The Lore: Van Gogh Sold Only One Painting During His Life

Painting by Vincent Van Gogh, The Red Vineyards at Arles, 1888
The Red Vineyards at Arles, 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh. Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

Although lore has it that the post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), sold only one painting during his lifetime, different theories exist. The one painting commonly thought to have been sold is The Red Vineyard at Arles (The Vigne Rouge), now located at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. However, some sources posit that different paintings sold first, and that other paintings and drawings were sold or bartered in addition to The Red Vineyard at Arles.

However, it is true that The Red Vineyard at Arles is the only painting sold during van Gogh's lifetime the name of which we actually know, and that was "officially" recorded and acknowledged by the art world, and hence the lore persists.

Of course, bearing in mind that van Gogh didn't start painting until he was twenty-seven years old, and died when he was thirty-seven, it would not be unremarkable that he did not sell many. Furthermore, the paintings that were to become famous were the ones produced after he went to Arles, France in 1888, only two years before he died. What is remarkable is that just a few decades after his death, his art would become well-known worldwide and that he would eventually become one of the most famous artists ever.

Red Vineyard at Arles

In 1889, Van Gogh was invited to participate in a group show in Brussels called the XX (or the Vingtistes). Van Gogh suggested to his brother, Theo, an art dealer and Van Gogh's agent, that he send six paintings to be exhibited with the group, one of which was The Red Vineyard Anna Boch, a Belgian artist and art collector, bought the painting in early 1890 for 400 Belgian francs, perhaps because she liked the painting and wanted to show her support for Van Gogh, whose work was being criticized; perhaps to help him financially; and perhaps to please her brother, Eugène, whom she knew was a friend of Vincent's.

Eugène Boch, like his sister Anna, was also a painter and had visited Van Gogh in Arles, France in 1888. They became friends and Van Gogh painted his portrait, which he called The Poet. According to the notes at the Musée d'Orsay where the portrait of Eugène Boch is now located, it seems that The Poet hung in van Gogh's room in the Yellow House in Arles for awhile as evidenced by the fact that it is seen in the first version of The Bedroom, which is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Apparently, Anna Boch owned two paintings of Van Gogh's and her brother, Eugène, owned several. Anna Boch sold The Red Vineyard in 1906, though, for 10,000 francs, and it was sold again that same year to a Russian textile businessman, Sergei Shchukin. It was given to the Pushkin Museum by the State of Russia in 1948.

Van Gogh painted The Red Vineyard from memory in early November 1888 while the artist, Paul Gauguin was living with him in Arles. It is a dramatic landscape painting in saturated autumnal reds and yellows punctuated by the blue clothing of workers in a vineyard, with a bright yellow sky and sun reflected in the river adjacent to the vineyard. The viewer's eye is drawn through the landscape by the strong diagonal line that leads to the high horizon and the setting sun in the distance.

In one of his many letters to his brother, Theo, Van Gogh tells him he is "working on a vineyard, all purple and yellow" and goes on to describe it further, "But if only you’d been with us on Sunday! We saw a red vineyard, completely red like red wine. In the distance it became yellow, and then a green sky with a sun, fields violet and sparkling yellow here and there after the rain in which the setting sun was reflected."

In a subsequent letter to Theo, Vincent says about this painting, "I’m going to set myself to work often from memory, and the canvases done from memory are always less awkward and have a more artistic look than the studies from nature, especially when I’m working in mistral conditions."

A Self-Portrait Sold 

The myth of The Red Vineyard being the only painting sold by Van Gogh during his lifetime has been challenged by leading van Gogh scholar, Marc Edo Tralbaut, author of Vincent Van Gogh (Buy from Amazon), an authoritative and comprehensive biography of Van Gogh. Tralbaut deduced that Theo sold a self-portrait by Vincent over a year before the sale of The Red Vineyard. Tralbaut uncovered a letter from October 3, 1888 in which Theo wrote to London art dealers, Sulley and Lori, saying "We have the honour to inform you that we have sent you the two pictures you have bought and duly paid for: a landscape by Camille Corot ... a self-portrait by V. van Gogh."

However, others have analyzed this transaction and discovered anomalies regarding the date of October 3, 1888, speculating that Theo dated his letter incorrectly. The reasons they give for their theory are that Theo never again referred to the sale of one of Vincent's paintings in London in subsequent correspondence. Sulley and Lori were not yet partners in 1888; there is no record of a Corot being sold to Sulley in October 1888.

Van Gogh Museum

According to the Van Gogh Museum website, Van Gogh actually sold or bartered a number of paintings during his lifetime. His first commission came from his Uncle Cor who was an art dealer. Wanting to help his nephew's career he ordered 19 cityscapes of The Hague.

Particularly when Van Gogh was younger, he would trade his paintings for food or art supplies, a practice not unfamiliar to many young artists starting out in their careers.

The Museum website states that "Vincent sold his first painting to the Parisian paint and art dealer Julien Tanguy, and his brother Theo successfully sold another work to a gallery in London." (Perhaps this is the self-portrait referred to above) The website also mentions The Red Vineyard.

According to Louis van Tilborgh, chief curator at the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent also mentions in his own letters that he sold a portrait (not a self-portrait) to someone, but it is not known which portrait.

The CityEconomist points out that much has been learned from Vincent's letters to Theo, made available by the Van Gogh Museum. The letters reveal that Vincent did sell much art before he died, that the relatives who purchased his art knew a lot about art and purchased them as investments, that his art was appreciated by other artists and dealers, and that the money that Theo was "giving" to his brother was actually in exchange for paintings that, as a shrewd dealer, he was saving to put on the market when their actual value would be realized.

Selling Van Gogh's Work After His Death

Vincent died in July of 1890. Theo's greatest desire after his brother died was to make his work more widely known, but sadly he, himself, died just six months later from syphilis.

He left a large collection of art to his wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who "sold some of Vincent's works, lent as many as she could to exhibitions, and published Vincent's letters to Theo. Without her dedication, Van Gogh would never have become as famous as he is today."

Given that both Vincent and Theo died such untimely deaths within such a short time of one another, the world owes much to Theo's wife Jo, for taking care of Theo's collection of Vincent's artwork and letters and making sure they ended up in the right hands. Theo and Jo's son, Vincent Willem van Gogh took over care of the collection upon the death of his mother and founded the Van Gogh Museum.

Sources:

AnnaBoch.com, http://annaboch.com/theredvineyard/.

Dorsey, John, The van Gogh legend - a different picture. The story that the artist sold just one painting in his lifetime endures. In fact, he sold at least two, The Baltimore Sun, Oct. 25, 1998, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1998-10-25/features/1998298006_1_gogh-red-vineyard-painting.

Face to Face With Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, p. 84. 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Letters, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let717/letter.html.

Van Gogh Museum, https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/125-questions/questions-and-answers/question-54-of-125.