Before Van Gogh Was a Painter, He Was an Art Dealer
Does a tormented artist a great art dealer make? If
While the Dutch artist is known across the globe for his expressive paintings, troubled nature, and tragically short life, relatively few know Van Gogh entered the art world at the age of just 16 as an apprentice at the Hague branch of Goupil & Co., the art dealership where his uncle Cent (short for Vincent) was a partner. The experience nurtured a creative seed in the young man, bringing him into contact with Europe’s art centers and a wide range of work, and leading him to eventually take up painting himself, at age 27. And while he ultimately cared little for the market, his exposure to it informed how he marketed his work.
As a boy, Van Gogh had struggled to engage with his schooling. Impulsive, antisocial, and bursting with undirected energy, he had always been “hard work” for his parents, wrote Julian Bell in his biography of the artist, Van Gogh: A Power Seething. So Dorus (born Theodorus), a minister, and his wife, Anna, sent their son to his uncle’s firm to see if a taste of picture-peddling could instill a sense of purpose in the boy’s life.
For several years Van Gogh appeared to thrive, quickly becoming a junior assistant and providing administrative support to the more senior sales associates, and continuing to rise through the ranks. He began a personal collection of prints, photos, and engravings he obtained through the firm, which was known for its reproductions of works by European Salon artists and, later, a fairly conservative roster of painters. Surviving letters between Vincent and his younger brother Theo—who would also join Goupil in 1873—are packed with enthusiastic affirmations of the company’s work, as well as observations about artists he liked, and requests for Theo’s opinion on this or that artist.
Yet there are signs from early in his career that his introverted character made him a liability in Goupil’s showrooms, in a profession where social graces go a long way towards closing a sale. This may well have been why, in 1873, what appeared to be a promotion for the 20-year-old Van Gogh—a move that took him to the company’s London branch—was also something of a demotion. In the industrial furnace of Victorian London, the firm had yet to properly establish itself. It didn’t have a gallery space like its branches in Paris, Brussels, and Hague, and its London business centered largely on the reproduction of its artworks into prints and photographs.
The move to London gave Van Gogh more money and responsibilities, said Teio Meedendorp, a senior researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, but largely cut him off from collectors. Bell, his biographer, offers an explanation why. “His boss Tersteeg may have assessed that the heavy-browed, uncouth youth…would hardly make front-of-house material, for the Goupil London offices, on a side street off the Strand, dealt only with trade customers,” he wrote. Instead, Van Gogh oversaw contact with the engravers of the reproductions, which Goupil produced in large quantity.
By 1874, just as the London office was raising its profile and preparing to open a large exhibition, Goupil moved Van Gogh temporarily to Paris, a sign that the company didn’t trust him with its clients, said Meedendorp.
A year later, he suffered a personal crisis in London, probably the result of a rejection by the daughter of his Brixton boarding house landlady. Van Gogh began to shift his focus toward religion, and his tenure at the company took a sharp downturn. “He was seeing his life as more of a ministry than as a merchant,” said Carol Jacobi, curator of an upcoming Tate Britain exhibition, opening in 2019, that examines the period Van Gogh lived in Britain. He had been deeply influenced by the writings of Charles Dickens and other authors whose work examined themes of poverty and morality. John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress “structured the way he saw his life,” said Jacobi. “He had this idea of life as a difficult journey.”
Over Christmas in 1875, Van Gogh returned home to Holland for two weeks, even though it was Goupil’s busiest time of the year. That was the final nail in the coffin. “They needed a reason to fire him and it was that he went away without permission,” said Meedendorp. When he returned to the office in January 1876, he was given his notice—he had until April 1st to leave the company.
“I’ve certainly done things that were in some way very wrong, and so have little to say,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother that month. “And now, old boy, so far I’m really rather in the dark about what I should do, but we must try and keep hope and courage alive.”
A turbulent and desperate period followed, one in which Van Gogh dabbled with work in teaching, religious ministry, and evangelism, but his experiences at Goupil had fanned a passionate interest in art that set him on course to discovering his true calling. “In London, his letters are full of ideas and discoveries,” said Jacobi. “And his engagement with the print market there would have exposed him to an incredibly wide variety of images.”
It was in the dealership’s offices that he was moved by a batch of oil paintings by American artist Henri Boughten, showing people on pilgrimages and progressing down roads. Beyond the offices, he roamed the museums of Europe’s capitals, becoming enamored with works by National Gallery, he discovered Dutch Golden Age painter
In the years following his departure from the firm, Van Gogh looked back on his time in London in particular, and “[missed] that life and the world of art and literature there,” said Jacobi. “That’s one of his motivations for taking up art himself. I think [his time at Goupil] was having a delayed effect on his career.”
In 1880, four years after he left the dealership and feeling unmoored and isolated from his despairing parents, Van Gogh decided to be an artist. He made the decision at the urging of Theo, who, with his refined and modest personality, was going from strength to strength at Goupil. Though Van Gogh visited painters in Brussels and took classes, he would be largely self-trained. He turned his attention to a drawing manual published by Goupil & Co.; cut images of engravings out of illustrated British magazines like The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, works that “taught him the secrets of black and white,” said Meedendorp; and bought as many prints as he could to help him learn, particularly those of British printmakers who worked in a
Van Gogh’s time at Goupil would not only help shape his aesthetic sensibility as an artist, but also influence the way he imagined his work might play in the market. Indeed, some of his drawings, like Bearers of the Burden (1881), have English titles “because he was hoping in the long run that [Britain] would be his market,” said Jacobi. “He saw that as a way he could sell his work and become better known.” He imagined those early drawings might find a way into magazines. Occasionally, he used French titles, hoping to attract a French audience.
Van Gogh also believed that his iconic sunflower paintings, begun in the late 1880s, could go down well in the British market. The flower paintings of French artist
“If, for example, our Monticelli bouquet is worth 500 francs to an art lover, and it’s worth that, then I dare assure you that my sunflowers are also worth 500 francs to one of those Scots or Americans,” he wrote to Theo in 1889. “Now, to be sufficiently heated up to melt those golds and those flower tones, not just anybody can do that, it takes an individual’s whole and entire energy and attention.” (One of Monticelli’s flower paintings had been a gift to Theo and Vincent from their friend, the dealer Alexander Reid, who sold his work in Britain and America.)
The thought Van Gogh gave to the sale of his work was driven by his sense of obligation to make a living from his work—and molded by his knowledge of the market. His parents made a respectable, middle-class income, but they could not afford to support their children, and Theo—who made his life’s career at Goupil until his untimely death at the age of 33—would provide support for his older brother throughout his short, prolific career as an artist. Theo sent him money and materials, and helped place his work in exhibitions, though he never sold his brother’s work. (Even as Goupil began to show more experimental, impressionistic work in the late 1880s, the inclusion of Van Gogh in those exhibitions would have presented Theo with a conflict of interest.)
“He felt some obligation to be successful because Theo supported him,” said Meedendorp, “but he didn’t want to give in too much to the market.” Though Van Gogh entertained some notion of the audiences that might warm to his art, his ideas of being a professional artist and marketing his own work came second to the work itself. By the mid-1880s, fully embracing his identity as an artist, he increasingly saw the world of finance and art as diametrically opposed, with his old boss at Goupil becoming an emblem of “all he was up against,” as Bell wrote. “‘The artist is the desolation of the financier’ and conversely, ‘the financier is the desolation of the artist,’” Van Gogh penned to Theo in late 1884 in a letter suggesting, in one of his histrionic bouts, that he and his brother should “split up.”
Ultimately, he “turned his back on a commercial attitude,” said Jacobi. Van Gogh’s appreciation for art reflected that single-minded, authentic relationship with what he saw. He found value not only in the work of Paris’s
Ironically, Van Gogh’s work now commands astronomical prices. Last year, his Laboureur dans un champ (1889) sold for $81.3 million at Christie’s. But in his lifetime, the artist succeeded only in selling a smattering of his own paintings before he died by gunshot wound in 1890, at age 37. He may have taken pleasure in financial and popular success, but what mattered to him primarily was that the work resonated in the world—particularly for the poor or abject, those who suffered and to whom he related the most.
“He would have liked to see his work on the walls of anyone who had a sincere feeling towards art, and was touched by what he did, being solvent or less solvent,” but he cared particularly about the latter, said Meedendorp, pointing to a time when the artist experimented with lithography and imagined that poor laborers might be able to afford his work in this medium. “He wanted to do more with his art. He wanted it to mean something.”
For all that Van Gogh learned from his time at Goupil and the culture it brought him into contact with, the wells of his imagination and the natural world provided greater sources of material. In an upbeat letter Van Gogh penned to Theo from London in 1874, he entreated his younger brother: “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.”
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.