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
, but in the work of more traditional artists, like
, the giant of the Paris salons who was mocked by the avant-garde.
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.”