When we return from an expensive art show with less cash in our pockets than when we left, someone, in trying to make us feel better, will remind us that in his entire life Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting. Does it help? Well, it's never raised my spirits very much. But then, I've never been one to give much thought to flirting with madness or suicide at a young age in order to obtain even the astronomical prices van Gogh's work now brings at auction some hundred years after his death. I've always felt that death was a highly overrated marketing ploy, never mind the fact that I've already sold far more than van Gogh ever did and I'm already well past the age for dying young. But I have often wondered precisely which painting van Gogh managed to sell during his lifetime, to whom, and for how much.
The painting was entitled The Red Vineyard. It's a strikingly coloured sunset showing peasants working in a vineyard next to a small stream. He sold it in 1888, about a year and a half before his death to the sister of his friend, Eugene Boch, a poet. The price was less than ten Francs. However quite a number of individuals ended up owning paintings by van Gogh and other impecunious artists of the time sort of by default. In the 1880s, an average monthly wage in Paris for an office worker was about 125 Francs. A meal in a Montmartre tavern might cost less than one Franc. It wasn't unusual for an artist to pay for that meal with a painting. Eugene Murer, a Paris pastry shop owner, ended up with quite a valuable collection of modern art that way. So did Auguste Pellerin who manufactured margarine, and Pere Soulier who made mattresses.
The real winners in this barter economy however were those supplying goods and services needed by the artists, individuals such as Pere Tanguy who sold indispensable paint and canvases, or the owners of second-hand shops and framing shops. Tanguy's collection eventually ended up in the Louvre. Van Gogh's doctor, Paul Gachet, apparently took out his fees in paintings too. Vincent did three portraits of him. Two paintings and a drawing exist of the sad, melancholy face of the kind old physician. In 1990, one of these sold for the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art, a record $82.5 million. Ironically, it was Dr. Gachet, an amateur artist himself, who did the last portrait of van Gogh, a small pencil drawing as his patient lay dying in his bed from the self-inflicted gunshot wound that took his life.