo did buy: Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924), Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931) and Edouard Manet (1832–1883). It is not known exactly when Theo made these purchases, but because the brothers often corresponded about Raffaëlli and Manet in 1884 and 1885, it is conceivable that their prints were acquired in this period.
In 1885, Theo sent Vincent a reproduction of Raffaëlli’s painting The Blacksmiths (1884, Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai) and the catalogue of a monographic exhibition on the artist, held in 1884, which contained prints of what Raffaëlli himself called ‘types of lower-class people’. Vincent thought The Blacksmiths ‘very fine’ and the prints in the catalogue ‘masterly’. Raffaëlli’s depictions of people from the lowest social strata resonated with Vincent: as a ‘peasant painter’, he had a similar focus in his work at this time. It was only natural for the brothers to choose the graphic work of this artist, because he had applied his talents equally to painting and printmaking. Theo bought a collector’s edition of a series of four etchings that Raffaëlli had made to illustrate the novel Croquis parisiens (Parisian Sketches, 1880) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) . Together, the four works – two large figure pieces of labourers and two landscapes depicting wastelands outside Paris – form a representative picture of the artist’s repertoire. Raffaëlli also submitted this series to the abovementioned exhibition in 1884, so he must have thought these works important to the image he wished to project.
The illustrated edition of Huysmans’s novel also contained work by Forain, who produced six prints, which, together with Raffaëlli’s, were available in a collector’s edition. It was this edition that Theo bought. The combination of these two artists was telling, for although they were both chroniclers of contemporary Parisian life, they recorded it from different perspectives. Forain specialized in scenes of nightlife, whereas Raffaëlli concentrated on the working classes. Both extremes of life in Paris were exhaustively described in Huysmans’s book.
Even more so than Raffaëlli, Forain advertised himself as a draughtsman and printmaker. At the four editions of the Impressionist Exhibition in which he took part, he mainly exhibited works on paper. He regularly supplied illustrations for Paris magazines such as Le Courrier français and Le Rire, and for a time he even published his own magazine, Le Fifre, with which the Van Gogh brothers were well acquainted. Forain’s illustrations for Croquis parisiens are an early example of the many sharp and witty illustrations for which he would become known. The brothers’ interest in the prints of Raffaëlli and Forain shows how well informed they were about the latest developments in printmaking. It was not just the fact that graphic art was less expensive than paintings; Vincent and Theo’s sincere interest in the engraved work of these artists led them to buy their prints.
The brothers’ collection of artist’s prints took a serious turn with the purchase of sixteen prints by Manet . As a member of the society of etchers (Société des Aquafortistes), Manet played an important role in the ‘etching revival’ of the 1860s, which elevated the copperplate etching from a mere reproductive medium to a full-fledged form of artistic expression. Raffaëlli and Forain essentially carried on in this vein. Manet developed a simple and direct style for his prints, which he considered works of art in their own right. Even so, his engraved work is closely related to his paintings, and he often recast his painted compositions as prints. A number of etchings by Manet in Theo and Vincent’s collection thus exist in painted versions, such as The Smoker , Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and The Spanish Singer (1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Manet was, after all, mainly a painter, and produced graphic art only sporadically.
Manet’s large retrospective exhibition – held at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1884, the year after his death – therefore featured 116 paintings and, by comparison, only 21 etchings and 5 lithographs. Vincent, then living in Nuenen, was extremely interested in this exhibition, particularly because he had already seen so much of the artist’s work during his time at Goupil’s in Paris (1875–76). He asked Theo for a detailed description of the show and a list of the works on display. It included numerous paintings of which Manet had also made prints, such as The Spanish Singer and Lola de Valence (1862, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), both of which Theo had bought. The acquisition of Manet’s prints was no doubt due in part to the high price of his paintings. The artist’s death in 1883 and the compelling retrospective not long afterwards drove up the price of his paintings far beyond Theo’s budget. The fact that Manet saw his prints as fully fledged works of art certainly added to the brothers’ appreciation of his etchings.
In addition to these prints, Theo bought Manet’s drawing Portrait of a Lady. It is not known when he made this purchase. In contrast to his great personal interest in the artist, Theo sold only a handful of Manets at the gallery. In 1886 he sold a seascape, but after that it was years before the artist’s name recurred in the sales ledgers of Boussod, Valadon & Cie. When Vincent moved to Paris that same year, he was finally able to see the prints and Theo’s other acquisitions with his own eyes and admire them at first hand. After Vincent’s arrival, Theo’s taste began to incline even more towards the avant-garde.
Vincent comes to Paris
In late February 1886, Vincent joined Theo in Paris and moved into his small apartment at 25 rue Laval. From the moment of his arrival, he began to participate in their collecting activities. We can be sure that he voiced his opinion of Theo’s previous purchases and that he now became actively involved in acquisitions. The artistic exchanges in their letters, which by this time spanned a period of thirteen years, could now take place uninterrupted in their shared accommodation. For the first time, they could visit exhibitions together and discuss the art they had seen.
Vincent enabled them to expand the collection considerably through the exchange of his work. At first these swaps were intended not so much to enrich the collection as to enlarge Vincent’s incipient Paris network, which was one of his main objectives in the first months after his arrival in the metropolis. He enrolled, for instance, in Fernand Cormon’s (1845–1924) atelier libre (‘free studio’), where he not only strove to develop his skills as an artist but also met many other painters. Moreover, through Theo he became acquainted with several art dealers who were willing to exhibit work he had painted specially for the market, such as flower still lifes and townscapes.
Within the network that he built up both on his own and with Theo’s help, Vincent tried to exchange as much of his work as possible, to cement these new relations. In his first year in Paris, he succeeded in this endeavour only with artists who, like himself, had come to France to further their careers. At Cormon’s, Vincent became acquainted with the Australian artist John Russell (1858–1930), with whom he exchanged his Three Pairs of Shoes for either Female Nude, which was probably produced in Cormon’s studio, or Portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh became very attached to this portrait; in 1889 he wrote the following to Theo from Saint-Rémy: ‘take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me’.
Vincent also acquired two paintings by the American artist Frank Myers Boggs (1855–1926): a view of the River Thames in London and one of Boggs’s numerous views of the harbour of Honfleur. Both works came from Boggs’s personal stock and, for the occasion, were supplied with a dedication to Vincent. It is not known which work or works Boggs received from Vincent. The contact between them was probably through Theo, who had been selling the American’s work with some regularity since 1882. Boggs, who had acquired French citizenship, also exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français every year between 1880 and 1890. This would have made him the most prominent of the artists with whom Vincent exchanged work in this period. He also swapped work with the now forgotten Spanish artist Cristóbal de Antonio (1862–1905) and with Fabian , of whom only his Christian name is known. Van Gogh had met both of them in Cormon’s studio. It is not known what they received from him. In fact, many of these pieces were the by-product of Vincent’s networking activities. It is known that the brothers valued the work of Russell and Boggs, but not what they thought of some of their other acquisitions.
Six paintings by Monticelli
While Vincent expanded the collection through occasional exchanges with acquaintances in his new network, the brothers continued their active search for works by artists they admired. One of these was Adolphe Monticelli (1824–1886). In the period when Vincent and Theo were living together in Paris, they managed to lay their hands on no fewer than six of his paintings. The week before Vincent’s arrival, Theo coincidentally sold two pictures by this artist, who painted rococo scenes, still lifes and landscapes with a great deal of impasto. Theo no doubt told Vincent about this work and about the art dealer Joseph Delarebeyrette, who had numerous paintings by Monticelli on display. Delarebeyrette, whose gallery was located at 43 rue de Provence, was an old friend of the Marseille-based artist and one of the few dealers in direct contact with him. Vincent was impressed by the Monticellis he saw at Delarebeyrette’s, and the many flower still lifes he painted in 1886 testify to the influence of this painter’s technique and palette .
In their admiration of Monticelli, Theo and Vincent found a kindred spirit in the Scot Alexander Reid, who had arrived in Paris with hopes of becoming an artist, but a lack of talent had prompted him to turn his attention to the art trade. Reid worked for Theo at the gallery on the boulevard Montmartre, and from December 1886 or thereabouts he lived for six months with Theo and Vincent. Reid was well informed about the demand for Monticelli’s work in Britain, which only increased after the painter’s death on 29 June 1886. Reid tried in a personal capacity (which was allowed at Boussod, Valadon & Cie) to buy up large numbers of Monticellis from Delarebeyrette, among others, with a view to selling them at much higher prices on the British market. Owing in part to his close collaboration with Reid, Theo succeeded in November 1886 in selling no fewer than eleven paintings by Monticelli to the London art dealer Charles Obach, Vincent’s former boss at Goupil’s, who had struck out on his own in 1884. For this transaction Theo had bought up, on Boussod’s behalf, twelve Monticellis, one of which, Italian Girl, was offered to him as a bonus for the sale. Thus the first work by this highly sought-after artist entered the brothers’ collection at no cost to themselves, which must have been a source of great satisfaction.
On 19 March 1887, Theo managed – probably in collaboration with Reid – to buy nine more paintings by Monticelli at Delarebeyrette’s, which he likewise sold on to Obach. In May of that year he bought a further six, again from Delarebeyrette; these he sold to the London art dealership Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell, one of Reid’s contacts. In 1887, Theo – following the example of Reid, who by this time had been living with the brothers for around three months – bought four paintings by Monticelli from Delarebeyrette for his and Vincent’s collection, presumably thinking that they would sell them for a profit. These works were never sold, however, and they consequently remained in the collection. Yet this clearly shows that Theo continued to seek possibilities to go into business for himself, and that he and Vincent now approached their acquisitions not only as art lovers but also as future dealers.
In 1887 the sixth painting by Monticelli entered the brothers’ collection: Vase of Flowers, which was presented to them by Reid, who probably hoped in this way to seal their friendship. Vincent later recalled that in fact they had already wanted to buy the work, which must have made this gift particularly welcome. The painting in question is a flower still life of the kind that had served as an example to Vincent in 1886. In 1887 he painted two portraits of Reid, one of which the Scotsman was allowed to keep , perhaps as a token of gratitude for his gift. This portrait depicts Reid sitting in a chair in the brothers’ apartment, with the two paintings that Vincent had previously acquired from Boggs in the background. Hanging between them is one of Van Gogh’s head studies from Nuenen, which he later overpainted. The portrait is a telling reflection of the brothers’ activities, with trading represented by Reid, collecting by Boggs’s works, and creating by the head study Vincent had produced in Nuenen.
Towards the end of Vincent’s stay in Paris, feelings of competition between the brothers and Reid must have arisen. They reproached him for letting commercial considerations cloud his aesthetic judgement; for them, after all, the trade in Monticelli’s work had been prompted not merely by commercial interests but also by artistic convictions. One minor reason for Vincent’s departure for the south of France in early 1888 was his determination to get there before Reid, to prevent him from buying up all the paintings from Monticelli’s heirs. It never came to this, but it illustrates Vincent’s passionate involvement in collecting and trading art.
Even though Theo never actually sold any paintings by Monticelli for his own profit, in 1890 he made renewed efforts, on behalf of Boussod, Valadon & Cie, to enhance the artist’s reputation. He did this by collaborating with the lithographer Auguste Lauzet (1865–1898) to produce a series of twenty lithographs after paintings by Monticelli. Theo expected the album to sell well, especially among his British clientele. He was still very interested and had great confidence in the graphic arts. It is no coincidence that the series contains two lithographs after paintings from their own collection. Clearly, Theo’s strategy for increasing Monticelli’s popularity and the price of his work was not only in the interest of his employer; it would also be in his own interest if he were to become an independent dealer.
Interest in avant-garde artists
Having acquired artworks by his fellow foreign students, Boggs and the recently deceased Monticelli, Vincent was keen to complement these acquisitions with works by artists of the French avant-garde. As early as October 1886, he tried, presumably for the first time, to exchange work with Charles Angrand (1854–1926), but unfortunately this came to nothing. In 1887 and early 1888, Vincent and Theo finally succeeded in acquiring paintings and drawings by Emile Bernard (1868–1941), Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Seurat. Even though the work of these innovative artists had been beyond Vincent’s frame of reference when he first arrived in Paris, his new acquaintance with modern art led to rapid changes in his ideas, artistic taste and desiderata for the collection. Theo, who had already shown his progressiveness in his dealings with the impressionists, thus came into contact – through Vincent’s efforts and development – with a new generation of artists and aligned himself with the new direction in which his brother was steering the collection. Theo thus succeeded in combining his new interests with his employer’s need to meet the constant demand for work by such established artists as Daubigny, Corot and Constant Troyon (1810–1865). Towards the end of Vincent’s stay in Paris, the brothers’ collection contained five paintings and two drawings by Bernard, two paintings and a drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec and two paintings by Gauguin. A few weeks after Vincent’s departure, Theo added a drawing by Seurat to their collection.
Of the abovementioned French avant-garde artists, Vincent first became acquainted with Bernard and Toulouse-Lautrec, who were initially indifferent to his overtures. He had met them at Cormon’s, where he also came into contact with Louis Anquetin (1861–1932), though it seems that the brothers never acquired any work of his. Friendships with these artists came about later, undoubtedly through Vincent’s unflagging efforts. After his brother’s departure from Paris, Theo wrote him a letter in which he praised his ‘circle of artists and friends, something which I’m utterly incapable of doing by myself and which you, however, have more or less created since you’ve been in France’. Theo did not mention the fact that artists found Vincent interesting because he could put them in touch with a branch manager of Boussod, Valadon & Cie, who – as most artists were already aware – was receptive to innovative art.
After Vincent’s death, Bernard wrote in an article that their friendship really began to flourish after they bumped into each other a second time at Julien Tanguy’s shop for art supplies, which served as a meeting place for avant-garde artists. He went on to say: ‘Later, when we were friends, he introduced me to all his projects.’ One such project was an exhibition at Café Le Tambourin – a favourite haunt of theirs – of a batch of Japanese prints that Vincent had bought, without Theo’s knowledge, from Siegfried Bing. Vincent put the prints on display in early 1887, hoping to sell them, but even though Japanese art was very much in vogue, no sales were forthcoming. Nevertheless, this initiative again shows that Vincent was just as involved in trading and collecting art as he was in making it.
Japanese prints were an important source of inspiration for both Vincent and Bernard, and thanks to Vincent’s unsuccessful sales exhibition, there was an abundant supply at hand. Later, Bernard wrote: ‘We were, one must admit, devotees of Japanese pictures.’ Because his friend Bernard was such a great enthusiast, and because Vincent had more than enough Japanese prints, he traded part of this collection for a number of works by Bernard towards the end of his stay in Paris. In exchange, Vincent received the paintings Fisherman and a Boat, Boy Sitting in the Grass, Vase of Flowers and Cup and Les saltimbanques . The last-mentioned work disappeared from the collection, for unknown reasons. Possibly also at this time, Vincent came into the possession of the drawings Figures in a Street (recto) / Sketch of a Leg (verso) and Breton Woman with Child. In fact, it is unclear whether all these works were part of this specific exchange or whether some were acquired at another time. Moreover, Bernard must have received more than just Japanese prints, since he owned a number of paintings that Van Gogh had made in Paris. In addition to this ongoing exchange, one particular swap is documented: Vincent acquired Portrait of Bernard’s Grandmother in exchange for his Self-Portrait .
Much less is known about the ties between Vincent and Toulouse-Lautrec. None of their correspondence has been preserved, in contrast to Vincent’s many letters to Bernard. Moreover, Bernard continued throughout his life to record recollections of his time with Vincent in numerous articles and memoirs. Toulouse-Lautrec, on the other hand, left us no such memories of Vincent, in part because he died so young. Vincent and Toulouse-Lautrec most likely met at Cormon’s soon after Vincent’s arrival in Paris in late February 1886, but they seem to have become friends only the following winter, in 1886–87, when Toulouse-Lautrec reportedly took Vincent to Le Mirliton, Aristide Bruant’s cabaret, where his work was on display. Vincent also began to attend the weekly gatherings in Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio.
It was in this period of more frequent contact that Toulouse-Lautrec made a pastel portrait en profil of Vincent. According to Bernard, this portrait was produced in Le Tambourin, Vincent’s favourite café, but this is by no means certain. The portrait ended up in Vincent and Theo’s collection, either through gift or exchange. The latter possibility is suggested by Toulouse-Lautrec’s possession of Van Gogh’s View from Theo’s Apartment (1887, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich), which originated in the same period. Toulouse-Lautrec’s study panel Two Prostitutes in a Café might have been part of the presumed exchange.
It was also in this period that Toulouse-Lautrec – no doubt making strategic use of his friendship with Vincent – sought contact with Theo in the hope of persuading him to sell his work. Theo eventually took a few of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works on consignment and first sold one in October 1888. Before that sale, Vincent pressed Theo to purchase a painting for their own collection. This became Young Woman at a Table, ‘Poudre de riz’, which they bought on 12 January 1888 directly from the artist for 150 francs.
Brisk trade in the impressionists and the purchase of two portraits by Guillaumin
In 1887, while Vincent was making every effort to strengthen his ties to the most innovative of the French artists, Theo was fully occupied with selling the paintings of the impressionists, who by now were fairly well established. In April 1887 his bosses had given him more freedom to sell impressionist work on a somewhat larger scale. This change in marketing strategy was connected with a large sale on 25, 26 and 27 May 1887 of their old stock in trade, to create both the financial leeway and the physical space to implement this partial revision in their sales policy. In part because their competitor George Petit had also begun to deal in impressionist work, Theo was allowed to explore this market further. As the least prestigious of the three Paris branches of Boussod, Valadon & Cie, Theo’s branch at 19 boulevard Montmartre was the most suitable place for this new art. There were few changes in the other two branches, where the big names continued to bring in big money.
By now Theo had established personal contact with many of the impressionists and could take their work on consignment directly. At the same time, Durand-Ruel, the impressionists’ regular dealer, was having financial problems that prevented him from binding his painters to him exclusively, which made them willing to collaborate with Theo. On the mezzanine of his branch, Theo organized exhibition after exhibition of the impressionists’ work. Vincent undoubtedly took advantage of this opportunity to study at close quarters the paintings of Monet, Degas, Pissarro and others. The fact that he surrounded himself with avant-garde painters of the younger generation in no way meant that he had lost interest in the older impressionists.
Theo’s decision to promote the impressionists contributed to their already growing popularity and caused their prices to rise even higher, particularly in the case of Monet and Degas. One of the few early impressionists whose work the brothers could still afford was Armand Guillaumin (1841–1927). Vincent and Theo probably became acquainted with him through Alphonse Portier, an independent art dealer who was also Vincent and Theo’s neighbour in rue Lepic. Portier, who dealt in impressionist paintings, is also likely to have introduced the brothers to Pissarro. On 1 October 1887, Portier and Guillaumin reportedly visited the brothers at home to look at Vincent’s work. Not long after this meeting, Theo began to deal in Guillaumin’s work and selected a number of paintings for an exhibition at his branch, where one work was sold. The contact with Guillaumin also enabled the brothers to buy work of his for their own collection directly, which was naturally less expensive than through a middleman. Urged on by Vincent, who had developed a penchant for modern portraits, Theo bought Self-Portrait with Palette and Portrait of a Young Woman. The estate also contains the pastel Farms at Janville (Les fermes à Janville) , which was possibly acquired as part of this purchase. Later there were more dealings with Guillaumin, and the brothers acquired a third painting in exchange for a work by Vincent. That painting, which depicted a sunset, was sold by Jo van Gogh-Bonger to Vollard in 1899. It remains unidentified.
Vincent had undoubtedly hoped to exchange work with other impressionists, but this never came about. Apart from the friendly Pissarro, the impressionists remained strangers to him. In the autumn of 1887, Vincent succeeded in bringing about another exchange, this time with Lucien Pissarro (1863–1944), the son of Camille. In exchange for the still life Basket of Apples (1887, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), Vincent received twenty-two wood engravings. Lucien Pissarro often published his prints in magazines, and in fact Vincent had once hoped to become a professional draughtsman and magazine illustrator, hence his collection of study material in the form of reproductive prints. This exchange underscores Vincent and Theo’s interest in graphic art, as did the purchase of Japanese woodcuts and the prints of Raffaëlli, Forain and Manet.
The ‘petit boulevard’ and the first works acquired from Gauguin
In the autumn of 1887, Vincent organized an exhibition of work by the young French artists he had met in Paris. For this group of artists, Van Gogh coined the term ‘the painters of the petit boulevard’ (Les peintres du petit boulevard), referring to the neighbourhood around the boulevard de Clichy, also known as the ‘petit boulevard’, where most of these artists lived and worked. Above all, the term distinguished this group of young innovators from the established impressionists, whose work was sold at the expensive galleries on the grands boulevards. In Van Gogh’s view, the painters of the petit boulevard included Bernard, Angrand, Paul Signac (1863–1935), Anquetin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Guillaumin, Lucien Pissarro and himself; later he added Gauguin and Seurat.
In the end, the exhibition, which took place in November–December 1887 at the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet on the avenue de Clichy, included only the work of Bernard, Anquetin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and the Dutch artist Arnold Koning (1860–1945). Vincent and Theo first met Koning only shortly before the opening. Although Vincent had hoped for more participants, the rest of the petit boulevard came to have a look, as did Camille Pissarro, Seurat and Gauguin. This exhibition thus crowned Vincent’s networking efforts in Paris; at the same time, it was an opportunity to establish new contacts. It was here, in fact, that Vincent and Theo became acquainted with Gauguin and Seurat. This was of great value to Vincent, even though the exhibition was a disaster as far as sales were concerned.
The meeting with Gauguin had consequences, not least for the brothers’ collection: they eventually came to own six of his paintings, five drawings and a ceramic pot. The first two paintings came into their possession shortly after their first meeting. Gauguin, who knew that Theo might prove important to his career, must have invited the brothers to visit him at his temporary address – he was lodging with his friend and fellow artist Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934) – to see the paintings he had recently made in Martinique. These works, whose subject matter, style and technique were new to the Van Goghs, must have made a deep impression on them. They acquired, perhaps on the spot, two paintings of that series. Theo purchased the highlight of the Martinican paintings, The Mango Trees, Martinique, for 400 francs, possibly the most he had ever paid for a work of art. The second painting, On the Banks of the River, Martinique, was exchanged for two 1887 paintings by Vincent of sunflowers ( and ).
The speed with which Vincent and Theo acquired their first Gauguins was unprecedented. A year and a half earlier, they had seen his older work at the eighth and last Impressionist Exhibition, but as far as we know, they were unaware of the recent developments in his work. The fact that the brothers immediately spent so much money on one of his recent paintings testifies to their vision and daring. They saw potential in Gauguin’s work – not least from a commercial perspective – and resolved not to wait. As was the case with Toulouse-Lautrec and Guillaumin, Theo subsequently became committed to selling Gauguin’s work, which was exactly what the artist had hoped for. In the years that followed, Theo proved indispensable to him.
The two paintings by Gauguin that had just come into the brothers’ possession completed their collecting activities in the period they spent together in Paris, from February 1886 to February 1888. It was not Theo’s money but the contacts Vincent had made that were vital to their collecting activities in this period, even though it was Theo’s status as a dealer that caused doors to open for Vincent. Immediately after Vincent’s departure for Arles on 19 February 1888, Theo confirmed his brother’s pioneering role in a letter to their sister Willemien: ‘Through him I came into contact with many painters among whom he was highly esteemed.’ As before, it was Vincent who had taken the lead in the development of their artistic tastes.
Continued contact after Vincent’s departure
After Vincent left for Arles on 19 February 1888, Theo did his best to maintain their contacts. He visited Bernard in his studio, sold work by Guillaumin and Toulouse-Lautrec, and devoted himself to Gauguin in particular. From Seurat, whom the brothers had visited on the day of Vincent’s departure, Theo bought a drawing at a benefit sale held several weeks later. This work is now considered one of the highlights of the collection, yet he paid only 16 francs for it. In June 1888, Theo lent this drawing to an exhibition organized by the artist Jan Veth for the Dutch Etching Club (Nederlandsche Etsclub) in Amsterdam. Veth was also allowed to borrow prints by Forain, Raffaëlli and Lucien Pissarro from Theo and Vincent’s collection. In this way they became known in the Netherlands as collectors of modern French works on paper.
Not long after the purchase of the drawing by Seurat, Vincent urged Theo to visit Seurat and Signac. He hoped to exchange work with the latter, but this never came about. Theo did in fact visit both neo-impressionists, but he did not hit it off with Signac.Without Vincent, such contact was less ardent. Theo was not on the same footing with their friends, with whom Vincent had had an artist-to-artist relationship. It is likely that Theo’s contact with them was primarily of a commercial nature, because they saw him mainly as a dealer and potential source of income. Vincent maintained artistic contact by letter, corresponding regularly with Bernard and Gauguin, sporadically with Russell and possibly also with Toulouse-Lautrec (though any letters that Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec might have exchanged do not survive).
As far as Bernard is concerned, this contact resulted in the acquisition of another twenty-seven drawings and a painting. All the drawings were sent to Vincent as part of a constant exchange of ideas about modern painting, which had begun in Paris and continued by letter throughout 1888. Bernard’s drawings served mainly to give Vincent an impression of his artistic ambitions; most of them were rapidly drawn and none is directly related to any of Bernard’s paintings. Although Vincent generally expressed interest in, and gratitude for, these drawings, their slapdash character disappointed him. After all, he had sent Bernard sixteen beautifully executed reed-pen drawings after his own paintings to give him a good idea of what he was working on. He hoped in vain that his friend would make a similar effort. Vincent immediately sent most of Bernard’s drawings to Theo; he evidently felt no need to live with them for any length of time.
The majority of Bernard’s drawings, nineteen in total, depict brothel scenes . Both Bernard and Vincent were interested in the treatment of prostitution as a subject in modern painting. They discussed this often in Paris, and later in their letters. Several paintings by Vincent that Bernard had in his possession were portraits of prostitutes. After Vincent’s departure from Paris, Bernard experimented with this subject, by means of these drawings, and sent them to his friend for his opinion. The other drawings are related to other spearheads of Bernard’s art, such as the ‘primitive’ life in rural Brittany, where he had been spending his summers since 1886.
The last painting by Bernard to enter the brothers’ collection, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin, was sent to Vincent from the artists’ village of Pont-Aven in Brittany. He received it in early October 1888. At this time Bernard was working in Pont-Aven with Gauguin and Charles Laval (1861–1894). The three of them were experimenting with their painting, and the result was synthetism, a style of painting that seeks a synthesis of form and content. Vincent was in touch with both Bernard and Gauguin, and hearing about the inspiring atmosphere generated by this threesome made him acutely aware of the emptiness of his solitary existence in Arles. In mid-September 1888 he therefore asked Bernard and Gauguin to paint portraits of each other and send them to him, so that he could enjoy their company to some small extent in Arles. They granted his request only in part: instead of portraying each other, they each painted a self-portrait with a small, schematic portrait of the other in the background. Thus Vincent received not only Bernard’s self-portrait but also Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with Portrait of Emile Bernard (Les misérables). As a token of thanks, Vincent sent Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts) to Gauguin and Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges (1888, Museum Folkwang, Essen) to Bernard. Van Gogh’s shipment also contained five other works for Laval, Ernest Ponthier de Chamaillard (1862–1930) and Henry Moret (1856–1913), among others. Laval in turn thanked Van Gogh by sending him his Self-Portrait. The work by Chamaillard in the estate might also have been sent to Vincent as a token of gratitude.
A complicated relationship with Gauguin
As mentioned earlier, Bernard’s self-portrait was the last work by his hand that the Van Gogh brothers received, but a large number of works by Gauguin were to follow. Of the eleven Gauguins that they would eventually own, only three were in their collection at this time. Their acquisition of all the others was connected in some way to Theo’s business dealings with Gauguin.
After the brothers met Gauguin in Paris in late 1887, Theo began promoting the artist’s work – and with success. He soon managed to sell the painting Bathing Boys at the Watermill in the Bois d’Amour (1886, Hiroshima Art Museum). Theo also included Gauguin’s work in three sales exhibitions at Boussod, Valadon & Cie, all of which took place between December 1887 and April 1888. He presented not only paintings but also sculptures that Gauguin had recently made. Gauguin soon realized how valuable Theo was to his career and did everything he could to cement their relationship. This included cordial relations with his brother and the exchange of artworks with him. Gauguin must also have known that Vincent had been instrumental in Theo’s decision to promote his art. It is even possible that Vincent was involved in the first two exhibitions of Gauguin’s work at Boussod, Valadon & Cie, both of which took place before he left Paris.
Several months later, while Theo was doing his best to further Gauguin’s career, Vincent expressed the hope that the painter would come and work with him in Arles. He had idealistic plans for a studio in the south of France where a number of artists could work together and, above all, profit by sharing not only the expenses but also the proceeds from the sale of their work. Vincent imagined Gauguin at the head of this ‘Studio of the South’. At Vincent’s behest, Theo decided in May or June 1888 to make Gauguin a proposal: if he were to join Vincent in Arles, Theo would support him with an allowance of 150 francs a month. In return, Gauguin only had to give him one painting each month. At the time, Gauguin was in Pont-Aven and totally destitute. Theo sent him 50 francs to help him meet his most pressing needs; perhaps this gesture was also an attempt to persuade Gauguin to accept his proposal. As a token of thanks, Gauguin sent Theo two drawings: Study for the painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven and Study of a Martinican Woman.
Gauguin agreed to Theo’s plan, but he did not arrive in Arles until 23 October 1888. The ten weeks that the two artists subsequently spent together ended in a much-discussed drama. Their heated discussions about art reached boiling point on 23 December, as a result of which Vincent had a nervous breakdown and cut off his ear. Theo travelled to Arles the following day to see what state Vincent was in, but the gallery was so busy at Christmas that he had to return to Paris the very next day. Gauguin, shocked, was determined to leave Arles as soon as possible and decided to travel back to Paris with Theo.
In his haste, Gauguin left all kinds of things behind in Arles, including three drawings and a painting. The three drawings were Study with Portraits of Camille Roulin, Study of a Woman Seen from the Back and L’Arlésienne (Mme Ginoux, née Marie Julien, 1848–1911) . Jo van Gogh-Bonger sold L’Arlésienne in 1910. The painting in question was the unfinished Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux. The works that Gauguin left in Arles apparently held little value for him; he even wrote to Vincent, telling him not to bother with returning them. They consequently became part of the brothers’ collection. Of greater value to Gauguin was an ambitious portrait of Vincent that he had painted in their last weeks together: Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers. He gave it to Theo, possibly to console him or out of feelings of guilt, since he had played a part in the circumstances that had led to Vincent’s breakdown. At the same time, the gift of the portrait was no doubt intended to cement Gauguin’s relations with Theo after this painful incident. At any rate, it had the desired effect: Theo continued to promote Gauguin’s art.
In addition to Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, Gauguin gave Theo a ceramic work, Cleopatra Pot. This pot was in Arles, for shortly after Gauguin’s arrival there, he had asked Schuffenecker to send it to him, because, as he wrote: ‘I would like to have some ceramics in front of my eyes.’ Gauguin noted in his sketchbook that he had given the pot to Theo, who mainly expressed great appreciation of the portrait. In a letter to Jo Bonger, to whom he had recently become engaged, he described it as ‘a great work of art & the best portrait that’s been made of him in terms of capturing his inner being’.
After selling several paintings by Gauguin at the beginning of 1889, Theo urged him to make a series of zincographs after his recent work so as to make it known to a wider public by means of easily marketable prints. The album that Gauguin subsequently produced is known as the Volpini Suite. It contained, including the frontispiece, eleven zincographs on yellow paper. Theo’s past experience as a publisher – he had played a role in the successful publication of a series of fifteen lithographs by the celebrated French painter and printmaker Georges William Thornley (1857–1935) after works by Degas – had probably given him the idea for the zincographs. Before the publication of Thornley’s series in 1889, Theo had displayed four of his lithographs in the gallery, which had been favourably reviewed by Félix Fénéon. In early 1889, Theo also sent the entire series by Thornley to Jan Veth in the Netherlands, in the hope that he would review it in the magazine De Nieuwe Gids. By now, Theo viewed the production and dissemination of print albums as a proven commercial model – one that he would apply in 1890 to the work of Monticelli. After all, within Boussod, Valadon & Cie, there was every possibility of realizing such publications, considering that the firm had started out as a publisher of prints. Remarkably, the brothers’ surviving collection contains only one print of the albums with which Theo was involved: Dancers in a Rehearsal Room (Three Dancers) (Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice (Trois Danseuses))(after Degas) by Thornley after Degas .
In May 1889, Theo managed to buy another painting by Gauguin: Arlésiennes (Mistral) . The 300 francs paid for this work came from money that his sisters Willemien and Lies van Gogh had saved to defray the cost of Vincent’s hospitalization in the psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy after repeated relapses since his first breakdown at the end of 1888. But under no circumstances would Vincent accept their money, 678 francs in total, so Theo used it to buy two paintings: in addition to the Gauguin, he acquired In Heaven or Closed Eyes by Odilon Redon (1840–1916). These purchases were possibly viewed as business investments of the sisters’ money. After Theo’s death, Jo van Gogh-Bonger gave the Redon to the Van Gogh sisters, who sold it. This was probably also the fate of Arlésiennes (Mistral), since it too disappeared from the collection.
As far as we know, these purchases were the last artworks that Theo bought in a personal capacity. His marriage to Jo was an added financial burden: not only did he now have to provide for her upkeep, too, but they also moved to a more expensive apartment. Vincent’s expenses had risen as well, since his admission to the asylum at Saint-Rémy. After Theo had met his financial obligations, he invested the money that was left in relatively safe stocks, which eventually provided Jo with some income after his death.
Artists who frequented Theo
A few months after Vincent joined Theo in Paris in February 1886, the brothers moved from rue Laval to a more spacious apartment in rue Lepic. After Vincent’s departure for Arles, Theo used the extra space to take artists into his home, since he preferred to have a lodger than to live alone. In the period between Vincent’s departure (19 February 1888) and Theo’s wedding day (18 April 1889), three artists lived with him in succession. The first to keep him company was the previously mentioned Arnold Koning, who lived with Theo from early March until the end of May 1888. Next came the Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen (1858–1945), who moved into Theo’s apartment around 5 June and stayed until 15 August 1888. The last lodger was the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852–1895), who stayed with Theo from 28 October 1888 until April 1889.
It is possible that Koning became friendly with the brothers after visiting Theo’s gallery, not long after his arrival in Paris in September 1887. He must have had fairly intensive contact with Vincent, who selected him for his exhibition of painters of the petit boulevard. During and after Koning’s stay with Theo, there was talk of exchanging one of his paintings for two of Vincent’s drawings, but nothing ever came of this plan. Even so, a large number of Koning’s works made their way into the brothers’ estate: fourteen paintings and five drawings . In all likelihood these works entered the collection on two different occasions. To begin with, when Koning left Paris on 28 May 1888, he presumably left seven paintings with Theo, all of which he had produced in Paris. Perhaps they served as payment in kind for the lodgings Theo had offered him. Koning sent the other paintings on 18 September 1888. He was very satisfied with what he had produced in the summer of 1888 and probably hoped that Theo would take these works on consignment. Instead of waiting for an answer, he simply sent Theo seven paintings. The five drawings in the collection were possibly part of this shipment. As far as we know, Theo never sold anything by Koning and the works remained in the brothers’ collection.
Barely a week after Koning’s departure, Mourier-Petersen took his place. He came on Vincent’s recommendation, after the two had occasionally worked together in Arles over the course of three months. As was probably the case with Koning, Mourier-Petersen paid Theo for his lodgings in kind, but the estate contains only one painting by him: he sent the work after his departure, and Theo received it on 25 February 1890.
De Haan is represented in the collection primarily by an intimate little portrait of Theo, captured while he was writing a letter to his fiancée, Jo Bonger, and dated 20 January 1889. Theo immediately sent the letter, with the drawing enclosed, and Jo hung it above her bed. It is also likely that when De Haan moved out he left Theo his Portrait of a Bearded Man.
Joseph Jacob Isaacson (1859–1942), De Haan’s travelling companion, was a frequent visitor when De Haan was living at Theo’s. Like De Haan, he spent his evenings sketching portraits of the others. Theo kept several of these, which therefore ended up in the collection. Isaacson’s portrait sketches of Theo, De Haan and Pissarro were probably made in Theo’s apartment.
By early 1889, Theo had been Pissarro’s dealer for eighteen months, during which time he succeeded in selling twelve of his paintings. On 21 December 1889, to mark the imminent arrival of Theo and Jo’s child, who was born on 31 January 1890, Pissarro gave the couple Landscape with Rainbow, an artwork in the form of a fan. The gift was dedicated to Jo Bonger, and Pissarro gave it to Theo to give to her. This was a nice gesture, to be sure, but it was also intended to strengthen his ties to the dealer. Pissarro’s work was still proving difficult to sell, and his decision to adopt the pointillist style of Seurat and Signac did not make it any easier to market his work. Pissarro’s gift of the painted fan was certainly fitting considering his dependence on Theo to promote his work. Furthermore, the collection contains Pissarro’s drawing Market at Gisors . It is not known how or when this sheet was acquired.
It is highly questionable whether Theo valued the works by his lodgers as much as he did Pissarro’s fan. He no doubt welcomed them as nice additions to the collection (and perhaps hoped to sell them later), but if these artists had not lived with him he probably would not have owned their work. The drawings by De Haan and Isaacson presumably held emotional value. Although Theo once referred to De Haan as ‘a great painter’, it is not known what the brothers thought of his painting in their collection. As far as Mourier-Petersen was concerned, Vincent had previously described his work as ‘dry, correct and timid’, although he did see improvement during their time together in Arles.
In 1890, several artists approached Theo expressing a desire to trade their work for Vincent’s. How different this was from the situation four years earlier. Gauguin and Guillaumin hoped for an exchange, as did the painters Eugène Boch (1855–1941) and Léo Gausson (1860–1944). Vincent’s art had become more desirable since his participation in the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in Paris in 1888 and 1890 and exhibiting at Les Vingt in Brussels in 1890; the appearance of Albert Aurier’s article about him in the magazine Mercure de France in January 1890 had also done much to enhance his esteem. All of these developments – the requests for exchanges, the exhibitions, the article – were important signifiers of Van Gogh’s budding reputation. Interest in his work had finally awakened.
Vincent had become acquainted with Eugène Boch in Arles through the American artist Dodge MacKnight (1860–1950), who was working in nearby Fontvieille and whom Vincent had met in Cormon’s studio. In July and August 1888 the three painters saw each other often, and shortly before Boch’s departure, Vincent painted his portrait (1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). After this, there was no news of Boch until June 1890, when Theo told Vincent that Boch had his eye on Mountains at Saint-Rémy (Montagnes à Saint-Rémy) . Theo gave it to him in exchange for The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage. Theo, who had selected this work in Boch’s studio, described it to Vincent: ‘It’s neither very skilful nor powerful, but very sincere, like the fellow himself.’ Even without seeing Boch’s painting, Vincent was satisfied with the exchange, which shows how much faith he had in Theo’s judgement. Earlier that year, during the annual exhibition of Les Vingt in Brussels, Boch’s sister Anna had bought The Red Vineyard (1888, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow).
The neo-impressionist Léo Gausson also put a proposal to Theo in June 1890. He had repeatedly admired the works by Vincent that were on display in Tanguy’s shop, and because he could not afford to buy a painting, he hoped to acquire one through an exchange. When nothing came of it, Gausson repeated his request in the letter of condolence he sent Theo four days after Vincent’s death on 29 July 1890. The exchange finally took place, and Theo received The Church Tower of Bussy-Saint-Georges, the only pointillist painting in the collection and presumably the last work to be added to the brothers’ holdings. It is not known which of Vincent’s works Gausson received.
The period in which Vincent’s work was gaining in popularity and Theo was busy exchanging paintings with Boch and Gausson was also marked by Theo’s rekindled desire to go into business for himself. He was unhappy with ‘those rats’ at Boussod, Valadon & Cie, who in his opinion paid him too little and treated him ‘as if [he]’d just started working for them’. At the same time, Theo’s contacts with the well-selling impressionists were better than ever, and he must have had good reason to hope that they would throw in their lot with him. Furthermore, since 1886 the brothers’ collection had grown so much that they were now in a much better position as regards stock in trade. Building up a collection that could serve as the basis for an art dealership had never been far from their thoughts. It is also conceivable that Vincent’s recent success had fuelled Theo’s fervour. If Vincent’s paintings really began to sell, it would provide them with a nearly inexhaustible source of income. Andries Bonger, who was now Theo’s brother-in-law, was again involved in the plans, just as he had been in 1886.
Theo intended to present his employers, Léon and Etienne Boussod, with an ultimatum: if they refused to raise his salary, he would quit and strike out on his own. It was a risky move, for he still had no prospect of external investment. On 6 July 1890, he discussed his plan with Jo, Andries and Vincent, who had left the south of France in mid-May and was now living in Auvers-sur-Oise, just north of Paris. The talk did not go as Theo had hoped, because the other three all thought the risk too great, in part because Vincent and their mother were financially dependent on Theo. Another factor may have been weighing on Andries’s mind: Theo’s poor health and the possibility that his illness was influencing his judgement. Theo was extremely disappointed by Andries’s stance and wrote in a letter to Vincent that ‘[An]dries […] has proved very cowardly’.
A few days later Theo put his plan into action anyway, which caused a great deal of stress and filled Jo and Vincent with uncertainty and dismay. His employers called his bluff and told him to leave if that was what he wanted. In the end Theo backed down and decided to stay – for the same salary. The whole episode had an extremely adverse effect on Vincent, whose mental state was unstable to begin with. Now, with all this talk of financial jeopardy, he became more aware than ever of the burden he was to Theo. Vincent’s suicide several weeks later cannot be seen as unrelated to this affair. Theo never told him that he had backed down from his ultimatum, and Vincent died in the illusion that his brother had taken the risk.
After the deaths of Vincent and Theo
After Vincent’s death, Theo, a broken man, was left with his brother’s artworks and the collection they had built up together. He was overwhelmed by letters of condolence, which confirmed yet again the growing respect for Vincent’s artistry. The doctor Paul Gachet, who had been Vincent’s friend in Auvers-sur-Oise during the last months of his life, sent Theo a drawing of Vincent on his deathbed. The artist Ernest Quost (1842–1931), whom Vincent had met in Paris in 1886, also wanted to present the grieving Theo with a work of art. He chose the painting Garden with Hollyhocks, which was particularly appropriate since Vincent had greatly admired his paintings of poppies and had hoped to acquire one by means of an exchange. Quost’s work bears the following inscription on the back: ‘To Theo van Gogh / This picture, which my friend Vincent loves so much / With kind regards / E. Quost’ (‘A Theo van Gogh / Ce tableau qu’aime tant mon ami Vincent / Bien amicalement / E. Quost’). Theo never received this work, however. It is possible that Quost’s gift came too late, for Theo died only six months after Vincent. In 1996 the work was finally acquired by the Vincent van Gogh Foundation and given on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum.
As a result of Vincent’s death, Theo’s already fragile health declined dramatically. Owing to his weak constitution, he could not bear the loss of his brother, and this only exacerbated the disease that had long afflicted him. By October 1890 he was unresponsive, and he died on 25 January 1891. The untimely deaths of both Vincent and Theo put an abrupt end to their collection of contemporary art. Their holdings were left in their entirety to Jo van Gogh-Bonger and her son, Vincent Willem. Until her son came of age, Jo administered the collection. She did not continue the practice of exchanging artworks, apart from one instance: through an exchange with Gauguin, she acquired the paintings Women on the Banks of the River and Paris in the Snow . Nor did she buy any artworks, with the exception of one painting by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) . She did, however, sell or give away some fourteen works, as a result of which the balance in the collection shifted. After all, the paintings by Renoir and Pissarro that she sold must have belonged to the core of the collection. She undoubtedly knew that the brothers saw their collection to no small extent as stock in trade, and she might have taken this as tacit permission for her later sales.
Apart from the sale of these works by Vincent’s contemporaries – which took place on a much smaller scale than the sale of work by the ever more popular Vincent – the collection has largely remained intact. It is a good reflection of the collecting activities of Theo and Vincent van Gogh, who attached importance not just to painting but also to drawing and printmaking. From the important artists of Barbizon and the Hague School they bought drawings, and from big names like Raffaëlli, Forain and Manet they acquired artist’s prints. By Manet they even acquired a portrait drawing. After Vincent had thrown himself with abandon into the Paris art world, he managed to bring together, by means of exchange, a group of works that – with the exception of the neo-impressionists – provides a good picture of the artists in his immediate circle in the years 1886–88. By no means can all of this art be described as avant-garde, and the collection clearly reflects this. Vincent’s network, as well as his taste in art, encompassed more than just the avant-garde. The fact that Theo was an important art dealer – and one who not only stood solidly behind his brother but was also receptive to the new art – was indispensable to Vincent’s successful networking and acquisition campaign. The contacts he made continued to bear fruit even after his departure from Paris, enabling the brothers to add dozens of works to the collection through exchanges and gifts.
In addition to all the well-considered acquisitions, the collection was also enriched by a large number of works that were not Vincent and Theo’s first choice. They understood that this was part of collecting – at least their way of collecting. Their limited financial means meant that they could not be demanding; they had to content themselves with whatever came their way. Even so, we may assume that they did not discard anything. Theo, after all, thought of artworks as ‘excellent friends to live with’. It is entirely possible that if the brothers had lived longer, they would have been able, through the exchange of Vincent’s work, to raise the collection to a higher plane. When Vincent died, his reputation was growing apace, and in time this would have increased their options. Eventually, they might even have succeeded in acquiring a Monet and a Degas. Of course the brothers never dreamed that a museum bearing their name would be founded, and that a century later, that very wish would be fulfilled.
Joost van der Hoeven