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I cannot help it that my pictures do not sell. Nevertheless the time will come when people will see that they are worth more than the price of the paint,” Van Gogh wrote from Arles in summer 1888 to his brother Theo, who bankrolled his entire artistic career.
Working less with brushes than with tubes of paint thickly and expensively squeezed straight on to canvas, Van Gogh was in despair about his paint bill yet could not bring himself to switch to drawing. “Everywhere now there is old gold, bronze, copper, and this with the green azure of the sky blanched with heat,” he wrote. His palette would calm down in winter but meanwhile he must hurry to catch the rhythm of nature – sunflowers faded quickly, so did blossoms on the fruit trees, and the grape harvest.
In 15 months in Arles, Van Gogh completed a quarter of his painted oeuvre: 200 works in which the scorched countryside provoked to his overheated mind landscapes – frenzied, expressionist, convulsed with emotion – such as had never been painted before. And then he was dead at 37, having sold just one picture. Theo was an art dealer but his efforts failed to kick-start a market for his brother’s works, which in the 1890s could still be picked up for two francs from the backstreet shop of Père Tanguy, where Van Gogh had bought paint and stored his canvases.
A century later, “Sunflowers” in 1987, then “Dr Gachet” in 1990, became the most expensive works of art ever sold and the Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito, who paid $82m for the portrait of Van Gogh’s doctor, was so attached to the work that he threatened to have it cremated with him (he died in 1996 and the painting survives). Van Gogh had fantasised about international renown, signing his works “Vincent” rather than the un-
pronounceable Van Gogh because “if it should happen that my pictures found their way to France or England, then the name would certainly be murdered”. But no one in the 1890s could have imagined the trajectory of global fame, along with the myth of the painter as tormented, sacrificial genius, that built up around Van Gogh more than around any other single artist throughout the 20th century. Today that celebrity is blinding: like the Mona Lisa or Munch’s “The Scream”, Van Gogh’s sunflowers and wheatfields are so iconic that, even if we get near them at a big museum, we hardly experience them as paintings.
So the first pleasure of Compton Verney’s lovely, small exhibition Van Gogh and Britain, Pioneer Collectors is seeing Van Gogh’s landscapes and still lifes far from the madding crowd, in a cool country-house interior where they breathe anew, allowing the unrushed mind time for their pathos and ardent conviction. The accent is on the great works of 1888-90 from Arles, the St Rémy asylum and the final two months in Auvers; most are from public British galleries – the Courtauld’s magnificent “Peach Blossom in the Crau”, Edinburgh’s “Olive Trees”, London’s “A Wheatfield with Cypresses” – and it is striking how differently they unravel their colour, subtlety and energy in the leisured, quiet setting here. The numerous small, stabbing brushstrokes – ochre, yellow, white, purple – that overlie the brilliant greens in the National Gallery’s claustrophobically intense “Long Grass with Butterflies”, for example, are mesmerising close up; and how dynamic and highly pitched in Compton Verney’s stillness is the language of the spiky-leaved pink flowers in a majolica jug in “Oleanders”, lent from New York’s Metropolitan Museum. “The blasted things are flowering so riotously they may well catch locomotor ataxia [syphilis],” Van Gogh observed. “They are loaded with fresh flowers, and quantities of faded flowers as well, and their green is continuously renewing itself in fresh, strong shoots, apparently inexhaustibly.”
This is the still life as existential, moral drama – the lineage goes back to the Dutch vanitas – and with such blazing, cathartic tones Van Gogh opened up the vocabulary of colour to modern expression. We have expected instant, full-blast emotion from painting ever since, but Van Gogh was prophetic. “I must warn you that everyone will think that I work too fast,” he told Theo. “Don’t believe a word of it. I know beforehand that
people will criticise [my paintings] as hasty. You can say they looked at them too quickly themselves.”
How did early collectors look at them? The second joy of this show is to allow us to read Van Gogh with the slow, steady eyes of the pioneer British buyers who came to him untrammelled by dollar signs and against the tide of taste. The first painting to enter a British public collection was “A Wheatfield with Cyp-resses”, for which the Tate, then the National Gallery, Millbank, paid £3,300 in 1923. Funded by Samuel Courtauld, it was an inspired purchase: with billowing clouds echoing the twisted peaks of the Alpilles hills and bottle-green cypresses flaring like dark flames over the ripe wheatfield, this noonday scene has what Van Gogh called the “terrible lucidity” of his majestic late works. The Millbank director Charles Aitken, though, was lukewarm about post-impressionism, and it is fascinating to read here his annotated catalogue for Van Gogh’s solo show shortly afterwards, at London’s Leicester Galleries, from which he was offered first pickings. “Sky unsatisfactory”, he notes in measured, neat handwriting against the near-abstract, wild rush of blue and yellow dashes that is “Wheatfield with Crows”, possibly Van Gogh’s final painting.
This stayed in Amsterdam but private collectors, then as now, were bolder. For himself, Courtauld bought in 1927 the masterpiece “Peach Blossom in the Crau” – “little cottages, blue skyline of the Alpilles, sky white and blue. The foreground, patches of land surrounded by cane hedges, where small peach trees are in bloom – everything is small there, the gardens, the fields, the orchards and trees, even the mountains, as in certain Japanese landscapes” – while among the great works of Van Gogh’s final weeks here are “View of Auvers with Wheatfield”, turbulent, writhing slashes of brown-green, owned by the Conservative MP Victor Cazalet, and the dramatically simplified, violet-gold “Rain, Auvers”, rain across a field streaked in vigorous, diagonal strokes reminiscent of Japanese prints, bought by the Welsh heiress Gwendoline Davies.
For £909, Millbank did acquire in 1923 the superb portrait of the Arles postman Joseph Roulin, resplendent in his uniform and curling beard, although not without fuss from Courtauld trustees, who thought the beard “too funny”. Soon, however, this was part-swapped for “Sunflowers”, from which Van Gogh’s sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger parted, with extreme distress, for £1,308. “I felt as if I could not bear to separate from the picture I had looked on every day for 30 years,” she writes. “But in the end the appeal proved irresistible. I know that no picture would represent Vincent in your famous Gallery in a more worthy manner than the Sunflowers and that he himself, le Peintre des Tournesols, would have liked it to be there.”
Today, Van Gogh is claimed as a forefather for painters from Joseph Beuys – in his choice of humble subjects such as a wooden chair – to Jackson Pollock and action painting. A final sensitive masterstroke here is to show in Compton Verney’s light-drenched upstairs gallery the most moving of all 20th-century homages, Francis Bacon’s brilliantly expressive 1957 “Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI”. Inspired by Van Gogh’s “The Painter on the Road to Tarascon”, Bacon depicts the artist as a ghostly figure in the landscape, pausing beside a tree on his way to work to escape the blistering sun: a modern station of the cross. “When no one else knew how to go on, Van Gogh found a wide road for the future,” said Picasso: this intelligent show allows us to see afresh the lonely figure on the open road, and illuminates for the first time how prewar Britain responded to him.
‘Van Gogh and Britain, Pioneer Collectors’, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, to June 18, tel 1926 645500. Then at Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, July 7 to September 24