One of the most difficult phenomena to account for in art is that of Vincent van Gogh. Today, on those rare occasions when his work is even on the market, it brings prices in the tens of millions of dollars, yet the one painting he is reported to have ever sold during his lifetime fetched a mere twenty dollars--and that was from his brother, Theo. Now before we castigate Theo for having taken advantage of his brother's unfortunate financial situation, keep in mind that this good man supported his beloved brother both financially and emotionally through most of the last, desperate decade of Vincent's life. And also keep in mind, Vincent might gladly have sold any of his paintings for a mere twenty dollars.
But setting aside prices and money, the bigger question looms, how did this troubled little Dutchman, heir to a painting tradition going back to Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and van Ruisdael have strayed so far from his roots? Or, given the fact that he spent much of his life in France, why is his work not more "French"? There are a couple of answers to this. Perhaps first and foremost, Vincent was largely without much formal training in art. The fact is, had he shown even the slightest modicum of talent in his formative years he would have been shuttled off to the Ecole des Beaux-arts where any spark of creative genius would have been systematically doused forever. In plain English (or French or Dutch), his early work was terrible. Even to our enlightened eyes today they are still terrible. His first work showing any promise at all was The Potato Eaters done in 1885, and were it not for the empathetic handling of such a seldom-seen subject matter, this work likewise would be unexceptional. Nowhere to be found is the brilliant use of colour that was to later free painting and painters from the dictates of local colour.
The second accounting for the van Gogh phenomena has to be the man himself. The son of Dutch missionaries, in his early life he was drunk with religion. Often, the Dutch are blamed for this poor man's desperation, but in large part, this is patently unfair. Vincent himself has to be blamed for milking every situation he ever found himself of every last drop of unhappiness in his unending quest for self-torture. Had he not been exposed to the Impressionist artists in 1886 and studied briefly with them, his work today would warrant just the barest footnote of a troubled madman in painting history. Instead, in four short years, there came a virtual explosion of work, a flood of colour shored up with the bare minimum of drawing skills eked out in the few months he studied at the Belgian Academy. This is what accounts for the van Gogh phenomena, unhappiness, madness, colour, and freedom from academic suppression. It was a strange, yet powerful brew, so unstable it couldn't help but boil over, one hot, sad day in the wheat fields of Arles.